How To Do Workplace Design

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This post was first published on my business blog, which I’m closing down now that I’ve retired, so I’m archiving some of the better posts to this blog.

All too often offices are designed based on an efficiency metric that works for the facilities management organisation, cost/person, needs to be optimised.  Every time I’ve sat down with facilities they’ve proudly rolled out a large printout showing me how they’ve crammed desks into every nook and cranny and I’ve, figuratively, ripped up those plans.  As a trained designer it amazes me that facilities have never asked me what my objectives are before they design the office and since office designed demonstrably impacts business objectives this is pretty amazing.  A recent HBR article gives many examples of how designing an office to maximise interactions can impact sales:

data collected at one pharmaceuticals company showed that when a salesperson increased interactions with coworkers on other teams by 10%, his or her sales increased by 10%. To get the sales staff running into colleagues from other departments, management shifted from one coffee machine for every six employees to one for every 120 and created a new large cafeteria for everyone. Sales rose by 20%, or $200 million, after just one quarter, quickly justifying the capital investment in the redesign.

It’s not just sales though that’s impacted by design, here are a few examples that I’m aware of:

  1. Designing an office where people have access to natural light can significantly lower stress and reduce time off sick
  2. An office designed to minimise interruptions can have a huge impact on productivity for tasks that benefit from concentration and especially those that take long enough for flow to develop
  3. Creativity can be significantly increased by increasing the number of ad-hoc interactions
  4. Communication overhead can be massively reduced by moving a team closer together, ultimately into a ‘war room’, although over time people burn out.  Perfect for the ‘storming’ phase in a project, not so good for finishing a project where focused attention to all the little details is needed to deliver high levels of quality
  5. Individual productivity can be increased by providing larger desks and multiple displays
  6. Errors rates can be reduced by larger displays and quiet
  7. Productivity dips through the day can be reduced by letting people move to a new location, to take a break, read a magazine, have a chat
  8. Standing up for meetings increases focus and reduces duration
  9. People are more creative when they have a walking meeting
  10. Sketching together at a whiteboard is often more effective than working alone on a PowerPoint
  11. Anxiety reduces when people sit at the same desk each day that’s optimised and familiar to them

So why is it that no one asks what a space is needs to deliver to the business?  I think it’s the fact that designing a truly effective workspace needs a unique blend of skills, a few of which I’ve listed below:

  1. The ability to interview stakeholders, to tease out their needs and then clearly communicate the pros and cons of the options
  2. An understanding of human behaviour, how people respond to or are impacted by  the myriad variables in space design
  3. The mix of different personality types that the space will need to accommodate
  4. The different team types, sizes and team lifecycle phases that the space will need to support
  5. The need for common areas, lab space, wall mounted dashboards, space for mockups or other types of display
  6. The mix of co-located and virtual participants in the work that needs to be done
  7. The relative importance of quality, output, creativity and cost
  8. The flexibility required over time, the ability to reconfigure the space
  9. The type and needs of visitors to the space
  10. Security and compliance needs
  11. The type of work that needs to be done
  12. How to involve the stakeholder in the design process
  13. How to work with the users of the space to coach them to utilise it most effectively once they’ve moved in
  14. Whether the space will need to be a showcase, impress customers, send some brand message
  15. The technology enablers: docking stations, multiple screens, big screens, keyboards, mice, touchpads, white noise, electronic whiteboards and flipcharts, touch screens, video conferencing, room booking, meeting management and many other apps …
  16. The physical options: noise, light, daylight, fresh air, interruption, health and safety …
  17. The furniture options: desks, tables, standing desks, treadmill desks, comfy chairs, desk chairs, bouncing balls, bean bags, sofas, dividers, walls, whiteboards …
  18. The zones that need to be designed: war rooms, breakout rooms, virtual meeting rooms, standing meeting rooms, walking circuits, eating areas, library spaces, quiet zones, visitor spaces …
  19. Interior design options: art, plants, colours, motivationals, books …

Given the complexity of dealing with all of the above, is it any surprise that density and cost start to look pretty appealing as the only metrics? is there another way?

I think there is based on my own limited experience:

  1. Divide large spaces up into clusters of people, less than 40 in each, but the number is flexible
  2. Involve the cluster who will use the space in its design
  3. Maximise flexibility, make it really easy for the users of the space to change it over time: for example use freestanding tables instead of heavy, desks bolted together; use freestanding dividers rather than walls
  4. Start simple and low cost, create a few different zones
  5. Don’t over invest in technology at the beginning
  6. Hand ownership of the space over to it’s cluster
  7. Make sure there is a leader for the cluster, give them a budget to evolve the space over time
  8. Encourage the cluster to be aware of how the different zones are being used
  9. Provide a catalogue of potentially good ideas, examples of different types of zones
  10. Provide a guide to workspace design that explains the impact of the things I’ve touched on in this post
  11. The cluster should meet regularly (monthly) and evolve, set the expectation that experimentation is good, improvement expected
  12. Encourage each cluster to share their journey with other clusters

Steve Richards

I'm retired from work as a business and IT strategist. now I'm travelling, hiking, cycling, swimming, reading, gardening, learning, writing this blog and generally enjoying good times with friends and family

1 Response

  1. August 30, 2015

    […] start by stressing the need for users of a workspace to take ownership of it, since I’d written a whole post on this topic only a few days ago, they […]

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