Growing and increasingly mainstream trends in workplace design aim to build a work environment that helps to increase productivity and promote creativity.

Across 40 developed countries, about 200 million white-collar corporate employees, one third of the workforce, carry out their responsibilities at a desk. The wellbeing of office workers has an impact on their companies’ bottom lines, due only in part to the costs of absenteeism and sick pay. It also has broader implications for the global economy.

A Harvard University study demonstrated that improving air quality can boost cognitive function. Natural light and happier moods have been shown to increase productivity. Among the big employers putting such principles to work is consumer goods giant Unilever, which estimates that a $1 investment in its wellness programmes yields a $2.50 return.

The spaces that employees inhabit can play a major role. This realization, along with technology and changing work habits, are demolishing the neat rows of cubicles that came to dominate offices everywhere in the 1980s. Newer trends in workplace design include more open space, even entire unobstructed floors, as well as cosy private rooms, for meeting, mingling and floating freely between unassigned desks, meant to make employees feel healthier and happier, and thereby increase productivity.

Structural changes to office buildings and new approaches to office layouts are also changing work for the employers who manage offices and the landlords who own them, as well as the architects and engineers who design and build them.

Modern architecture and engineering are enabling developers to offer the innovative, more flexible workspaces that tenants increasingly demand. These newer offices are also packed with technology. For example 22 Bishopsgate, a skyscraper under construction in London’s financial district, will harvest one million data points a day to optimise resources such as air-conditioning, and feature noise-control glass.

More flexible workspaces can be adapted to suit the tenant’s needs over time, making it possible for developers to offer longer-term leases. The Economist notes that the newly opened European headquarters of Goldman Sachs in London is designed so that some outside walls can be removed and half the space sub-let, should the company need to reduce its headcount. Tenants of 22 Bishopsgate will have access to 100,000 square feet of flexible space run by WeWork rival Convene.

Such focus on the quality of the work environment places greater demands on landlords, who must spend more on keeping their buildings up, according to Peter Papadakos of real estate research firm Green Street Advisors. This can impact rental yield. And while greater flexibility can make longer leases more palatable, it does not quell companies’ concerns about how automation and temporary jobs might affect their headcount. Co-working spaces are a double-edged sword for landlords, since they both draw tenants away and act as tenants themselves. Either way, as Nick Wright of consulting firm CBRE observes, the old landlord-tenant model is being shaken up.

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