To optimise something, you have to first understand what you are optimising for.

Technology has given us ways to collect and analyze data like never before but it can all be meaningless if it is not used to improve a desired performance metric. This means that before a technology strategy even gets to the design phase, developers need to determine the key performance indicators (KPI). When it comes to offices, the most important performance indicators have traditionally been metrics like desk count and usable space. These are increasingly becoming less important as the market for office space is becoming less about the space itself and more about what the space can provide.

The first person that helped me understand this shift in the office market was Ed Nolan, Managing Director of Workplace Strategy at JLL. While participating on a panel at our Chicago event earlier this year he noted how the people involved in the leasing process have changed. “We used to only have a leasing broker and a company’s CFO present during the walkthroughs and negotiations. Now almost every company has an HR team there as well.”

This makes perfect sense when you put it in the context of comparative value. While finding the most affordable space to rent can save a company some operating capital it is tiny in comparison to the opportunity costs associated with an underperforming workforce. This concept was first applied by technology companies, most of which depends on its workforce out-innovating the competition in order to stay in business, but seems to be spilling into other sectors of the industry as well.

While there are all kinds of things that can be done to make an employee more productive none of them are more effective in making them happy about their work. Studies have found that happy workers see a 12% rise in productivity and unhappy ones become 10% less productive than their indifferent peers.

Human Experience ModelThis, I am sure, comes as no surprise. “Making everyone happy” is a very easy initiative to get people on board with. But, in practice, promoting happiness through placemaking has a list of ambiguities.

The first is to determine what makes someone happy at work. There are many factors that contribute to happiness and a workplace can only foster some of them. JLL has done some good work in this respect with their Human Experience Model. They realize that the office is only a physical representation of a company’s culture, so the true commitment to the happiness of employees needs to be embedded into the ethos of the organization itself.

To illustrate the ways this can be done the Human Experience Model breaks down the ways that a workplace can encourage happiness into three categories: engagement, empowerment and fulfillment. Engagement is achieved by giving someone a sense of commitment. This gives helps workers feel that they are working in an environment that is nurturing and prioritises personal as well as professional development. Empowerment is achieved by giving the worker a sense of choice. It is built upon trust and transparency and is seen as a major factor in driving performance.

The last ingredient, according to JLL, is fulfillment. Recognition and rewards help build this sense of comfort that can create a positive association with work. None of these principle exists in a vacuum and all three are needed to truly create a workplace that fosters satisfaction beyond surface level happiness.

Another difficulty in using happiness as a metric for success is determining how to track it since, like any emotion, it is completely subjective. The simple way to find out a person’s level of happiness is to just ask them. One of the main academic ways to determining happiness isn’t much different. One of the main ways that researchers study the subject is by using “Cantril’s Ladder,” a technique that made its inventor famous and is really nothing more than asking respondents this question:

“Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to ten at the top. Suppose we say that the top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you.

If the top step is 10 and the bottom step is 0, on which step of the ladder do you feel you personally stand at the present time?”

This strikes me as a shocking rudimentary way to try to find out something as important as happiness but such are the social sciences.

A simple ladder analogy might work well enough for gauging overall happiness but it does little to create actionable advice for space planners. This is where technology can come in.

A number of new systems have been designed to help understand the comings and goings of a building’s inhabitants. JLL is working on a geofencing system that uses worker’s mobile devices to understand where they spend their time. In an open concept office this can help designers understand which areas feel more comfortable with certain user groups.

Hierarchy, or lack thereof, can also be reinforced through design choices. Transparency can be fostered by creating systems that allow communication between groups and across executive levels.

As I said earlier, an office alone cannot create a culture that inspires happiness. Even still, it can be a very visible representation of an organization’s commitment to emotional well-being. For companies that see their employees as their most important asset it makes sense for them to prioritize offices that have the ability to promote and track happiness. In the future we might talk less about price per square foot and more about cost per rung on Cantril’s famous ladder.

Franco Faraudo

Franco FaraudoFranco Faraudo has an MBA in entrepreneurship and works as a real estate agent and property manager. He has been involved in both commercial and residential real estate as an agent and investor. He writes about start-ups and their role in modern cultural and societal trends. He is the co-founder of propmodo.com.