Research for improvement


What significance does an aesthetically designed office have for a company's success, and what influence does the physical environment have on well-being, health and innovativeness? Architect and researcher Christina Bodin Danielsson knows a lot about this.

There's a lot of talk about the workplace nowadays, and 'the office' is a hot topic. This isn't so surprising, since that's where we spend a considerable part of our lives. The demarcation between work and free time is being eroded, and flexibility is on the increase. Things are developing fast - compare those long rows of typists in the 1930s with today's so-called fun architecture offices, the best-known of which is probably Google. Today's increasingly globalised office trends include concepts such as openness, networking and trademark architecture, and development is determined increasingly by new demands from the new generation of employees, by office rents and by technological developments.  And research in this field also plays an important role. It helps us to learn about the future, and to be better prepared for forthcoming changes.

In 2010, architect Christina Bodin Danielsson, office specialist at Brunnberg & Forshed Arkitektkontor and researcher at the Stress Research Institute at Stockholm University, submitted her thesis 'The Office – An Explorative Study: Architectural Design’s Impact on Health, Job Satisfaction & Well-being' to the School of Architecture at the Royal Institute of Technology. In it, she investigated how different types of office, and the architectural design of an office, affect us. Her conclusions, in summary, were that an aesthetic office is an important factor in success, and that employees feel worst in traditional office landscapes and best in what has now been developed into the activity-based office. This is due to social factors such as interaction, opportunities to meet and support for a feeling of community.
"Among other things, I found that employees talked more about aesthetic aspects than functional ones, and said they were more important. Maybe this is because function isn't connected to feelings but is just expected to work - but if it doesn't, then suddenly feelings come into play." Another factor which emerged clearly was that those who expressed favourable opinions about the architecture of the office environment and aesthetics were also more positive about their company and workplace. This should probably be regarded as a 'success factor' in the current era of social media, in which companies are happy to see their employees talk positively about them on Facebook, for example. Altogether, Danielsson studied 491 office employees from 26 different companies or departments in large companies. She identified seven types of office in today's office design, all defined on the basis of architectural and functional characteristics - cube offices, shared rooms, small, medium and large office landscapes, plus flexible and combi-offices. Her research took a cross-disciplinary approach, starting from architecture but also extending over organisation theory, environmental psychology and stress and social medicine.

She studied five different areas:
• The importance of architectural quality for office workers' experience of their own workplace and organisation.
• Officer workers' well-being in the working environment in different types of office.
• A research overview of the influence of the office environment on employees' office experience.
• Office workers' health, well-being and work satisfaction in different types of office.
• The significance of architecture and its two main components, the aesthetic and the functional dimensions, for office workers' perception of their own workplace and organisation.

What were the most important results, and is there anything in them that surprises you?
"Partly that the aesthetic aspect isn't perceived as a luxury, or as the icing on the cake, but is a real need. And partly that there were big differences between perceptions of health, work satisfaction and well-being in the office environment among employees who worked in different open-plan offices. Traditional office landscapes were rated much lower than activity-based offices - flexible and combi-offices."

How have your research results been disseminated?
"After I submitted my thesis I was taken on as an office specialist at Brunnberg & Forshed's architects' offices, and since then I've worked part-time on the application of my research. I've implemented a number of projects, both in our own office projects and as a hired expert in other architects' office projects. I often work not only with the design of offices but also with their actual physical organisation. I also disseminate my knowledge by lecturing - both in Sweden and abroad, and my office types are being used in various ongoing international office research projects."

Do you think your findings have been of practical use?
"I don't just think so, I know that my research is being put to practical use, not only by architects but
at least as much in facility management*. I've worked practically with such companies on creating "healthier" offices. These companies are often more on the ball than the architects – perhaps because facility management is a less mature market, and so they're therefore more curious to find out." It seems that both well-being and profitability can be increased if the right investments are made. Are architects the most important group to reach out to and teach? "All too often, office environments are designed in a routine manner, on the basis of short-term economic thinking and concepts that find no support in scientific studies. So it's important to work on a broad front, to try to influence different steps in the process of building offices, from building contractors and property owners to architects, interior designers and facility managers. It's perhaps even more important to increase understanding of the advantages of starting from scientific principles in designing offices," concludes Danielsson, whose current work includes a study of differences in sick leave among employees in different office environments. And she believes that even more research into offices is needed. For example, she thinks we know too little about the correlation between the physical environment and productivity. But this is under way - under her supervision.

*Facility management (FM) involves strategic management and control of the resources and services needed in order for a building or an office to function effectively. The term is in use world-wide, but with some differences of meaning resulting from historical and cultural factors.