Working together Means Making the Office Work for Each Other
May 25, 2022 - The cheapest and most efficient way to do research on the office is to get out of the office. At least two things happen, sometimes without notice, when one escapes from the normal work routine. First, it becomes apparent how few pieces of hardware we actually need to get things done. And second, we actually get things done. With the "distractions" of the office removed and the cloak of relative anonymity leaves us with plenty of room for thought, suddenly the burden is lifted, clarity resumes and focus presides.
Why do we even need offices anymore, we wonder as we sip our cafe latte and chew on a croissant. Until an important client calls—via video—and any illusion of professionalism disappears. Then, after that call, a number of tasks must be accomplished and decisions have to be made via discussion and planning with a team of colleagues.
Yeah, we need to go back to the office.
The frequency of inspired bursts of productivity in the non-office environments of airport lounges, planes and trains, and cafes really makes one wonder what factors enable better focus in these seemingly stressful and cacophonous environments. And the question follows, how can we bring those catalysts back to the workplace?
Open Plan, Closed Communication
Somewhere along the line, we selected the wrong attributes associated with feelings of "escape" provided by working away from the old-fashioned office and applied them too liberally in workplace design. Opening doors, tearing down walls, moving management out of offices into an egalitarian "we all have the same size desk in an open room" office environment does not necessarily function well system-wide for every task.
Even if open-plan environments save on real estate and construction costs while also fostering a loft-party atmosphere, this style of interior design and its supposed enhancement of productivity, collaboration and transparency is failing us on many levels.
Some 70% of offices have open plan layouts, according to a 2010 survey of 424 facility management professionals by the International Facility Management Association. But despite the popularity of open offices, they have been associated with higher levels of employee dissatisfaction, stress, and illness.
A 2013 study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272494413000340) found that workers frustrated by distractions in an open-plan environment exhibited poorer work performance. Nearly half of the surveyed workers in open offices said the lack of sound privacy was a significant problem for them and more than 30 percent complained about the lack of visual privacy.
A lack of privacy is accompanied by problems with noise. The reason people feel exposed when they speak is because sounds reverberate too easily in trendy offices with high ceilings, concrete floors, exposed-brick walls, and all the accoutrements of modern office chic. As a result, more than two-thirds of U.S. employees are unhappy with noise levels at work, and 53% say other people disturb them when they try to focus, according to a 2013 survey by global design firm Gensler (http://www.gensler.com/news/press-releases/gensler-releases-2013-u-s-workplace-survey-finds-only-1-in-4).
The same Gensler study also seems to disprove the notion that open office plans foster more collaboration. Those shy to speak for lack of privacy are less likely to interact with employees in face to face interactions. The numbers showed that people reported dedicating more of their time to "focus work" than they did five years earlier, estimating 54% up from 48% of previous workday allocation, and less collaboration, which they reported only occupied 24% of their time versus the 30% they estimated five years prior.
If that's the general consensus, it's no wonder the average person feels more productive when outside the office. And it's not just true on an individual level. If you've ever decided to take a team meeting outside the office because you either didn't have a place to convene or you needed an atmosphere more conducive to thought and collaboration, then you can probably relate to this data.
Options for Optimization
It probably doesn't take a lot of research to assume that employees who feel that taking a phone call or crunching on potato chips is seen as a criminal disruption when sharing the same office. then the subsequent self-consciousness can lead to fatigue, burnout and even anti-social behavior. Gone are the days of chit-chat to break up the monotony of work, or worse, here are the days when the chit-chat of one brave extrovert rattles the concentration of an entire office.
Don't throw out all your open-plan blueprints yet, though. There are compromises and enhancements that can be implemented in retrofits or new construction. Guidance begins with a Harvard Business Review workplace study from 2011 (https://hbr.org/2011/07/who-moved-my-cube), which found that, "The most effective spaces bring people together and remove barriers while also providing sufficient privacy that people don't fear being overheard or interrupted. In addition, they reinforce permission to convene and speak freely."
To move forward with building the office of the future, adding some creature comforts that support the individual while enabling group collaboration is key. Options must be presented for quiet, "head-down" work and also bustling, vibrant and loud group conversations.
In order to do this, it might be a good idea to take a little bit of inspiration from some unlikely places: the airport, the cafe and the gym. It's time for some new ideas about the workplace of the future that synthesize individual comfort with team productivity.
Five Things That Could Heal the Open Office Closed Collaboration Areas
The idea of "closed" anything will likely raise hackles, but brainstorming meetings, especially ones dealing with sensitive or top-secret information, require privacy. Too often, workers in open office layouts feel the need to take their conversation to the relative anonymity of a coffee shop outside the office. The time lost in traveling to and from this location and settling in to focus once again on the issues at hand, is costly.
Enter the huddle room. A small space with a door that closes, a table and a couple of chairs, and technology for videoconferencing or screen-sharing can produce even better results than a jolt of coffee. These private spaces are also used by individuals who seek a little quiet and separation from the crowd, maybe to make a phone call or just zoom into a task… a fact which should lead designers to consider making even smaller, individual nooks available, too.
There are a number of ways in which huddle rooms can be integrated into an office space. Some offices are creating "neighborhoods," with open layouts mixed in with meeting rooms of various sizes. Ideally these neighborhoods are off the beaten path in the office, and allow for minimal interruptions from passersby.
Looking at that Gensler study again, noise truly is an issue. More than half of those surveyed reported being disturbed by others when trying to focus, and related to that, only one in four employees said their office environment fostered both collaboration and individual concentration.