FMJ, the official magazine of the International Facility Management Association (IFMA), is written by and for workplace professionals and is published six times a year. FMJ is the only magazine that draws on the collective knowledge of IFMA’s global network of thought leaders to provide insights on current and upcoming FM trends. For more information on FMJ, visit

Opening minds to open space concepts

Survey results about workspace density and openness, and how to make one’s office space work best for its employees

by Jo Sutherland — This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of FMJ

The state of play

Excellent employee experience doesn’t happen accidentally. It is the result of an approach that puts the employee and their role in the organization at the center of leadership’s attention. The results of a recent online survey by Leesman are arming business leaders with the data they need to understand what is and what is not working from an employee perspective. The survey looks at what employees are doing, and how well each of the activities they undertake as part of their roles are supported by the physical, virtual and social infrastructures on offer. The benchmark also considers the impact that the design of a space has on an employee’s overall experience, from their perception of their productivity to the sense of community.

Having surveyed more than half a million employees across 3,442 workplaces (17 percent of which are spread across the U.S.), in 90 countries, only 52.8 percent of employees agree their workplace is a place they are proud to bring visitors to; 58.9 percent said their work environment contributes to a sense of community; 59 percent agree their workspace creates an enjoyable environment to work in; and when asked if the workplace enables them to work productively, 60.3 percent checked the “yes” box. If these figures are reversed, approximately 40 percent – two-fifths of the workforce – cannot agree with these statements.

A shocking number of workplaces are, quite simply, not fit for purpose. But an elite group of employers buck this trend, delivering environments that brilliantly support the employee experience. The organizations behind these workspaces challenge the often-recycled idea that “work is a thing you do, not a place you go.” The organizations that have made it to the top of the workplace charts have done so by creating a series of work destinations where employees do want to go.

In the United States, three of these buildings belong to architecture and design firm Perkins+Will. TripAdvisor’s Boston office also made it onto the winner’s list, proving that it’s not just organizations within the built environment that recognize the impact that design decisions have on the employee experience.

High-performance workplaces can be curated regardless of industry segment or geographic location. The research shows outstanding employee experiences are being delivered in both large and small spaces, with high- and low-density occupation.

So, what sets these spaces apart? How exactly does the best beat the rest?

First, these organizations understand their employees – what they do, what they need, what they want – and by adopting evidence-based decision-making, they have created spaces that provide responsive, participatory work experiences that respect and support employees in the role they are employed to do. Offering employees the choice to work in a way that suits the dynamics of their role and personality is also a key ingredient of success. These companies consistently deliver a variety of work settings to support both individual and collaborative activities, the ratio of which depends on the organization in question. For example, a team of web developers writing code do not need as much, if any, collaboration with their colleagues as marketers planning an international campaign do.

Does size matter?

There are also clues as to how the corporate real estate envelope – square footage, occupant density, desk-sharing ratios, environmental certification and the like – can impact the overall employee experience.

At the risk of bursting some industry bubbles, the data suggests that there is no such thing as an ideal amount of office space. Top workplaces vary considerably in both size and density, ranging from just 900 square meters (9,687.5 square feet) net internal area (NIA) to 35,000 square meters (376,736.8 square feet) NIA, and from 28.6 square meters (307.85 square feet) per person to 5.1 square meters (54.9 square feet) respectively. There are companies, including Leesman+ winners in Asia, for example, that offer less than 8 square meters (86.1 square feet) per person. Perhaps unsurprising considering the continent includes nine of the 10 most densely populated cities on Earth.

Employees in these spaces are happy, regardless of the fact they do not have as much space as other top workplaces in other locales. The U.S. firms on the winner’s list contribute the most space to the elite collective’s footprint, averaging 18.4 square meters (198 square feet) per person. This suggests employee expectations – and therefore the relative satisfaction levels – vary depending on the geographic position and cultural norms/preferences in question. What leads to a good experience in the U.K. may not be the same in Oman, and vice versa.

There seems to be an assumption that bigger is better. More space is thought to improve people’s physical and mental well-being, and it is even said to encourage exciting business benefits like collaboration between disparate teams. On the other hand, productivity killers are often pinned on larger offices, often of the open-plan ilk. In the press, such spaces have been blamed for everything from distracting noise levels to triggering toxic cultures because of the physical distance between teams.

The truth sits somewhere in the middle and what matters is how the space is configured. The data points to different types of workspace as a possible powerful counteragent to the perceived ills of free address, for example. Respondents’ satisfaction with variety is almost 30 percentage points higher in the flexible workplaces compared with the traditional spaces. An employee’s satisfaction with their workplace might not necessarily dip if they lose a dedicated desk, but in its place would have to be the choice to do individual focused work elsewhere like a pod or a quiet zone. It is all about balance.

