February 28, 2002

Workplace design can improve productivity

  • Five elements for a changing workplace
    Weber + Thompson

    In the past, many workplaces were being designed (and unfortunately still are) using stale formulas rather than a process involving the study of strategic needs and cost-effective solutions that are appropriate for an individual company.



    Worse yet, many offices are not really designed at all, but simply “laid out” based on window mullions, workstation modules, and the idea of squeezing “x” number of bodies into a space, using leftover spaces for meeting rooms and back office functions.

    In the rapidly growing/changing business model of the past few years, the focus has been on the ability to rapidly move into a space and start work instantly, also stressing the ability to expand quickly — immediate fulfillment of needs.

    Using large open spaces and a “work anywhere” concept, the workplace was designed to be a dramatic, sensory experience with total flexibility and an emphasis on teaming.

    Today’s workplace design is being affected by the changing economy. There is more value placed on the philosophy that there is a direct relationship between the success of a business and the design of the work environment.

    Our technology-driven business world and workforce demands design that is tailored to the culture and vision of the individual company. Many companies are realizing the connection between the quality of the workplace and employee productivity and how the work environment can directly affect financial gains.

    There are quite a few benefits that a company should expect from a well-designed office environment. Good design in the workplace can elevate morale and improve productivity, promote the image and help reinforce a corporate identity. It can help to attract and retain a higher quality workforce.

    Office design that is based on evaluating the critical programming elements and implementing them based on the unique organizational structure and the culture within a company will improve profitability by enhancing efficiency and employee satisfaction.

    Building a valuable team of design professionals — including interior designers, architects, consultants, furniture dealers and general contractors — is essential in creating a successful workplace. When designing a new work environment, these five critical programming elements must be evaluated in order to achieve the most successful, creative and cost effective solution.

    Office culture

    The starting point for any design team must be to have an understanding of its client’s culture and business philosophy. Asking the right questions is essential: Why is this company in business? What are the values of this company? What is the vision? Who are the customers or clients? Who are the people that work here?

    Pacifica Bank
    Photo by Kevin Haas
    Pacifica Bank, a charter bank, hired Weber + Thompson to create a work environment that reflected and supported its corporate identity and traditional clientele. Privacy was a very important factor for the bank, so almost all closed offices have etched glass that allow light to pass through yet maintain privacy. Rich materials — dark wood and granite — were used to create a sense of permanence for a new bank.

    Developing a program that defines the spaces, spatial relationships, circulation and function must be based on a clear understanding of the very specific culture of that particular company.

    Corporate identity

    What is the visual image and message that is conveyed to a customer, client or employee? What is the mission of the company? This is a critical element to either help a business that is starting out to grow or help a long-standing business progress into the 21st century. The carefully planned design and ambiance that is created will support and promote the identity of the company.

    Organizational structure

    Understanding the nature and the process of the workflow in a company is essential in developing a good design program. How does the work come in the door? How does information get processed, communicated and transmitted from one place to another? How can the design of the work place enhance the efficiency of this company’s workflow?

    Fulcrum Technologies
    Photo by Michael Seidl Photography
    Weber + Thompson redesigned the interior of Fulcrum Technologies to reflect the company’s unique culture. An open floor plan, designed to completely connect the second floor, reflects Fulcrum’s “open office” culture. Brushed aluminum, industrial wall sconces, cable-suspended lighting fixtures and black accents are balanced by natural woods and muted colors, creating a warm yet high-tech atmosphere. The break/game room provides employees with a place to relax or do some creative brainstorming. An exercise room, including a shower, was designed to offer employees the convenience of working out any time of the day.

    The interface and adjacencies of spaces, the open or private character of certain areas — can impact a company’s workflow process and operations, creating a workplace that is as efficient as possible.


    In our information society, good communications are essential to efficiency and productivity.

    Technology is rapidly changing the way companies work, but in the midst of cell phones and e-mail, face-to-face meetings are still critical. With the portability of work, people can collaborate in a variety of ways that are not always in person. Therefore, physical accommodations must be planned for within the work environment to support new technology and its interface.

    How can technology support and help employees do work more efficiently? How can companies use technology to do new things in a more innovative manner?

    If applied thoughtfully, technology can enhance many aspects of our work.


    It would not be possible to overstate the importance of flexibility in the design of today’s workplace. The speed at which technology and markets change have created the need for companies to grow, shrink or change focus altogether. What are the company’s goals for staffing growth? In two years? In five years? Will there be a need to accommodate telecommuting, flex-time and job sharing? Are there opportunities for flexible space when it comes to conferencing and multimedia or lounge and informal open meeting areas?

    Howard S. Wright Construction
    Photo by Courtney Rosenstein
    The organizational structure of Howard S. Wright Construction allowed Weber + Thompson to be creative with a variety of office types and open work areas. Their well-known identity as a construction company was the underlining tone employed throughout this new space. The design incorporated exposed concrete walls, exposed metal studs and ceilings — all of which combine to support the overall identity.

    By building flexibility into the design with systems furniture, movable walls, adaptable lighting and spaces which can meet a variety of work and technology needs, expensive changes to infrastructure can be avoided.

    Well thought out, effective and creative design does not have to be expensive. Focusing on these five workplace issues can lay the design foundation within a variety of budgets and site limitations.

    When looking for a new space, a quick analysis of these issues will help determine the best available location and size. If renovating an existing space, use these issues to create a master space plan and then analyze the possibility of a phased construction process in order to achieve the most effective work environment, minimizing impact of renovation work and moving expenses.

    Good design should help a company realize its goals.

    By evaluating the five specific programming issues, a highly individualized and efficient work environment can be created and cost-effective solutions can be explored.

    Typically a company spends 10 times more on employees (salaries, benefits, training) than is spent annually on building space (utilities, operations, maintenance, etc.). Initial investment in good design will pay for itself in increased efficiency, worker satisfaction and loyalty.

    A well-designed work environment will meet the business requirements of a company, maximize the productivity of employees, attract and retain a high quality workforce, increase profits, foster repeat clients, and support building new business.

    Donna Shuman, ASID, is a senior associate and interior design manager at Weber + Thompson, a Seattle-based architectural/interior design firm. She has worked on a variety of projects from design concept to completion, including corporate offices, financial institutions, mixed-use, retail and hospitality facilities.

    Kristen Scott, AIA and a principal at Weber + Thompson, is a licensed architect in Washington. In addition, she is treasurer and board member of the Seattle Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, past chair and committee member of the Seattle Times/AIA Home of the Month Program, and a committee member of Architecture in Education.

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