Office design should focus on people, not just the work they do

An increasing bank of research shows people who work in open plan offices find it difficult to focus. Chris Jagers/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

With all the chatter about beautiful office design, it would be easy to assume workplaces have come a long way from the days of the cubicle farm. But recent research has shown this may not actually be the case.

In spite of increasing images of attractive workplaces from many large Australian companies, many of today’s workplaces are not well designed. Poor workplace design leads to increased conflict and stress, which reduces performance and leads to employees resigning.

Workspace is the second largest overhead for most organisations and can influence productivity by up to 20%. This is why organisations are increasingly exploring ways of using the environment to support performance and innovation.

To accommodate changes in work and the changing needs of workers, the corporate world has seen a significant shift to activity based working or “free addressing”.

Activity based working allows organisations to save on their accommodation costs, fitting in up to 20% more people in the building by designing workplaces where employees have no fixed desk. The concept arose in part in response to the increased desire by organisations for collaboration and networking among employees, and secondly to the increasingly mobile and virtual nature of work.

Initial research however, has indicated growing concern. A 2013 global study by Gensler found that as few as one in four workers report working in an optimal workplace environment, and more than half report being disturbed by others when trying to focus.

Employees report being constantly interrupted, distracted by noise, and not having enough space. Cortisol tests conducted on employees have shown stress levels in quiet private spaces at around half those in noisy open areas.

Cubicles are gradually disappearing from workplaces. Shutterstock

Difficult to focus

Research on knowledge workers has shown an increase in the time needed for focused individual work, with the time required for collaborative work decreasing. The concept of the activity-based workplace may be actually producing counter-productive results.

When people can’t focus, the research indicates, they are less effective at learning, building relationships and at collaborating.

In many new offices based around the concept of activity based working, employees are using boxes and posters and plants, pretty much anything they can find, to try and create a space where they can actually get work done.

A recent study of 5,500 office workers globally by commercial real estate company CBRE showing that the ability to think and concentrate was important for workers of all ages; millennials and baby boomers want the same thing.

Google designs its workplaces to promote creativity. Pixel Pro Photography/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Innovation remains a top priority for organisations, and yet changes in workplace design may be negatively affecting innovation potential.

The clean desk policy required by activity based working, means that workers need to remove all of their work and belongings at the end of each day. Studies have shown that messy desks can increase creative thinking and serendipitous discoveries.

What research to date does demonstrate is that the design of a workplace needs to accommodate not only the type of work that needs to get done there, but also the individual needs of the people who are completing that work.

There is an increasing focus on objective measurement within the workplace, examining issues such as stress and productivity using physiological and neuroscience tests.

Results have shown employees can be significantly stressed with detrimental effects on both well-being and performance, though they may not report feeling stressed in self-report research.

NAB’s 700 Bourke street building is designed for workers that don’t require a fixed desk, with lockers made available for storing personal items. Charis Palmer

More work to do

The importance of a well-designed workplace to support connection is as important as ever. A recent Harvard Business Review article reported research that showed digital communication does not replace face-to-face interaction and that remote teams do not perform as well as those co-located.

It is somewhat surprising to realise we actually haven’t worked out how to design offices that make a positive difference to performance for all types of individuals and types of work.

We do know that subtle cues in our environment can cause us to be different versions of ourselves, more innovative, more outgoing, more collaborative for example, but we haven’t understood exactly how the workplace needs to be designed to achieve this.

Emerging theories of integrative workplace design should help us understand how to design workplaces that not only allow employees to perform better and make them feel better, but that could fundamentally change the experience of what it means to be at work.