Designing Workplaces With Data

The Leesman Index is a standardized online survey to gather information on workplace performance. It asks employees of a given workplace to rate how strongly they agree or disagree on a number of topics related to their office interior. Across all companies surveyed by Leesman, 57 percent of employees believe that their workplace enables them to work productively.

Architects and designers have long used tools such as client interviews, precedent studies, and cultural explorations to envision, develop, and further their designs. In recent years, this research has expanded to include quantifiable data—collections of figures and statistics that, when analyzed, offer insights into how people use spaces. Whether gathered through embedded sensors, rigorous observation, or qualitative surveys, this type of data is altering how firms approach workplace projects. By incorporating data-derived insights into their design process, workplace designers are expanding client engagement and establishing themselves as indispensable strategic advisors for the businesses that they support.

Measuring success 
How can we measure the design of a successful interior? For workplaces, specifically, what metrics are available? With nearly two decades of experience as an interior designer, Tim Oldman, the founder and CEO of London-based Leesman, came up with an answer: Measure how well a workspace supports the people who occupy it. “I saw an opportunity to assess an organization’s workplace to devise a standardized test that could reveal what’s working for it and what’s keeping it from being its best,” says Oldman.

Building on concepts embodied by the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator and the waste-reducing Lean Six Sigma process, Oldman launched the Leesman Index in 2010. The index uses an online standardized survey to gather data about workplace performance. Administered to an organization’s entire staff, the 15-minute survey includes a series of “How strongly do you agree?” prompts (such as “My workplace enables me to work productively” and “I am proud to bring visitors to my workplace”). And other sections ask respondents to rank the importance of—and their satisfaction with—different workplace activities (such as individual focused work, planned meetings, and audio conferences), physical features (including desks, chairs, and conference rooms), and service features (like spaces for coffee and snacks, security, and technology help).

Leesman collates and analyzes the responses, providing each company with a snapshot of how its workspaces facilitate, or hinder, employee functionality and effectiveness. This knowledge can provide a fresh look at a client’s business, reveal insights for a pending improvement, and offer feedback on a previously implemented change. In addition to internal benchmarking, Leesman’s vast database—270,000 respondents from more than 2,000 organizations in 67 countries—allows companies to see where they stand within the larger field.

Renovations do not guarantee employee satisfaction 
When viewed as a whole, Leesman’s wide-ranging analyses offer significant insights. For example, only 57 percent of respondents believe that their workplaces promote productivity. In other words, 43 percent of employees feel that their workplaces either do not support them (15 percent) or, worse, actively hinder their effectiveness (nearly 28 percent).

One would assume that employees are more satisfied in newly renovated workspaces. But surprisingly, this is often not the case. Leesman’s post-occupancy data reveals that the number of employees who feel that their newly updated workplaces enable them to be productive is only 64 percent. And quality of acoustics is a significant issue in office environments. Post-occupancy evaluations reveal that employees’ satisfaction with noise levels average only 34 percent.

The data underscores that simply renovating a workplace is not enough to guarantee employee satisfaction. To make a workplace a business asset, improvements must be made strategically, with a company’s specific workforce and activities in mind. And even though concerns such as noise may be well known, these issues are not always easily rectified by renovations. Armed with data, designers can create spaces that help employees work more effectively. Furthermore, when bolstered by concrete numbers, designers can assert that workplace design impacts business success.

The New York office of M Moser implemented heat maps to graphically depict the most-used spaces in a client’s existing interior. With this information in hand, the designers can better understand the interior needs for the client’s new workplace.

Expanding client engagement

Whether stemming from sources like Leesman or a design firm’s in-house research programs, data can play a role in all aspects of the design process— even before a project is envisioned. Michael Bonomo, who recently spent three years as creative director for USA/North America at M Moser Associates, further emphasizes the role that data can play in future projects. “[M Moser] pulls data from past projects for its clients so they understand how design can support key business objectives for new workspaces,” says Bonomo. “The firm shows that data and metrics informs knowledge and drives the success of the design.”

Likewise, data can shape a project’s direction. “When we go through the discovery phase with our clients, we learn about activities and behaviors that support and drive their values and vision,” says Grant Christofely, M Moser’s strategy team leader. “We define the types of work that the various business groups do and understand how they need to work to make the business successful—all of which is translated into the workspace designs.”

