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What Workers Want

12 Mar 2020  |  Well-being  |  Tech  |  Co-working  |  People  |  Productivity  |  Design  |  Future of the workplace  |  Trends

The recent CoreNet UK ‘wrap up’ event in London brought together CRE executives to discuss topical themes relating to real estate and the workplace. One of the highlights was a presentation in which Steven Lang of Savills shared the findings of the company’s latest ‘What workers want’ survey.

The workplace is undergoing a period of unprecedented change as various forces combine to disrupt conventional working practices and approaches to office design. Technological advances, evolving employee expectations and new understanding of the links between the physical environment, wellbeing and productivity have led to an ongoing rethink of what constitutes the ideal workplace.

The result has been a shift away from the traditional model of closed offices and private space in favour of more open, flexible designs. These not only make better use of space, they promote collaboration, create a sense of unity, and support enlightened working practices such as agile working. Or so the argument goes.

At the same time, the new emphasis on wellbeing has resulted in more attention being paid to ‘well building’ factors such as air quality, ergonomic furniture, human-centric lighting and biophilic design. Canteens and restaurants are introducing healthy menu options, in-house gyms and cycling facilities are promoting fitness, and tea points are evolving into attractive communal spaces where people can meet, chat and relax.

A lot of time, money and effort is being invested in these stylish, technology-smart and people-friendly workplaces. It makes sense, given that happy, engaged employees are more productive, take less sick leave, and are more likely to stay. Equally important, the workplace is deemed a significant differentiator in the battle to attract and retain the bright young Gen Y and Gen Z talent everyone is fighting to recruit. Naturally they want bright, shiny offices filled with buzz and fun and sophisticated technology. Don’t they?

What is less clear is what workers themselves think of all this. In the rush to keep up with the latest trends and follow the new orthodoxy, it’s easy to make assumptions and overlook what the people who inhabit these spaces actually want.

This is what Savills’ latest employee survey, ‘What workers want: Europe 2019’, endeavoured to discover. Over 11,000 European office workers were asked what they like and dislike about their workplace. What helps them to work better? What would they change? What constitutes the ideal workplace?

Asked to name the workplace factors that mattered most to them, three stood out: the length of the commute to work (86%), the quality of wi-fi technology (83%), and having a quiet space for focused work (81%). The first two are no real surprise ­– no one wants to spend an hour or more in traffic or on a crowded train, and fast, reliable connectivity is almost regarded as a birthright. But the third factor is interesting. The idea that four-fifths of workers crave peace and quiet makes a telling point about the modern workplace.

The shift towards open-plan layouts is well underway in the UK – according to the survey, 73% of UK respondents said they operate from open-plan offices, compared to 51% overall. However, noise and distraction remain an issue. Thirty per cent of workers in open-plan offices said their workplace layout has a negative effect on their productivity, while only 11% of workers in private offices said the same thing. Only 47% of the workers in open-plan offices were satisfied with the level of noise in their workplace, against 58% of those in private layouts. Overall, 37% of respondents said they are dissatisfied with the provision of a quiet place to work.

When considering the optimal provision of office resources, employers should take note that many people cling to the comfort of the familiar. Over half (52%) of respondents said they would prefer to spend the majority of their working time at their own desk, in their own personalised space. Hot desking is not particularly favoured in the UK, with half of British workers feeling that the practice has a negative impact on their productivity. Less than a fifth (18%) of respondents said they would prefer to work mostly at home, and only four per cent want to spend the majority of their time at a serviced office or coworking space.

When it comes to the ideal office, it’s little surprise that basics including cleanliness, comfort of work area, lighting, air quality, noise level, temperature, smell and security are all deemed highly important. Each factor was cited by more than four-fifths of respondents, with cleanliness (88%) and comfort (88%) topping the list. Asked what they were most dissatisfied with in their actual office, four basics got the thumbs down: air quality (37%), temperature (35%), noise level (34%) and comfort of work area (30%). Office and facilities managers need to ensure they get the basics right.

The survey suggests that the building’s environmental credentials are important to today’s worker. Respondents cited ability to recycle (63%), public realm (62%), environmental performance of the building (58%) and plants/greenery inside the office (58%) as important factors in their ideal workplace. When asked what they would change about their actual workplace, the picture was less clear. Length of commute (17%) and personal workspace (17%) came out on top, followed by internal design/fit-out (16%) and, sadly, ‘my line manager’ (15%).

There is little evidence that age group is significant when considering what makes an ideal workplace. Good design is good design, and getting the basics right is important for everyone. The Savills research does indicate that the percentage of satisfied employees increases with age – 63% of respondents aged over 55 said they were content with their workplace, compared to 58% of those aged 18 to 34.

It’s worth making two final points. Important as the physical workplace environment is to wellbeing and productivity, the survey suggests internal design has much less impact on a decision to go or stay than workplace location, future colleagues and working culture. Location may not be easy to control, but a good workplace is as much about working relationships and practices as furniture and facilities.

Second, happiness is closely linked to a sense of personal control. Of the 59% of respondents who said they were happy with their workplace, 45% felt they had control over their office design. Among the 9% who were expressly unhappy, only 10% felt the same way – 70% felt they had no control at all.

What do workers want? They want a workplace that is clean, comfortable and safe, with excellent connectivity and within easy reach of home. They want choice over where and how they work, with respite from the hustle and bustle when needed. Most importantly, they want to be given a say in the design of their own working environment. Because how are employers to know what workers want if they don’t ask?

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