Has open plan had its day? Mark Conway of Active FM argues that a more intelligent approach is needed in workplace design, while Howard Barnes of 360Degrees says organisations need to consider their own unique personality
Today’s office is undergoing a period of rapid change, both in terms of design and in terms of facilities. We have gone from working full-length days in corporate-style offices to working flexibly in open-plan spaces. While no one can know exactly what will happen in the workplace of the future, businesses need to recognise that to stay ahead it’s essential to roll with the change when it comes – or risk getting left behind.
The occupants of the modern office have hugely different expectations from the generations of workers who have gone before. As Frank Costello says in The Departed, “I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.” Humans have a need to shape their surroundings to suit their needs. One clear trend is the blurring of the boundaries between work and life. One response to this is to make the office a more ‘homely’ place to work, reflecting the comfort of home.
Another is to take the Google route, introducing cool features such as nap rooms, football tables, gyms and cafés. However, strewing brightly coloured beanbags around the atrium doesn’t mean that employees’ productivity levels are going to rocket. Before jumping on to any particular bandwagon, facilities managers need to be sure that the planned changes actually serve a purpose, whether by helping to motivate employees or reducing stress levels.
An office space has to support the people working in it, which is why it cannot be left to architects and designers alone. Design professionals clearly have a role in helping to shape the changing workplace, but at the end of the day employees need to have a say in the planning process – because it is their needs that will ultimately drive change.
NOISY AND DISTRACTING
Sometimes it’s about getting back to basics. Many businesses have opted to go open plan in recent years, opening up the floorplate and clearing sightlines. But in many cases this has led to unforeseen consequences – too much noise and distraction, too little privacy, no sense of ownership, no quiet place to think.
The open-plan office has undoubted benefits. It allows conversations to flow freely, promoting collaboration and supporting team working. But the rush to facilitate collaboration and interaction has led to a phenomenon called ‘benching’, with rows and rows of tables lined up in a vast open space – the idea being that because people can see and hear each other, they can toss ideas around, share ideas and generally be more creative and effective.
Open plan has also encouraged the spread of hot desking – a trend that appears to enable more efficient use of space and resources. The idea that the overall number of workstations can be reduced to suit the number of people actually in the building at any one time is appealing to many FMs.
But hot desking and benching do not always work in human terms. The problem with hot desking is that people have no sense of ownership and no place in the office to call their own. Just as in a living room you have your favourite armchair, people crave a spot at work which they can personalise and wrap around them, a little piece of home. Similarly, benching requires a communal approach to facilities – but someone else’s clutter spilling across your shared desk can be annoying and a potential cause of office disputes.
Open-plan layouts tend to be designed by architects without enough attention paid to the actual needs of the people occupying them. They don’t recognise different work styles – the fact that there are times when you need to share information and collaborate, and times when you need to go away and do some deep thinking.
One possible solution is activity-based working, which has the potential to make an open-plan office space much more productive. The idea is to retain the benefits of openness while creating zones and neighbourhoods responsive to people’s different needs. So one zone is reserved for private, heads-down work, another is designed for collaborative teamwork, another is for socialising and so on. It requires a much more subtle and complex approach to office design.
Activity-based working has implications for the equipping and furnishing of the different spaces. Desks will be needed to answer emails and manage paperwork, but what about a booth to take a confidential phone call, interactive whiteboards to brainstorm, comfortable seating to facilitate meetings, group interactions or socialisation?
Upgrading the workplace is a smart business decision that will undoubtedly yield rewards for the business. But it shouldn’t be a question of fashion. What works for a cutting-edge dotcom company may not work for a law firm or a bank. It’s important to remember that the office is an environment for productive work and thought, dependent on the culture and values of the organisation. Every workplace is different, and every organisation needs to take its own path to creating the space that works best for its employees.
Find your inner Google – Fun or functional? Formal or friendly? Howard Barnes, managing director at 360Degrees, explains why organisations should ignore trends and design a workplace that meets their own unique needs.
Think of modern office design and it’s the style of dotcom pioneers like Google that probably comes to mind, with quirky features and breakout spaces to stimulate staff creativity. With a rustic cafeteria and snug rooms, the idea is to make the workplace a home from home.
It’s easy to be sceptical about this trendy approach to offices, but putting a personal stamp on a workplace isn’t a fad. Leisure provider Forest Holidays recently refurbished its support centre, for example, including wall-sized graphics and murals to provide an inviting ‘forest feel’ for staff and visitors. Similarly, a global automotive components supplier wanted its UK headquarters to have a distinctive British feel, with rooms inspired by Abbey Road, London Underground and motor sport, with a classic red telephone box in the foyer.
The Google approach isn’t for everyone, and nor is standard open plan. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that companies are turning away from open plan offices because of their noise and lack of privacy. But this is not to say that anyone wants to see a return to a traditional, cubicle-based office set-up, which is an inefficient use of space and hinders interaction between employees.
This is why many modern office blueprints are carefully designed to incorporate solutions that suit everyone’s needs. Companies seek designs that don’t just reflect brand values, but also encourage productivity, loyalty and engagement. Google’s offices succeeded because the designers fulfilled a brief that worked well for that particular company. The message is to review contemporary office trends and take the elements that suit your organisation’s needs – ignoring what might be counter-productive.
There’s plenty of evidence to back up the idea that unique designs boost productivity if done correctly, because they lead to variety and flexibility in how workspaces are used. It’s not just about quirky decoration for its own sake – graphics, plants, lighting, colours and furniture can be deployed to create zones that offer greater autonomy over how and where to work.
With more employees working from home, working flexible hours or switching between different office locations within larger businesses, there is a greater emphasis on agile working. Being flexible about where people sit saves the wasted space and resource of an empty desk on days when, say, a part-time employee isn’t in the office.
FIT FOR PURPOSE
Taking a zonal approach to workspaces means that employees can find the best environment for whatever activity they’re doing, whether that’s a quiet room when they need to knuckle down and focus on a tricky task, or a breakout space where they can sprawl on sofas for group brainstorming sessions. Even in a single open-plan office, by paying careful attention to lighting or floor coverings, it’s possible to split the area into smaller, manageable areas without committing to physical partitions.
Finally, friendly communal areas are a must for any business wanting to bring its team together. This doesn’t mean you have to provide a pool table in the office (although many employees may feel this is a good idea). It simply means creating a space where people can go to eat their lunch, have a cup of coffee, talk, laugh and relax without worrying about disrupting their colleagues. Forest Holidays, for example, has found that its large kitchen and dining area is doubling up as a breakout space for social events.
When it comes to planning and designing your workplace, being like Google doesn’t mean copying Google. The real revolution is that businesses now have the confidence to find their own style. In the best modern workplaces, it’s possible to have fun while still being productive.