The idea of a ‘next gen workplace’ is pretty standard, right? Open plan, bookable huddle spaces, meeting rooms with UC links to colleagues and even the car parking and catering reserved remotely?
This has been the predominant trend since the first ‘modern’ office layouts debuted in the 1950s and the supporting technologies emerged in the last 10 years. But have we got it right?
From the dawn of the 20th Century, open plan offices have been a fundamental part of the UK workplace, but the credit for the ideal should probably be attributed to the other side of the Atlantic. In 1906, US architect Frank Lloyd Wright created the first open plan office, creating a space where everyone worked together – just like on the open floor of a factory. Wright designed the Larkin Administration Building in New York, which opened in 1906, to be like an open-plan factory building with few walls.
Highly structured designs, with workers sat at lines of desks with managers in offices surrounding them, was disrupted in Europe in the 1960s, with the development of Burolandschaft – office landscaping – where staff sat in organic patterns based around lines of communication.
Open plan-plan came to dominate as office-based, service jobs assumed a greater importance in the economy and society. In recent years, workplace design has changed to a point where the desk is no longer seen as the main engine of productivity. Now, the ‘workplace’ may offer as many as 10 different types of spaces to work in – from a fully kitted-out desk or a stand-up bench for quick emails and a chat, to a telephone booth for long calls, an office for quiet or confidentiality, meeting pods or a US diner style meeting room.
In the 1980s a further development saw the introduction of the ‘hot desking’ concept. Allegedly borrowed from the wartime practice of submarine crews sharing their bunks as their watches changed. Move on ten years, and the rise of the ‘office hotel’, where space management is improved created a wider range of spaces to work in. With advent of collaborative and meeting room solutions barrier-free or virtual office became a reality.
With an estimate 70% (International Facility Management Association) of office workers now accommodated in open plan building layouts, the design of the next gen workplace could be considered a done deal. But the purity of the Frank Lloyd Wright concept has been questioned in the light of declining productivity among knowledge workers. The warning shots were fired even before open plan was established as the norm. A British government report of 1856 commented: “for the intellectual work, separate rooms are necessary so that a person who works with his head may not be interrupted; but for the more mechanical work, the working in concert of a number of clerks in the same room under proper superintendence, is the proper mode of meeting it”.
More recent commentators report that open offices don’t increase collaboration or make people more productive. An Exeter University study showed they create a 32 percent drop in “workers’ well-being” and 15 percent reduction in productivity. Furthermore, a study of 10,000 workers funded by Steelcase revealed that “95 percent said working privately was important to them, but only 41 percent said they could do so. 31 percent had to leave the office to get work completed.”
What are the primary causes of this drop in productivity? Office workers lose an average of 86 minutes per day due to distractions associated with open-plan offices, according to the study funded by Steelcase. A study at Queensland University of Technology’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation found that working in open plan environments “causes high levels of stress, conflict, high blood pressure, and a high staff turnover,” resulting in more sick days. According to The New Yorker, companies with open-plan offices can expect employees to take 62 percent more sick leave.
And in a world where there is a well-entrenched belief that open plan represents a more economical use of expensive office space, it will come as a shock to learn that open plan offices are so detrimental to productivity that they often represent a significant loss. Are these not offset benefits of easy collaboration?
The answer here is ‘yes’ but with a number of caveats. The first is the physical flow of visitors to the workplace – office workers are often unaware of who they are sharing the workspace with -colleagues, suppliers and customers, delivery workers or cleaning staff. Next, the lack of privacy often counteracts the supposed easy collaboration that open office layouts engender. Some people are shy about public speaking, and others don’t like asking questions or pitching ideas for fear of being provoking derision. A study by IPSOS and Steelcase found that privacy is important to 95% of workers. A 2005 study found that the more personal control a person had over their environment, the more content they were with their job.
Despite these issues, open plan workplaces continue to hold sway, with supporters pointing to benefits including: open plan offices offer CAPEX advantages’ employers are able to provide more workspaces and to place more employees in an office: studies have shown that cubicle areas could even be up to 21% smaller without affecting productivity; communication is obviously easier between workstations and departments; there is no time wasted between offices because everyone is in the same area; life is easier for supervisors, as everyone is in a single area. On the Opex front. money can be saved air conditioning and electricity. Finally, the office layout can be changed quickly and with minimal effort.
