Office spaces are fast evolving away from the cubicle style spaces that for the past 50 years have defined most office spaces. While the intention of cubicle designer Robert Propst in 1967 for Herman Miller’s project was to create a cost-effective solution to the problem of offering employees privacy while still working in a single large space, it has become a symbol for the depressed, isolated office worker.
In response to cubicles, the open office was relaunched with a modern twist. Following the principles of ‘Taylorism’, a methodology created by mechanical engineer, Frank Taylor, who sought to maximise industrial efficiency, the open-plan space grew in popularity in the late 20th century in an attempt to encourage collaboration, interaction and creativity, while also keeping costs low.
This open-plan workspace did blossom. Characterful, comfortable and smart workspaces attracted many talented young people who did not want to work with rules. However, this method has also failed as it has been sexist, repressive and unproductive.
Many women have said working in an open office with no privacy exposes them to a constant male gaze, with more than one workplace accused of its staff ‘ranking’ female employees in open offices. Many women are so uncomfortable in an open plan office that they are forced to seek out privacy to work in other spaces, such as cafes and public libraries, just to get work done.
The noisy open-plan office is not an ideal environment for many creative people, who need quiet and calm to focus. Many writers prefer quiet spaces with little distraction to ensure that they are immersed in their work, while designers and artists often crave private space to produce first drafts away from criticism.
For most people, an open office is unproductive. Without time to think and work on long-term tasks, little analysis and immersion can happen when people are talking, playing or distracting others. While for collaboration and idea-sharing, open space provides workers with a place to bounce ideas around freely, there needs to be a balance.
The advantages of an agile work environment
Also known as the digital or responsive office, an agile workspace uses technology to enable employees to work in a flexible and agile manner. This can range from online training to collaborative platforms that allow people to work on the same project around the world. The smart office even removes the need for physical office space, opening up possibilities for remote working and interconnected global offices.
Agile work environments are more than just physical. They are also based on ideas, needs and desires. A worker who can achieve a better work-life balance working from home doing 6 hour days is often more productive than an employee who attends the office for 10 hours. Part of the flexibility is recognising that individuals and their job roles require many solutions.
Research suggests that we are preoccupied with our physical environment. A modern office space that gives employees the freedom to work in a way that suits them is a big selling point for your recruitment and retention strategy.
Google is the best-known example. The company’s innovative workspaces are sold to potential candidates as part of the package. Rooftop allotments, putting greens, climbing walls and chill-out pods give people space to be social and space to focus. Each location is unique, but all have the signature emphasis of collaboration, comfort, socialisation and fun.
The idea is that when people are on friendly and familiar terms, they work better together. Employees feel more comfortable being creative, expressing themselves or collaborating with those they have a relationship with. It has been a very successful model for Google, and many other businesses who have adopted the idea.
Simple things, like providing snack food, drinks and standing desks, go a long way to boosting employee morale. Other measures, such flexible hours, remote working and they supply of smart devices, do require more consideration.
The middle ground
An agile work environment isn’t about turning your office into an oversized playground, it’s about creating space that can be adapted to a variety of needs.
Open-plan offices can kill productivity, so it’s important to have places where employees can work quietly and focus. Equally, you want to make sure there are areas of your office that allow people to socialise and interact in a more casual way. This can improve collaboration and workplace relationships.
Giving people the opportunity to work remotely for all or part of the time, and to have control over their hours of work (meaning that work is outcome-based, not time assessed) boosts productivity and often creativity. In job roles that require much creative assessment and contribution, employees can fast burn out if they are not given autonomy over their creative processes, such as hours and environment choice.
Making the move
Harvard Business Review recommends taking the following steps before overhauling an office space:
- communicate clearly
- be enthusiastic
- allow room for adapting the space to fit different people’s needs
The following tips can help you successfully turn your office into an agile work environment:
- Don’t assume that one size fits all – Give people the option to float between different areas, like “focus” zones for individual working, “connect” zones for collaborating, and “vitality” zones for relaxing. The design of a smart office needs to be based on real data to support a range of activities and maximise productivity.
- Survey your employees ahead of the redesign – You could ask people to list three things that help them work and three things that make them less productive. You might be surprised by their responses – don’t assume you know what works best for them.
- Brainstorm design ideas with different teams – Get individual teams on board with focus groups and brainstorming sessions. Give people a chance to envisage and imagine their new space.
An agile work environment is the fusion of technology, good design and modern ideas of productivity. It gives employees more control over how they work, where they work, and who they work with, all of which positively influence the employee experience. If you can implement a real agile work environment that takes into consideration the needs of the many personalities and job roles you have in your organization, you will engender a sense of loyalty in employees that cannot be bought.