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Striking the right balance between focus and collaboration in office design

Posted on July 19, 2016 by Charles Marks

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665277_image_1The challenge of providing at least some degree of solitude, peace and quiet in an office is one of those issues that most people involved in the design and management of workplaces can accept is very important. Yet it has proved to be one of those intractable issues that suffers both from and to need to balance it against other factors,  not least the most significant trend of the past thirty or forty years in office design; the shift to open plan working. On the face of it, the case for working in open plan offices is clear cut. Not only are they seen as more conducive to collaborative work (more of which later) and less bound by ideas of status, the economic case is evident. Open plan workstations take up around half the space of cellular offices and the associated fit-out costs are typically 25 per cent lower. More recently, we have also seen a shrinking of workstation footprints in open plan areas, associated with the uptake of flat screens on both PCs and laptops and the near ubiquitous use of tablets and smartphones.

But there are issues with this combination of open plan offices and greater occupational density. The downside is that it can all make us less productive and may even mitigate against the supposed benefits of open plan design, especially collaborative work. A recent survey of 90,000 people by architects Gensler found that ‘the most significant factor in workplace effectiveness is not collaboration, it is individual focus work’ and that ‘focus is also the workplace environment’s least effectively supported activity.’

There is more and more evidence for this assertion. Recently, academics at the University of Sydney published the results of a survey of nearly 43,000 US office workers. The researchers Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear in the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Sydney applied their research to assess some of the most commonly held beliefs about open plan offices, especially the assumption that they ‘facilitate communication and interaction between co-workers, promoting workplace satisfaction and team-work effectiveness’.

What the research shows is that the thing that bothers people most is not necessarily noise levels but rather a lack of privacy, both in terms of hearing what other people are saying and having their own conversations overheard. While a quarter of the survey’s subjects said they were dissatisfied with the level of noise at work, over half of the huge sample of workers in open plan offices cited their lack of acoustic privacy as a major frustration at work. This made it easily the most important issue facing workers according in the survey.

In the context of the research, this goes against one of the arguments most commonly made in favour of open plan offices, namely that by opening up the workplace people are free to exchange information and ideas.

What happens in practice according to the Sydney researchers is that it is those workers with a higher degree of privacy who feel most likely to share with colleagues, safe in the knowledge that information is only going to those intended. The researchers conclude: “Our results categorically contradict the industry-accepted wisdom that open-plan layout enhances communication between colleagues and improves occupants’ overall work environmental satisfaction”.

So one of the most important things you can offer to people in the workplace is at least some degree of privacy. They need to work with their colleagues and enjoy the benefits of interacting with other human beings but there is a better balance to be struck than the one many have right now.

It’s taken us a while to return to this realisation. The problem of privacy for people was never going to go away but we must also balance this fundamental need against some of the other most common  desirable attributes of modern office design. There’s little hope that we will all soon be working in cellular offices (and nor should we) and so the solution has shifted away from the personal workstation and on to what we now refer to as ‘third space’ – breakout areas, bookable cells, acoustic pods, intelligent acoustic design, baffles, and screens.

This may all come as news in the US where it’s still possible to read features about the ways in which  the cubicle is dying out. Indeed, a report from Corenet Global claimed that the main reason for a reported fall in the average space per worker globally from 225 sq. ft. to 150 sq. ft  was that more than 80 percent of the respondents said their company had reduced the numbers of cubicles they used. It’s worth putting this in context by noting that just as the ‘World Series’ in baseball really means The ‘US Series’, the CoreNet survey is skewed towards the American experience.

On this side of the pond, where the Dilbert cartoon strip’s depiction of corporate life dated quickly, we are now rediscovering the joys, practicalities and compromises of privacy. While it is the comparative immutability of the human animal with its desires and needs that is bearing us back to this part of our past, this time around things will be slightly different as designers take account of the forces that have driven the evolution of the workplace over recent years.

What is important now is to strike the right balance so that offices are able to meet the varying needs of people and employers alike. The solution is sophisticated, based not only on design but also culture and the way we use technology. The good news is that we have never had so much choice in the way we work, the technology we use and the way we design offices. These are exciting times and it would be wrong not to embrace this choice to give people the best possible chance of meeting their potential.