Current thinking by architects, management consultants and system integrators is to take advantage of the benefits of open plan tempered with provision for quiet, privacy and access to specific hybrid office that combines elements of a closed office with elements of an open office. A mix of small sound proofed booths used to isolate the open plane from noisy or personal phone calls and quiet spaces to avoid constant interruptions.
It has been proved that some tasks, like writing, advertising, financial planning and computer programming, are done best when given a full measure of focus.
Some companies are now experimenting with enclosed spaces for smaller teams – typically, between three and 16 people. Workers can They still collaborate, but also have the option to block out noise from other teams of unrelated colleagues. Rooms are a mix of quiet rooms and huddle spaces, all of which can be reserved from the corporate room- booking system. So next-gen office will have the flexibility to mix private offices, cubicle banks and genuine open office spaces and other mutual areas, with soundproof rooms where workers can go to concentrate on solo work.
Various vendors are now making these cubicle or pod solutions available: for example, Framery Acoustics “manufacturers pods, phone booths and soundproof private spaces for solving noise and privacy issues in open offices: Our products make employees happier and more productive in offices of dozens of the world’s leading companies, including Microsoft, Puma and Tesla”. “Office Reality was formed in 2003 with a vision to supply businesses, organisations and individuals with competitively and realistically priced office furniture and interior solutions.”
For those with limited space or committed to open plan, noise cancelling headsets can alleviate the noise problem. Last month, AV News reviews two recent releases in this product category, Logitech announced the launch of the Logitech Zone Wireless and Logitech Zone Wireless Plus Headsets. The Zone series of headsets delivers superior sound quality so users can take conference calls, listen to music, or block out distractions with active noise cancellation (ANC).
Sennheiser’s new MB 360 UC Bluetooth headset, also with Active Noise Cancellation (ANC), arrived within 24 hours of the Logitech product, enabling us to run a side-by-side comparison. Like the Logitech Zone Wireless, the MB 360 UC is designed for office workers who need to work from everywhere using one single headset, for both calls and music.
A 2008 study, conducted in Finnish offices, found that 48% of employees reported that speech was the most disturbing noise source for them in an open office. We found that the Active Noise Cancelling headsets were effective at creating better conditions for taking calls, but obviously had no effect on the visual distractions disturbing worker’s concentration.
The next-gen workplace
With an increasingly diverse employee roster, the task of designing a workplace that suits everybody is little short of impossible. Nonetheless, change in the design and nature of the workplace is essential. According the workplace specialists Condeco: “The workplace has undoubtedly changed more in the last two decades than in the half century before that. A new wave of technology has been introduced into the office, while mobile technology has extended this reach beyond this reach beyond the physical office. Alongside this a new generation of employees is at work, bringing new expectations. Millennials, those born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, are seen as more demanding workers, who expect more flexibility from their employers, more engagement in the workplace, and a greater sense of purpose in their work.”
We all recognise the significance of millennials in the workplace, but they are a fraction of the total workforce. So what impact does the multi-generational workforce have on workplace design and adoption of new facilities?
Generational diversity and the modern workplace
Pip Thomas, Founder and Director of Instrui: looks at the issues raised by generational diversity in workplace design.
Today’s workplaces typically have four generations working together with differing values, perspectives, skills and experiences. With people continuing to work longer, that is only set to increase to five generations or even seven generations likely to be working together in future (Forbes (https://www.forbes.com/sites/soulaimagourani/2019/04/25/leading-multiple-generations-in-todays-workforce/#19ef349e4636))
Why is it important?
Organisations benefit from a mix of demographics – many now strive to embrace diversity in terms of race, gender, socio-economic background, but diversity in terms of age can be overlooked.
A rich mix of age ensures an organisation benefits from differing perspectives, insights and skills.
You’ll find various versions of generational categories, but here is one that works for me:
Traditionalists, Maturists (also known as the silent generation)
These are people who continue in work despite being approaching or over retirement age. They’re often in senior positions and valued for their knowledge and experience. They may also have enviable reputations and extensive connection networks. They have experienced the introduction of wave after wave of new technologies and may be sceptical of latest new trends.
They will typically have their own office. They may have a preference for communicating by letter/email or face-to-face meetings. Like Baby Boomers (below), they prefer learning in-person, possibly one-to-one coaching.
Usually these terms are applied to people born post war – between 1946 and 1964. Like traditionalists, they’ve experienced hierarchical office environments where having your own office, its size and location was indicative of your seniority and value to the organisation. The older of the Baby Boomers may well have had (or anticipated) secretaries to do their admin and insulate them from office technologies they probably don’t now. They are usually regarded as being motivated by personal gain.
