Productivity: How workplace design can make a difference

National Grid has found that redesign of its headquarters office space has improved productivity 8% and saved up to £10M in operating costs. AECOM’s Nicola Gillen explains.

Nicola Gillen, AECOM

The design of a workplace should mean so much more than making an area aesthetically pleasing. While that is an important aspect of any redesign, a workplace has the power to attract and retain talent and is the largest physical canvas upon which to communicate an organisation’s brand and values. Good design can help create a happy and inspired workforce, enabling staff to collaborate and interact, while offering flexible spaces for different ways of working.

"The fact that employees are more stimulated and satisfied in National Grid’s redesigned headquarters enhances the company’s ability to attract the next generation of engineers."

That’s exactly what AECOM sought to deliver when we recently redesigned National Grid’s headquarters in Warwick. We worked with a range of objectives in mind, including achieving financial savings and expressing brand values, as well as improving the productivity and wellbeing of staff.

National Grid wanted the estate to provide true flexibility in terms of space but at a lower cost and with reduced energy and carbon usage. Importantly, the space had to encourage employees to work more effectively so that their level of efficiency, ability to work together and wellbeing were improved.

In order to improve individual productivity, we provided a much greater variety and therefore choice of places to work. The new range of spaces include; quiet enclosed rooms for concentrated work, informal lounge areas for conversations, flexible project rooms for team collaboration as well as individual desks for computer based work. The project rooms are one of the biggest successes of the space with flexible, moveable furniture that can be reconfigured by the users, plenty of pin up space for information display and folding walls to expand the space if needed.

Following the redesign, AECOM and National Grid carried out research to objectively measure the link between employee productivity and workplace design. Previously, the industry has only been able to gain insight into the impact of the workplace on staff output through subjective measurement, such as asking employees how they feel about their productivity levels.

However, we wanted to show objective cognitive evidence that workplace design can lead to improvements in productivity, which, in turn, can translate into bottom-line benefits.

The cognitive performance tests captured data on creativity, reasoning and cognitive flexibility. Measurement techniques also included a workplace performance survey of over 300 staff, focus groups, interviews and observational studies on how space is used over time.

The results were positive, with the cognitive tests alone showing an 8% increase in individual productivity. National Grid believes that the impact of 3000 people in its headquarters working that much more effectively equates to £20M of increased productivity. On top of that, the redesign led to a reduction in operating costs of £8-10M. The redesign also led to a 5% increase in productivity due to easier access to meeting spaces and an 8% increase in employees’ comfort and satisfaction levels.

Overall, these results show that transforming the workplace not only has a direct impact on staff performance – it also delivers significant financial benefits. The fact that employees are more stimulated and satisfied in National Grid’s redesigned headquarters enhances the company’s ability to attract the next generation of engineers. As many of the UK’s experienced engineers are nearing retirement, while the numbers entering the profession are insufficient to meet industry demand, the workplace can play a crucial role in helping employers attract the best emerging talent.

The insight gained from the study is highly applicable to other sectors and industries. We have objectively proven that it is possible to design a workplace that positively communicates brand, increases employee wellbeing and performance, whilst also delivering real financial benefits to the business.

Nicola Gillen, practice lead for workplace design in EMEA & India for AECOM


This is an interesting article but it would have been even more interesting if it had been about the design of AECOM's own workplaces around the world. Does AECOM apply these same principles to improving the productivity of its own workforce? And does it use the techniques described here to objectively measure the productivity of its staff? With nearly 100,000 staff around the world, AECOM must have plenty of opportunities to demonstrate how we can improve productivity in the construction industry.
AECOM most certainly does not apply these principles to design of their own offices, unless you think one-size-fits-all workstations with absolutely no visual or auditory privacy results in a "happy and inspired" workforce. AECOM's own employee engagement survey bore this out, with one office even being singled out by name as being extremely dissatisfied. The company apparently does not even understand the needs of its own employees.