The measure of how well an office space is designed is the extent to which it facilitates the behaviour it is designated for. For example, the extent to which it:
enhances life experience and supports the needs of its occupants;
it tells the right story about the product, culture of the community, and characteristics of individuals making up the workplace community.
Below we outline the steps required to increase utility of the three key spaces of a successful work environment – task place/individual work spaces, meeting places/collaborative spaces, and restorative places.
Space for agile work
Much has been said in the debate about open versus private office space and as we know, there are considerable advantages and disadvantages in both sides of the argument.
For example, open offices are cheaper, both in cost of ongoing rental and construction; they promote communication, create an egalitarian workplace culture, build camaraderie and closer ties between colleagues. In an open office it is easier to monitor performance and establish group norms.
However, open spaces are often stressful for the people working in them. Complaint number one is high levels of noise. Although colleagues communicate much more with each other, a lot of the conversations are on topics outside of work. People find themselves interrupted more frequently and it takes much longer to get back to the task at hand.
The diminished control of one’s environment also adds to stress levels, while an inability to personalise one’s individual space lowers self-esteem and morale. In addition, studies have shown that because of the close proximity to one another workers are much more likely to become ill and take time off work.
In comparison, a closed office environment provides more private space for workers. These are generally quieter and allow greater sense of control. People working in private can undertake tasks for longer periods of time and report lower levels of stress.
Closed offices, however, are not without their problems either. Working in a closed environment can make people feel more isolated and less sociable. The physical and perceived space between colleagues reduces the amount and clarity of communication. Monitoring of performance is more difficult and are much more expensive to establish and maintain.
So how do we find a middle ground, capitalise on the positives and eliminate the negatives?
- Consider dividing the open space into teams. Being in a small team creates a ‘pack environment’, resulting in building a close-knit group. Working together in close proximity on the same project encourages people to communicate more about the task at hand, swap thoughts and ideas etc. It also facilitates ‘peer monitoring’ and encourages greater work ethic amongst the group.
- Give your teams some control over their designated space. Providing movable shelves, layout benches, pin up walls etc will give the team an opportunity to build their own identity and dynamic, in turn increasing the sense of camaraderie and positive morale.
- Provide ways for teams create their privacy. Mobile screens, room dividers or simple shelves with tall plants will help members of the team to express their thoughts, exchange ideas and communicate more freely within the group, without fear of being judged negatively by others.
Space to collaborate
Collaborative spaces where colleagues share information and work together is the second most important feature of a modern office environment.
These spaces are not restricted to the traditional boardrooms; increasingly, companies provide alternative arrangements where face-to-face communication can occur. For example:
A tall bench with some or even no seating is great for quick meetings.
Smaller meeting rooms with a round table for up to eight people are more suited to team gatherings, particularly in instances where there is no obvious hierarchy.
Large boardrooms with long tables are more suited to formal congregations where there is a obvious autocratic setup.
It is difficult to accommodate all the scenarios that might be required in a dynamic modern office, however, a few simple but effective design techniques will create flexible meeting spaces that in turn will solve many issues. For example, bi-fold doors and partitions can easily transform a huge boardroom into smaller meeting rooms; this process will become even more effective if standard module furniture is used.
The provision of whiteboards and projection screens will enhance team members’ expression of concepts and ideas, while easy access for internet and power throughout the office will allow team meetings to occur almost anywhere workers find comfortable.
Space to restore
Mental fatigue, if not addressed, degrades performance, increases the chances of error and grinds down productivity. Mental exhaustion erodes our well-being, decreased mood and dents morale; it makes people irrational, confrontational and irritable.
Places that replenish our mental reservoirs – ‘restorative spaces’ as they’re called in the design trade – must (according to Kaplan, 1995) have the following four features:
They must induce mental travel away from the place that makes us fatigued.
The place must be interesting
It must be easily accessible with predictable pattern of behaviour.
Finally, it must be physically comfortable.
Studies demonstrate workers with access to restorative spaces perform at significantly higher levels (Augustin, 2009) and when executed well begin to act within three to five minutes.
The most obvious restorative place is a staff kitchen and breakout area. To be most effective, ensure it has window views and natural light, and provide a range of seating options where staff are comfortable to engage with each other and, most importantly, to be alone as well.
A comfortable armchair in quiet office nook with plants and collection of books or magazines can also be restorative.
Similarly, fish tank or artwork featuring a peaceful far away place provides visual relief and a momentary mental break.
Work, collaboration and restoration: There’s a lot more to establishing your new office space than just putting up partitions!