They are also able to share and pass on their knowledge and as there are more of them in the workplace, able to provide the mentoring role often looked for in a manager by Millennials. They’ve seen workplace technology that was expensive, complex and often unreliable so may well not regard it as essential to the organisation’s success. Their level of competency with tech may not be high.
They prefer communicating in person or on the phone. They also prefer to learn in person in more formal and traditional learning style. They are not naturally collaborative.
Born after 1965 but before the 1980s, Gen X is seen as open, honest and innovative and very adaptable. They have seen huge change in technology while at school and in the workplace and have learned to keep up to date. This also means they tend to be sceptical about the latest tech trends.
They are good problem solvers. They are independent and dislike bureaucracy. They value freedom. They flexible and open to being collaborative but may also need some of the more traditional office spaces that provide quiet spaces for focus and privacy.
They prefer to communicate by email and phone. They like to learn in a directly relevant, hands-on informal coaching style – and dislike the touchy-feely teaching methods. They may prefer to have the freedom to choose how and when they learn.
Gen Y or Millennials
Born in the 1980s and early 1990s, they’ve grown up with the Internet and laptops, and have welcomed the smartphone and tablet. They’re often talked on as the ‘entitled’ generation or ‘generation me’ and are seen as being optimistic and more accepting of authority than Gen X.
They expect a technology experience at work at least as good as that of their home (or their family home as this generation often stays at home or returns home into early adulthood). They look for choice as to where and when they work.
They don’t like to communicate by talking on the phone or even face-to-face. They instant written messaging – email, SMS, social media messaging etc.
They have short attention spans, expect instant feedback and are not welcoming of negative feedback. They look to their boss for mentoring rather than supervision. They are very visual learners and prefer self-paced, online, gamified learning.
They’re teamwork focused and collaborative but may need encouragement to build personal relationships and have face to face communication within their teams.
Born 1995 to 2015 they are just beginning to enter the workplace. They are true digital natives having been brought up with smartphones, apps, fast Wi-Fi.
More than that they are the multi-screen generation. Most universities report students having typically three personal devices all of which they expect to login and use in lectures and seminars. They are used to instant everything – instant communication and access to information in particular. Being bombarded with information however, they value effective personalisation that cuts through the noise of information and gives them what’s relevant and valued by them.
Their attention spans are getting shorter and they prefer video. They value authenticity and the opinions of their peers. They have a digital life but do value the personal touch – face-to-face is important for recruitment for example.
There is one significant caveat to be noted here. While it is convenient to talk broadly of generations using these widely recognised classifications, we should always bear in mind that these are highly generalised stereotypes and ensure we do not pigeonhole or assume when it comes to individuals.
When planning user adoption strategies as part of new workplace design and workplace technology, it is essential to understand the real people in your organisation, how they work now, how changes will impact them in terms of work life and personally and to manage that change.
The ‘arc of distortion’ comes into play. This is the difference between what is said/meant and how it is received and interpreted by an individual, who will filter the communications through their own experience, worries and expectations.
Impact on the workplace
The trend is for organisations to eschew traditional hierarchical seating with assigned desks towards non-assigned seating. Office walls have been coming down for some time in favour of open environments with hot desking.
With desk occupancy rates often just 40%, organisations see real cost savings if they can reduce the amount of space required for office space and achieve better space utilisation. The result, particularly for large enterprises, is they are able to bring several office buildings into one – the campus format is very popular, one sire with lots of facilities for staff to use when they need to be in the office.
Combined with the parallel trend to technology enabled collaborative team-based working, this is often described as agile working. An effective agile working space will combine a range of different types and styles working spaces – open plan, small pods/rooms/spaces for privacy and to enable working without distraction, to support individuals and small group working, as well as more formal meeting spaces for different sizes of group and different types of team working.
This will provide the range of workspaces required by the people in your organisation to fulfil their responsibilities and answer their varying needs. If you get the balance right, you will build a more engaged, fulfilled and ultimately more productive workforce.
An agile workspace is likely also to incorporate shared spaces, where people from all departments cross paths and interact – cafes and restaurants, open spaces, lounges for example. This has been dubbed serendipitous engineering by the tech world and helps to break down the departmental silos that all too often exist and thrive in large enterprises.