Observational data was collected at 90-minute intervals within an office. The graph shows that the majority of work that takes place, regardless of time, is heads-down tasks, often on stationary (desktop or docked) computers. Designers can conclude that, if the company plans to continue working in this manner, the new space needs to accommodate this way of working. Also note that roughly 25 percent of employees are using headphones, which may relate to an office noise issue.

Pairing a time-utilization study with rigorous observation, M Moser’s team created a heat map of a client’s existing floor plan, showing spaces that are most and least used, and why. This knowledge, in turn, directs the design vision, underscoring spatial aspects that will best support employee activities.

Beyond discovery and visioning, data also influences the way firms design and, consequently, the skill sets that designers should possess. “We have architects and designers who write code,” says Lois Wellwood, associate director and interiors and practice leader at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) in New York. “Those colleagues work very closely with us around testing, evaluating, pushing, and pulling our process to see how a space performs. Before, we drew on a combination of our experiences—a literal translation of what the client was telling us—as a floor plan or a conceptual drawing of our work. Now, using computational parametric tools, we actually have avatars in the three-dimensional computerized space to see how the space behaves before it is physically built.”

The ability to predict with a high degree of accuracy how people will behave in a space highlights interior design as an integral part of overall architectural design. “Traditionally when we would program and plan a workspace, we would look at what can happen within the confines of the built environment,” says Anisa Mohammed, senior workplace strategist in the Washington, D.C., office of SOM. “Now, we see that this conversation begins earlier and earlier in the process. We are actually able to shape the base building with the client’s desired behavioral outcome in mind.”

This example of a spider graph visually depicts survey data for a credit union’s three existing locations—annex, financial center, and university branch—for six performance areas. The locations each scored well on technology, meaning that the employees generally believed that they were well supported by their workplaces’ in-place technology. The three locations are compared to an average of the top performing buildings in Leesman’s database. The design firm Momentum used this data to refine design for the client’s new, consolidated workplace.

A case study in translating data into directives

The Seattle-based design/build firm Momentum reports similar experiences to those described by SOM leaders. Momentum’s design process incorporates Leesman analysis to develop organizational strategies for each project. The firm translates the survey’s data-collection categories into directives, objectives, and tactics to create responsive, holistic designs.

For example, a Momentum client—a credit union in Oregon—wanted to consolidate three existing workplaces into one new building. These locations, as represented on a spider graph, each scored well on technology, meaning that the employees believed that they were well supported by their workplaces’ in-place technology. However, the responses were not as favorable in other categories, such as indoor environment quality—which refers to issues such as air quality and natural light—and environment design, which quantifies data related to aesthetics, general design, greenery, and communal spaces.

Taking this knowledge into account, Momentum created a series of directives to address these shortcomings and maintain or improve upon other aspects of workplace design. For the new credit union, the designers departed from the typical rectangular footprint and conceived a V-shaped structure that allows for access to plentiful natural light and views. A focal point of the interior is an open stair that connects each floor and overlooks an outdoor courtyard. The building, therefore, responds to specific issues, creating a supportive work environment for its occupants.

With the knowledge depicted in the spider graph, the design firm Momentum created a series of directives that either address shortcomings seen in a client’s existing space or maintain or improve upon other aspects of a workplace.

Designers serving as strategic advisors 

As Stephen Apking, interior design partner at SOM in New York, says, “With respect to data- driven projects, the continuum of data starts at the very beginning of the project and continues all the way through commissioning and beyond.” Extended designer involvement—from previsioning to post-occupancy evaluations—is being woven into RFPs and client contracts, leading to relationships in which designers can position themselves as strategic advisors to their clients.

“In the past, we would work through programming, design, drawings, and construction, and then the client didn’t call us for another ten years or until they needed to move again,” says Wellwood. “We see that really shifting and changing as we become more engaged.”

Data—namely the insights and evidence it provides—affords designers enhanced levels of engagement and highlights the tangible benefits of supportive workplaces. When strategically envisioned and designed, workplaces bolster organizational performance and success. And the more clearly designers can communicate this message, the more confidently they can convey the value of their services.