The idea that great workplace design can spark productivity, creativity, and growth isn’t a new one. It isn’t even one that’s hard to justify for most offices, given the plethora of options available at all price points. But somewhere between deciding whether the conference room should be forgone for a ping pong table and if nap pods are too much or not enough, the idea of great workplace design and fun workplace design have become effectively interchangeable.
Much of the problem comes from the reactive nature that surrounds workplace design. Need more meeting space? Let’s re-purpose an office into a breakout room. Company growing rapidly? Turn individual cubes into long bench-like desks and call it an open floor plan. But as the downsides of reactive office design have started to become apparent (turns out not all millennials equate bean bag chairs and ping pong tables with workplace happiness), so have new ways of reinventing the workspace.
The bad news? There are only so many office permutations that can be accomplished given capital, resources, and innovation, and there’s a good chance your company may not reinvent the wheel when it comes to design. But by focusing on both the short-term and long-term needs of employees and clients, and recognizing that addressing those needs falls on a spectrum (rather than finding the unicorn of a solution), companies can create proactive office design that leads to greater productivity, collaboration, and results.
Your Workspace Should Be About More Than Just Efficiency
For growing companies, office real estate can quickly become an exercise in efficiency: what’s the best way to organize teams to be able to work together most quickly. The open floor plan office may seem like a solution to being able to cluster teams together while keeping things collaborative, but focusing on efficiency can actually hold you back. Jon Baksaas, the CEO of Norwegian telecom giant Telenor, was one of the first executives to use hot desking - the idea of unassigned seats - back in 2003. For the company’s latest redesign, Baksaas chose to focus on ways that employees could best communicate with each other.
For Telenor, finding ways that different teams could interact with each other was crucial - Baksaas found that sales did better when members of different teams had spoken with each other. While organizing his teams was important, making sure that building breakout areas where people could bump into each other was just as important. Lounge areas were emphasized throughout the space, rather than simply incorporated into it. Those lounge areas were also purposely kept open, with ambiguous borders, so that collaboration could happen as easily as two co-workers running into each other.
By using their office real estate as a tool to achieve the goal of better communication, Telenor shifted their sights past just efficiency, into an actionable layout to help achieve it. Even if a redesign isn’t in the budget, simple actions to help facilitate a bigger end goal - such as putting fewer coffee machines throughout an office to encourage more extemporaneous conversation - can be an easy step to take, if you elucidate that goal.
Use the Seven Building Blocks of Office Design
Photo from Harvard Business Review
Everyone has different work styles, which is why hewing to office trends can often become problematic - not everyone wants to work in an open floor plan office that emphasizes interoffice chatter, but many do enjoy the flexibility of an office that isn’t shackled to desks and cubes like the days past. Since employee work preferences can range across a spectrum, the design and strategy team at global design firm HLW identified what they refer to as “Seven Attributes of Workspaces.”
The HLW team identified seven core areas of office design that could have an impact on employee productivity and well-being: location, enclosure, exposure, technology, temporality, perspective, and size. By putting each attribute on a spectrum, be it whether employees preferred a high-tech space or a low-tech office, or whether they wanted an office layout that invited coworkers to linger, or one that had less breakout areas to discourage the behavior. Employees were all given a Collaboration and Quiet index, and management was able to rank which areas to emphasize when making layout choices.
The seven building blocks also help companies realize the best way to reach goals. As HLW found, when software company Adobe wanted to increase inter-office collaboration, they didn’t let that become their final goal. In issuing the Collaboration and Quiet Index to employees, the company found that while the team did want greater location accessibility for a more open workplace, they also wanted to be able to limit exposure, so that they were able to work quietly as well.
By using the seven attributes, design becomes less about fixing a pressing problem immediately, and more about anticipating the varying needs of employees over time and finding solutions that accommodate those needs.
Let Your Space Grow with You by Looking Ahead
While proactive design can address a variety of productivity needs within one company, making sure that your space can grow with your company is just as important. As reported in Harvard Business Review, the HLW team suggests to companies overhauling their office layout to think about more than just the immediate problems. This is more than just making sure a space is adaptable enough to fit a growing company; it’s looking ahead to how employees will want to use that space in five years. It’s also taking into account how clients and visitors might want to use the office space, and how that affects the company’s perception, as well as who gets to use which parts of the office space (such as meeting rooms, or offices), and how that affects accessibility.
By looking at where your company wants to be in the future, offices can help avoid some of the workplace disillusionment that can set in at a time when employees are spending less time at companies before moving around. It also gives companies a variety of data points about how employees feel they’d be most successful, as well as time to implement those processes - and that sort of planning can outlast any office design fad.