Toward Intelligent Workplace Design

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I was interviewed last week by a reporter investigating the limitations in open plan workplace design. It was a good discussion, and he was pursuing what I felt to be a very appropriate theme… that most open plan offices are a result of economic decisions and fail to provide workers with a supportive workplace. Despite the fact that we all experience and acknowledge the challenges of being productive in most open plan environments, they persist. There is an abundance of research to challenge the open plan, but the reality is that workplace environments are first a product of the economics of the space lease or purchase, and second the result of the powerful drive to keep the investment in that space as low as possible and to expedite the process. The result is that decision makers continue to miss an enormously valuable opportunity.

People. The people that make up their organization. The people that do the work.

What company today wouldn’t rush to tell you that the people who work there are their most valuable asset? Nearly everyone says this, and it is reflective of the way the economy in the United States has dramatically changed over the last fifty years. And yet, these same people will also make workplace design decisions that have absolutely nothing to do with their acknowledged most valuable asset. But what if they did?

If they did they would find they have created environments for their people that are infinitely more supportive of activity and tasks, reflective of their culture, and supportive of employee health and welfare. They would have done this with minimal additional cost to the project and would yield tremendous gain with a work environment that supports their people. We would be remiss to not think that all of this together might have a positive impact on worker and workplace productivity.

I am incredibly optimistic. There is tremendous opportunity to think differently about the workplace, and bring research supported assertions to the decision making process that are supportive of human factors and the user experience. Through the effective use of we have the opportunity to effectively challenge assumptions, to challenge the status quo, and create environments that inspire and stimulate people, environments that are more enjoyable and healthful. This is really very practical stuff and at its simplest is being smart about how we think about sound attenuation, lighting and daylighting, thermal comfort, and empowering the individual to self-create micro-environments that are ideal to their happiness, efficiency, and productivity.

It should be noted that much of this is not new. We have understood that open plan environments are problematic for some time, and research has existed to support dating back to the 1970’s. We have entered a time, though, where companies depend on every advantage possible to be successful in the marketplace and as a result are increasingly accepting and demanding that there is a better way to do things, and that doing it better is in fact supportive of their business strategy and a competitive advantage. Now, the challenge is in convincing the design firms to change their approach, to invest in the research and understanding to redirect design efforts in support of the individual and to provide organizations with environments that are a positive influence and that enhance the success of the companies for whom they are designed. This is thinking beyond the aesthetic of environments, beyond the beauty of edifice, and understanding that the design is on behalf of interaction and in support of the people who will ultimately inhabit the space.

2 Responses to “Toward Intelligent Workplace Design”

  1. Jeff Coffey Says:

    A bit of a tangent, bear with me…

    Today the vast majority of us spend valuable time each day commuting to and from work. Many of us over an hour a day. Some of us, in certain areas of the country, much more than that.

    At the same time, many of us are conducting more and more of our social lives online through Flickr, Facebook, YouTube and all the others

    Here’s a crazy prediction for Google to archive for all time: this trend is going to flip. We will get savvy enough to coordinate and collaborate with our co-workers online (obvious) while at the same time we will yearn for a physical presence with our friends and families. Our ancestors will look back on our generation in befuddlement of our dependency (and priority) on cars for accessing workspace.

    No doubt that workplace design could use an overhaul. But I think it’s becoming irrelevant anyway. At least I hope so.

    Instead, let’s focus on casual social spaces. Starbucks was a great start, but I rarely have a conversation at a coffee shop without getting annoyed by something (crumbs, music, kids, lighting, constant distraction of in/out flows). It could be much, much better.

    You know where I bump into more friends and family than anywhere else? Target. I would kill for a nice space to relax for a few minutes and chat with an old friend at Target that didn’t have the glare of fluorescent lights or the smell of soft pretzels and nachos.

  2. John Schneider Says:

    Actually, I think you are absolutely right. I believe that this is a very viable direction for workplace design to go. My feeling is, though, that this is evolutionary and while we are most probably headed this direction… it is going to take awhile yet. This is mostly driven by generational differences in the workforce and by who currently leads most organizations of any size. As the time of the baby boomers and their legacy notions of corporate hierarchy and organization begins to sunset, so do arcane concepts of office organization, communication and environment. Bring on the alternatives.

    Younger, faster, newer companies stand to be the vanguard of the new ways in which we interface and create our office cultures. See you at Target.

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