All this means is that facility and real estate managers tasked with reducing office space can rest a little easier – size and density alone do not make or break the employee workplace experience. But reducing space for space’s sake will only deliver diminishing returns, says Leesman CEO Tim Oldman. Any organization on a journey to improve its employee workplace experience must do more than cut costs, he stressed. It should also develop a far better understanding of its employees’ expectations, their needs and the impact from new real estate.

An open mind

While the 2018 Leesman+ workplaces represent a range of sizes, they have one thing in common. Openness.

In her article, “The Open-plan Witch Hunt,” Dr. Peggie Rothe states such spaces are demonized in the mainstream press with increasing frequency. “It seems that journalists trapped in poorly designed open-plan offices act as what economist Edward Glaeser called entrepreneurs of error,” she writes. “As they have been known to feed the public with headlines like ‘Does Open-plan Get the Worst Out of Workers?’ ‘Open-plan Offices Suck,’ ‘10 Rules for Surviving Your Open-plan Office’ and my favorite, ‘Open-plan Offices Were Devised by Satan in the Deepest Caverns of Hell.’”

The most common charges are that open designs distract people, frustrate those who value privacy and increase levels of stress at work. And yet the research paints a very different picture. Of last year’s 28 Leesman+ workplaces, only 2 percent feature private offices. This speaks to the growing popularity of open-plan design for many of the world’s biggest corporates, but it also demonstrates that the ire directed at open-plan offices is misguided.

There is a caveat. Leesman’s research suggests that the greater variety often associated within these open-plan spaces may come at the expense of personalization. In the hunt for each year’s best-in-class workplaces, the survey covers over 90 areas. The Leesman+ spaces excel in every single area except two: there is practically no difference between all Leesman+ workplaces and the global database on the satisfaction levels concerning ability to personalize a workstation and personal storage. In fact, these features have seen a decrease in satisfaction, dropping 13.5 percentage points compared to the 2015 results, almost certainly as a consequence of the increase of flexible and unassigned workplace solutions.

So, in order to better manage a wider variety of workplace designs, are organizations denying their employees the opportunity to personalize space? And if so, at what cost?

Push, probe, challenge

Employees working for Leesman+ employers consistently record exceptional satisfaction scores with the workplace and its ability to promote a positive corporate image, culture and sense of community. What’s more, employees in these spaces are more likely to agree that their workplace enables them to work productively, either as part of a team or individually. This leaves little doubt that these workplaces are key assets in organizational performance, corporate resilience and competitive advantage.

An extract from Leesman’s” The World’s Best Workplaces 2018” report reads: “The organizations that achieve Leesman+ certification are not afraid of understanding how they are performing and knowing where they could do better. They see value in a depth of understanding and continuous improvement. They welcome change rather than loathe it.”

Push, probe, challenge. This reflects what the world’s best workplaces are doing when it comes to providing the best possible environments for their people. Success is not about the amount of space that is on offer; it’s about delivering tailored solutions that are built on a deep understanding of what employees do in their roles.

Organizations that adopt user-centric, evidence-based decision-making to inform the design and management of workplace services and infrastructures have more chance of making the greatest difference to an employee’s working day. The companies that place their employees front and center will have more to show for their efforts than a trophy.

Jo SutherlandAbout the author

Jo Sutherland has worked in FM and workplace management for four years. In that time she has had her work published in business and trade titles, such as Talk Business, Professional Manager Magazine, Smart Buildings Magazine, FX, Facilities Management Journal (UK), i­-FM and HR Review. She has contributed opinion pieces to and produced white papers for the likes of RICS and IFMA’s Knowledge Library. She has also secured speaking slots at key FM events in the UK, such as Workplace Futures and the Facilities Event at the NEC, Birmingham.

FMJ, the official magazine of the International Facility Management Association (IFMA), is written by and for workplace professionals and is published six times a year. FMJ is the only magazine that draws on the collective knowledge of IFMA’s global network of thought leaders to provide insights on current and upcoming FM trends. For more information on FMJ, visit

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IFMA is the world’s largest and most widely recognized international association for facility management professionals, supporting 24,000 members in 104 countries. This diverse membership participates in focused component groups equipped to address their unique situations by region (133 chapters), industry (15 councils) and areas of interest (six communities). Together they manage more than 78 billion square feet of property and annually purchase more than US$526 billion in products and services. Formed in 1980, IFMA certifies professionals in facility management, conducts research, provides educational programs, content and resources, and produces World Workplace, the world’s largest series of facility management conferences and expositions. To join and follow IFMA’s social media outlets online, visit the association’s LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter pages. For more information, visit