Time to rethink the office design paradigm?
Wednesday, May 03, 2017
Today's office spaces are a far cry from the colorless, regimented fluorescent-lit boxes of old. Thanks to years of research on the impact of office design on workers, office spaces today are open, airy, well-lit, aesthetically pleasing, healthier and safer, offering a variety of flexible and adaptable work and social environments.
Yet despite all these improvements, many employees still complain that their office environments do not adequately support the work they are tasked to do. Perhaps it's time to reevaluate our assumptions about what makes for an effective work space and revise the predominant paradigm.
Numerous management studies have shown that increased socialization, collaboration, teamwork and cross-fertilization of skills and disciplines can significantly improve employee creativity, innovation and productivity. Tech giants like Apple, Google and Facebook have become the poster children for the level of success that is achievable when organizations cultivate these types of work cultures.
Hand-in-hand, decades of industry and institutional research on workplace environments have demonstrated that the design of the work environment can either support or thwart these types of behaviors, making architects and designers key influencers in the planning and execution of today's work spaces. Case studies testify to the positive benefits of providing employees with more thoughtful, intentionally designed work environments, including improved productivity, decreased employee absenteeism and higher rates of employee satisfaction and retention.
In addressing one set of issues, however, these spaces have generated others. A recent study of the workplace attitudes of millennial corporate leaders and C-suite executives, conducted for The Conference Board, found that the millennials in general did not like the prevalent open workplace design, whereas CEOs believed it made their company more attractive to millennials.
In fact, both millennial and nonmillennial leaders were less interested in how the workplace looked than in having more flexible options for working remotely and collaborating virtually. Organizational culture and values ranked higher in importance than the type of physical work environment options available, including a culture that recognized each employee's need to work how and where it best suited them to fulfill their duties and responsibilities.
A longitudinal study by faculty at the University of Western Sydney of 114 employees over a period of eight months found open space and collaborative work spaces can increase environmental stressors, such as noise and distractions, which over time can erode employees' performance and affect their health and well being.
Employers and designers have sought to address this problem by providing employees with a wider range of environments in which to work. This "activity-based" approach is meant to allow employees to seek out more suitable spaces throughout the work day or work week according to their task needs, moods and personalities, from enclosed quiet spaces for "heads down" individual assignments to group settings that invite and support interaction and collaboration.
A study of combining "activity-based" options with open-space design, involving knowledge workers in London, found "there is a need to consider the collaborative physical and social environment as well as the individual preferences of knowledge workers in order to ensure enhanced personal productivity and well-being within the office." Given this flexibility, employees' productivity increased overall after moving into the new space.
Findings from research conducted by a team of experts in the Netherlands, however, reveal that while employees who take advantage of switching environments have higher rates of job satisfaction, most employees do not take advantage of the options because the type of work they do does not vary sufficiently or the management culture discourages switching among work environments. The researchers conclude, "Many workers are likely to be more satisfied if provided with an assigned (multifunctional) workstation."
Given the diversity of personalities, tasks, work and management styles within most organizations, clearly no one solution will accommodate the needs and preferences of all employees.
Many companies are enamored with Silicon Valley's success and wish to model their workplaces accordingly. However, these studies suggest that trying to get employees to adapt to the space rather than suiting the environment to the work needed to be accomplished — even if that includes telecommuting and other off-site alternatives — will at best only be partially successful.
It's time to shift the paradigm from what makes for a high-performing space to what makes for high-performing employees. And that will be specific to each organization's business and culture, not some model based on another's success.
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