Workspace design at VISA allows staff to gather and create a sense of community. It also allows for collisions within the organization outside typical team structures.

Employees Need Boundaries, not Walls

December 11, 2018
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Two organizations innovating workspace design discuss the new trends that are improving the open-plan office.

Gone are the executive corner offices of yesteryear. Gone, too, are the open-concept floor plans of the recent past. This is now the era of couches, cafés and quiet zones. The corporate workspace, as we know it, is in the midst of a design overhaul.

Workers, across the board, are desperately disengaged from their work. According to Gallup’s 2017 “State of the Global Workplace” report, as many as 85% of your staff are likely to have tuned out. So businesses in Canada are rapidly embracing radical new interior design philosophies to try to reverse the tide, to reengage employees, increase productivity and enhance workplace satisfaction.

Businesses need to encourage workers to return and to re-engage with their roles, their colleagues and the  company.

In the past, corporations took for granted that employees had to come into the office every day. But that’s changed now. Increasingly, employees have begun to work from home, some or all of the time.

Forty or so years ago, office layouts were incredibly hierarchical. That’s just the way it was done. Bosses occupied windowed interior offices, while the minions were crammed into partitioned cubicles in the interior. Twenty years later, open-plan became the design du jour — down came the partitions, and the bosses’ offices suddenly had glass internal walls. That design evolution improved transparency and openness but also increased noise and distraction.

So, now, office design is changing again. Caitlin Turner, a Senior Associate and Senior Project Interior Designer at the design firm HOK in Toronto, says almost half of her clients are now moving to “nontraditional workspaces.” Businesses need to encourage workers to return and to re-engage with their roles, their colleagues and the company.

The new ideal is for an “activity-based work” set-up — where personal offices and cubicles are gone and even the size of desks are reduced, to free up more room for shared spaces that suit various workplace activities and inspire more impromptu connections between colleagues.

“We try to take as many clients as possible to that level, because of the benefits of engagement,” Turner says.

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“Traditionally, you sat in the same seat all day long and it was very monotonous. What activity-based work allows you to do is pick the setting for your work. So, if you’re doing head-down document work, you maybe want to go to the quiet zone; if you’re doing more collaborative project team work, you may want to take over a room for a few days.

“People often think that this is about money, that they’re just crowding us all in here [into fewer desks]. But … this isn’t about that. It’s about how your workers interact with each other. We don’t want people to be isolated anymore — we want them to connect. For people to connect they have to be able to see each other and run into each other.”

Recent research from the Brookings Institution think tank found that architects have shifted “away from ‘style’ and more toward embracing core values aimed to help people flourish,” Brookings authors Julie Wagner and Dan Watch state in their 2017 report “Innovation Spaces: The New Design of Work.”

“Increasingly, architects and designers are tasked to redesign spaces to … ‘create communities,’ ‘facilitate collaboration’ and ‘create serendipitous encounters.’”

Collaboration is the name of the game to tap into employee innovation, the researchers say.

“Many innovation spaces are creating a home-like atmosphere by placing even greater emphasis on kitchens and living rooms … Research conducted at the Google office in Zurich [for example] found relaxation ‘to be crucial to innovation and stimulating original thought.’”

But the mere addition of couches and cafés isn’t the fix-all for fostering cross-team collaboration and innovation. Your workers need to enjoy the space they work in if you want them to perform. In a 2018 article in the Harvard Business Review, “How to Make Sure People Won’t Hate Your New Open Office Plan,” researchers Brandi Pearce from UC Berkeley and Pamela Hinds from Stanford University state that the success of any change in office layout “may have as much to do with how people feel about the space — something called place identity — as with the space itself.”

The mere addition of couches and cafés isn’t the fix-all for fostering cross-team collaboration and innovation.  Your workers need to enjoy the space they work in if you want them to perform.

Following hundreds of employee interviews, the Berkeley-Stanford duo found that workers who had a high place identity with their office space — measured by how important the space felt to them, and if they believed the space aligned with their personal interests and values — saw their office as more collaborative, social, comfortable and communicative.

The main reason bosses are shelling out to redesign work spaces today is worker disengagement. To get the most out of your employees, you need to have them in the office — at least some of the time — and have them working to the best of their ability, in environments that best allow them to shine.

Gallup’s 2017 “State of the Workplace” report reveals that 85% of employees are either not engaged with their work or report being “actively disengaged.” Office design is one way bosses are trying to foster workplace satisfaction, re-engage staff and build pride in the workplace.

Using the principles of human-centred design — the process of putting human behaviour at the heart of architectural plans — workplace furniture design firm Teknion explored what makes a modern office tick in its comprehensive 2015 research design paper, “Ethonomics: Designing for the Principles of the Modern Workplace.”

“Alert, engaged and healthy workers are most often those who are afforded a stimulating and inspiring work environment that encourages movement — to sit, stand and walk around,” the report notes.

The completely open offices that were in vogue until recently have now been altered to better serve the way humans work and interact.

“For many organizations, creating a 21st-Century workplace seemed to mean an open workplace — one without walls,
doors, cubicles or privacy,” the report says. “That trend, and the assumption that people will collaborate more effectively in an open space, has proved to be something of a misfire. In fact, distracting crosstalk and chatter drives people to use headphones or escape to a ‘quiet room’ to think and focus.

“People work differently than the open plan alone can accommodate. Individuals need time to reflect, solve problems and selectively share with others … We begin to see that creativity and even collaboration require the ability to retreat as well as connect. It means providing a mix of open and enclosed spaces, lounges and soft seating areas, conference rooms and break rooms, that support how individuals cycle through the day — writing a report, going to a meeting, pausing on a stairway for a quick update, and joining colleagues in the kitchen for beer and chips on Friday afternoon.”

If we take significant steps to promote physical and psychological health and well-being among every generation at work, we can begin to reduce medical costs, improve productivity and performance, [create] net happier and more engaged workers, and ultimately realize greater economic value.

It’s a design evolution, for sure. But more couches, quiet spaces and new coffee machines for your staff may well be worth the cash — because happy workers are, quite simply, a worthy investment.

“After all, if people are a primary asset, then it only makes sense to ensure that workers are cared for and prospering,” the report says. “If we take significant steps to promote physical and psychological health and well-being among every generation at work, we can begin to reduce medical costs, improve productivity and performance, [create] net happier and more engaged workers and ultimately realize greater economic value.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sam Boyer
Sam Boyer’s writing has been published in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Asia. Originally from New Zealand, he is now based in Toronto.

Financial Wellness

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