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What Do Office Employees Really Want from Their Spaces?

Two recent surveys suggest there has been a misguided focus on “the fun” aspect in modern offices.

Forget the foosball and the free beer, professionals working in offices want peace and quiet, flexibility and the right tools to do a good job. Two studies aimed at understanding issues in the workplace that negatively affect talent retention and productivity revealed a disconnect between what employers think today’s employees want and what they actually value.

Looking for ways to attract and retain talent, office employers have added fun activities and social amenities to the office environment, but according to a study by Hana, a subsidiary of commercial real estate services firm CBRE that offers a new, flexible office concept, people are looking for better places to work, not play.

The survey, which included more than 1,000 participants, suggests that employers are prioritizing fun amenities like in-office games, happy hours, open seating arrangements and shared social spaces at the expense of basic functional features, services and amenities people need to do their jobs and be productive. In fact, 61 percent of participants were skeptical of companies that emphasize fun amenities in their offices, 56 percent said they don't have time to make use of fun office perks, and 60 percent of those surveyed claimed fun amenities decrease productivity.

When asked about the most valuable basic workplace features, 79 percent of Hana survey respondents cited ergonomic furniture; 80 percent wanted USB charging stations, and 83 percent of participants said they wanted natural light. But many of the workers surveyed still lack these features: only 34 percent have comfortable, ergonomic workstations and half report access to natural light.

Global design firm Gensler conducted a similar study. Findings of the Gensler's U.S. Workplace Survey 2019, which included more than 6,000 participants, also indicated that employees want workplace tools, amenities and services that aid in work, rather than fun and games. The top five amenities cited by Gensler participants for delivering the most impact included: innovation hubs for collaborative teamwork on projects; space to develop prototypes or other innovative creations; quiet and tech-free zones; and alternative workspaces, including outdoor workspaces and work cafes.

NREI asked Boston-based Brian Harrington, chief experience officer for Hana, and Janet Pogue-McLaurin, principal and global leader of Gensler's workplace practice area, to elaborate on findings of these studies and how employers and office landlords can benefit from this research.

This Q&A has been edited for style and clarity.

NREI: What are effective ways to eliminate noise in open office environments or create quiet workspaces or privacy for workers who need it?

Brian Harrington: Use of soft materials like carpeting when building out workspace muffles sound. Installing acoustic baffles and dropping ceilings helps to mask ambient sound, and white noise can help drown out distracting conversations. Individual focus spaces and private phone rooms also help to limit noise distractions and offer employees peace and quiet and privacy. Even simple things, like desk dividers covered in sound absorbing fabric or hanging canvased paintings on walls, improve office acoustics.

NREI: What does Gensler's study say about today's office workers?

Janet Pogue-McLaurin: The right amenities are a crucial part in a choice-based workplace. The amenities professional office workers want are about optimizing work, not escaping it. They directly support how we work today.

NREI: What type of office space provides the best workplace experience?

Janet Pogue-McLaurin: Our survey indicates that workers want a “mostly” open office space with on-demand private offices, giving the highest effectiveness score to office environments with a high level of choice, variety and balance in workspace. And while greater degrees of openness are associated with high performance, noise, privacy, and the ability to focus remain key determinants of workplace effectiveness.  In fact, the vast majority of our study participants said that flexibility—choice of workspace—results in the best workplace experience.

NREI: What advice do you have for value-add investors upgrading office buildings to attract new tenants?

Janet Pogue-McLaurin: Amenity strategies are different for multi-tenant buildings versus a building with one large single tenant. Landlords with multiple tenants often provide amenities that could be shared, like outdoor workspaces, a lobby café, a fitness center or meeting spaces. Large corporate tenants not only provide these amenities for exclusive use of their employees, but often also use the building location itself to attract talent. A walkable location with nearby neighborhood retail amenities, like restaurants, a grocer or drugstore is valued by employees.

NREI: What features do tenants look for when choosing an office location?

Janet Pogue-McLaurin: This can vary by market. Proximity to mass transit, for instance, is a major factor when choosing a location in large metro areas, but parking may be more important in secondary and tertiary markets. Proximity to a major airport is important to corporate tenants who have employees who frequently travel.

NREI: What physical features in a workspace are most valued by workers?

Janet Pogue-McLaurin: Natural light and view to the outside are valued workspace features cited by survey participants. There are various ways to integrate natural light into existing office space, depending on the budget and whether you own or lease space. Landlords or investors are more likely to invest significant capital to bring natural light into all areas of the building than tenants with a six- to 10-year lease. There are numerous ways to bring in natural light such as opening up corridors and staircases, installing skylights or light wells, creating a central atrium or replacing the outer building skin. Tenants can make simple changes to bring in natural light at a minimal cost, however, such as reconfiguring the workspace to locate workstations on the perimeter near windows and/or creating open, central work-lounge spaces with views that expand through to the outside.

NREI: What advice do you have for landlords when creating shared workspaces in multi-tenant buildings, like in lobbies or outdoors?

Janet Pogue-McLaurin: To make them most effective, landlords should equip these spaces with ergonomic seating and work surfaces conducive to working solo or collaborating with others. The most effective and frequently used shared workspaces have a table and chairs with monitors and USB charging stations, like at a Starbucks, because people working on laptops will have to recharge their computers at some point during the day. Consider providing monitors to facilitate collaboration, allowing what's on the screen to be shared with coworkers.

NREI: Did you find demographic differences in what people want?

Janet Pogue-McLaurin: We found few differences between what people of different age groups or locations—urban, suburban or rural—value in the workplace, but rather differences reflect life stages. People with young children are often on a daycare schedule. Their priorities have shifted from staying after work to socialize or use the on-site fitness center. They are now focused on a productive work day and getting home to family. What people value in amenities and workplace experience are more similar than different.

NREI: What was the biggest takeaway from the Hana survey?

Brian Harrington: Bottom line, people derive the most fulfillment in their jobs from accomplishing something. Over 83 percent of survey participants ranked accomplishing work-related goals highest, and 69 percent of them wish their employers would focus on things that make the workplace more productive.

NREI: What were the major narratives coming out of the Genlser survey?

Janet Pogue-McLaurin: It's time for a new workplace narrative. It's not about open versus private, but degrees of openness. Target workplace investment on the amenities that deliver the highest impact. Those that support the work process have the most value. This, in turn, increases employee engagement and drives better business performance.

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