Building a better office

by HCA04 Aug 2010

Professional workers can spend up to one third of their lives at the office, working on the computer, answering phone calls and attending meetings. The working environment that they step into each morning can make a huge difference to their state of mind and level of productivity for the day ahead.

Apart from dampening staff morale, a poorly-designed workplace can lead to injuries that increase absenteeism and healthcare costs. A survey by the Singapore General Hospital found that 70% of working adults suffer from back, shoulder and neck pain. These ailments often come from typical office activities – such as continuously typing on a keyboard, or just clicking on a mouse repeatedly. Such tasks can trigger repetitive stress injury, a painful condition that may cause inflammation, muscle strain or tissue damage.

SPRING Singapore, the national body for standards and accreditation, provides guidelines for good office ergonomics. The Code of Practice for Office Ergonomics offers recommendations on the placement of office furniture and equipment so as to promote good posture and work habits.

Employers too, are beginning to understand the business benefits of good workplace design. Steve Riley, Project Director, Singapore Relocation Projects, Standard Chartered Bank says well-designed spaces translate into improved comfort, better efficiencies and higher productivity among employees. The bank’s new offices at Changi feature an open and flexible design that maximises space usage, natural light, air flow and ventilation, he said.


Getting started

HR teams can play an active role in the transformation of a workplace into a healthier and more sustainable environment. Crystel White, Workplace Design Leader, Woodhead Architects, says HR should be working directly with builders and interior designers from the outset of any change project. Engaging HR creates a better understanding of any issues that staff might have with the functioning of their environment, she says. “They also understand what the company’s future direction is and what talent they are aiming to attract.”

Good ergonomics is one of the cornerstones of a well-designed workspace. According to Woodhead, providing ergonomic work chairs for staff is one of the best ways of giving them support, quite literally. These should be sturdy swivel-based chairs on castors. They will ideally have synchronised tilting, adjustable lumbar support and height-adjustable arms. While quality comes at a cost, users are ensured of durability, White says. Such equipment needs to be replaced less frequently, leading to longer-term cost savings.

Another area of concern is the actual physical workstation. These are normally fixed at an average height of around 720 millimetres but truly ergonomic workstations are adjustable to suit various height requirements. A keyboard should always be placed in front of the user so that their shoulders are relaxed, elbows are bent at right angles and wrists are straight. This minimises long term strain and the build-up of muscle tension.

Increasingly, there is a trend towards open plan work set ups in offices around Asia. White says these encourage collaboration and communication among colleagues. It can also promote more efficient use of office equipment. She cites research by Woodhead that shows a traditional workstation can be unoccupied for 40% to 60% of a typical working day. “So where is that person and how is he or she working?” she asks. “Introducing flexible, adaptable workspaces addresses new ways of working which responds to companies being less hierarchical in nature.”

“Hot-desking” is a popular arrangement currently being used in organisations where employees are constantly on-the-go – different log-in details take users to their individual desktops each time they sign in. Employees are often also issued with laptop computers as well as a locker for their belongings. Hot-desking stations can also be integrated into centralised break-out spaces.

At Standard Chartered, employees can choose the type of working that best suits the activity that they are performing. Less space is allocated to conventional desk areas. Instead, it is used for meeting areas, both formal and informal, as well as “quiet zones”, telephone booths, break-out areas and hot desks. All areas are also provided with wireless network connectivity, and suitable audio visual tools.


Going green

Sustainable or environmental design looks at how offices can use materials, water and energy efficiently so that the impact on the natural environment is minimised. But adopting this design principle can also help organisations save energy and costs.

A common requirement of sustainable design is energy-efficient lighting. Studies have shown that natural daylight is the best form of lighting so many experts call for large windows which can draw in sunlight and reduce the need for artificial lighting during the day. They say natural light not only brightens an office space, it can also brighten the moods of the staff that work there.

Individual desk lights are also efficient as they allow workers to adjust brightness according to the tasks at hand. Standard Chartered’s Changi office features a lighting management system with integrated motion and occupancy detectors that optimise light levels and minimises energy consumption.

Sustainable design also incorporates the use of “low-impact” materials that are typically non-toxic, sustainably-produced or recycled. Standard Chartered uses such materials in indoor features such as ceiling boards, carpets, dry wall partitions, furniture and composite wood products. All adhesives and paints used at its office contain low or no volatile organic compounds.

The status of the humble desk plant has been elevated with the advancement of sustainable design. Fujitsu’s new Woodhead-designed headquarters in Melbourne, Australia (pictured), features a large “living” green wall in the reception area. Hedge rows of plants are also spread out across the office to remove any indoor pollutants.

Overall, investing in sustainable design might cost a bit more, but it is better not just for the planet but for an organisation’s bottom line. Riley says that the incorporation of green features increases the cost of overall building construction by less than 4%. The amount of water and energy saved through such an initiative can lead to long-term savings, with an expected payback period of just six to seven years.


Checklist for a well-designed workplace


Design Elements

Factors to consider

Workstation design

Who needs to work together? Business unit relationships and adjacencies


Adjustability of work environment to user- workstation height, task chair, height of monitor, reading distance


Individually controlled and varied lighting solutions (lighting for individual tasks differ from group requirements)


Centralised printing, integrated planting, sustainable finishes (e.g. Bamboo instead of timber)


Source: Woodhead Architects