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Leveraging Office Design for a More Productive—and Healthy—Workplace

Thursday, October 20, 2016
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The world of work is changing. Radical advancements in technology and artificial intelligence. Virtual workplaces and dispersed teams. Accelerated state of innovation. Pursuit by organizations to co-create unique value with customers. Constant war for talent and intellectual monopoly. This sort of constant evolution challenges workplace leaders with how to lead positive organizational change in a methodological but experimental way. (Learn more about creating a positive workplace in my article, “ A Playbook for Positive Organizational Change: Energize, Redesign, and Gel."

To build a more positive and productive workplace, managers need to become more aware of the impact that workspace design has on organizational health, learning, and performance, explains Edwin Heathcote in a September 2016 Financial Times article.

I’ve experienced first-hand some efforts by leading organizations to expand this area of study. For example, in 2015, I was invited to attend the Rotman Design Challenge (RDC), an annual international competition by the Rotman School of Management that brings together MBA students from top business schools around the globe. Teams participating in the RDC tackle business design challenges by applying creative problem-solving methods and strategies from both the business and design disciplines. At the most recent event, one challenge asked students to apply integrative thinking and business design to business development and processes at Steelcase, the worlds leading supplier of office furniture (and a company grounded in the research and understanding of user behavior). 

In addition, from February 2015 to May 2015, I participated in an online problem-solving event organized by the British Institute for Facilities Management and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. This virtual global hackathon, which attracted 291 professionals, concentrated on finding answers to critical questions: 1) How and where do we work well? and 2) What do HR, facilities management, and other executives need to do to make sure the workplace improves the quality of our work and working lives?  

Designing Open Space

Using open space, as opposed to traditional "walled" office design, is growing in popularity among many businesses. Some examples of the open space office trend can be found commonly in big tech firms, including co-working, lobbies as offices, innovation labs, hot desking, office as playground.  Case in point: Consider the open floor plan at Zappos. 

The online shoe shopping website based in Las Vegas, Nevada, has never had offices. And Zappos has good reason to avoid them. “A lot of the stuff we do, both from the Zappos perspective in terms of employees within the office and the city level, is really thinking about how you get people to collide more often. We prioritized collisions over convenience,” says Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh in a Zappos Insights blog. 

Indeed, there are many benefits to maximizing employee chance encounters—or getting people to “collide” at work. For instance, when executed skillfully, experts in a Harvard Business Review article, “Workspaces that Move People,” assert that open space can boost: 

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  • teamwork
  • innovation
  • communication
  • group efficiency
  • shared learning
  • decision making
  • knowledge transfer
  • cultural connections
  • rapid prototyping
  • cross-pollination of ideas.

Cutting Through the Noise

Open space office design is visually more attractive, but there are challenges, too—especially when it is instituted solely for form without thought toward function. One downside to open space design is that areas typically set aside for individual work are getting smaller. As a result, some important work is being conducted at home, after hours—and it is usually unpaid. 

What’s more, such openness can lead to issues with information control, stimulation control, and privacy, explains Christine Congdon and fellow authors in the Harvard Business Review article “Balancing ‘We’ and ‘Me'." Research by Ethan Bernstein concurs with this assumption. “Wide-open workspaces and copious real-time data on how individuals spend their time can leave employees feeling exposed and vulnerable. Being observed changes their conduct. They start going to great lengths to keep what they’re doing under wraps, even if they have nothing bad to hide,” writes Bernstein in the Harvard Business Review article, “The Transparency Trap.” 

Another issue that can come to the forefront with the move to more open space design is attention deficit trait (ADT), which is a common neurological phenomenon characterized by jitteriness, distractibility, or inner hysteria. According to insights described by Hallowell in the article “Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform,” instances of ADT among employees is growing in enterprises. He contends that these problems are aggravated by environmental and physical factors, as well as brain overload. 

Further, according to a study by Berkeley researchers conducted more than a decade ago, most employees find "speech privacy”—overhearing unwanted conversations or feeling that one is overheard—is the biggest challenge in modern workplace. Consequently, rather than fostering more meaningful conversations, open space may actually inhibit high-quality connections. In truth, noise is one of the most widespread sources of irritation and workplace stressors. 

Consider the case of Lewis, an executive based in Toronto. Lewis works in a mile-long space, with no walls or other divisions. He is surrounded by couches, coffee machines, a mini golf course, a billiards table, constant messaging and calls, co-workers chatting, neighbors engaging in phone conversations, and an array of rotating desks, standing desks, and treadmill desks (but no traditional desks). Lewis is forever multitasking. Plus, at the moment, he’s dealing with some relationship and financial issues. Between work and his personal life, Lewis is in survival mode, and the open space environment is not helping. He periodically blows up at others, and is unable to block out interruptions from colleagues, manage time well, prioritize, or focus in the open space environment.

Making Room for Reflection

Experts seem to agree that the best collaborative spaces still find space to support working and learning by self-insight. That is, people are able to slow down, reset, and check in with their own thoughts—something critical to psychological safety and high performance. For organization-wide workspace design to be a strategic tool for organization ecology, health, and growth, rather than merely an amortized asset, it should include dedicated “check-in zones.” Preferably, there are multiple check-in locations that power down office noise and support reflection—where employees can be by themselves, pursue quiet time to just think (free from co-workers), and recharge their mental circuits. 

Adding areas for reflection and personal time will not damage open collaboration. In my research, I’ve found it’s more likely that employees who practice ongoing reflective and developmental check-ins, which is best practiced in solitude, will lead by self-insight, energize co-workers, and increase organization effectiveness. Ultimately, these quiet areas paired with open spaces can help organizations transform into “knowledge-creative enterprises” that buzz with innovation and positive energy—and who are extremely good at organizational learning. Jane E. Dutton also offers some excellent ideas in Energize Your Workplace: How to Create and Sustain High-Quality Connections at Work.

Moving Forward

When it comes to strategic space planning, organizations should borrow from design thinking. By applying design thinking methods—like visualization, journey mapping, rapid prototyping, and experimentation—they can reinvent the workplace environment. Further, smarter workspace design should consider new metrics such as how much time employees engage in “collisionable hours” of work—hopefully, leading to increased, measurable collaboration. Other measures may look at and link to ethnographic research, artificial intelligence, unified cognitive science and social neuroscience, predictive talent analytics and decision science, psychographics, organizational network analytics, and sociometrics. 

As an aside, Lewis is not crazy, but he is certainly crazed and may feel overwhelmed. Of note, a workplace where employees have the opportunity to just think, learn, and detox (rather than be in a constant state of reaction) also means less after-hours or at-home work. No doubt, this development will have a positive effect on the family, which in turn will have a positive effective on the workplace. 

About the Author

Bart Tkaczyk, a Fulbright Scholar at the University of California at Berkeley, is the chief executive officer of Energizers, LLC, a strategic advisory firm. Working across industries worldwide, his executive coaching and management consulting assignments have included projects with AstraZeneca, Cisco Systems, The Estée Lauder Companies, Fluor, HP, Moody’s Analytics, and Oracle. He has published his award-winning research and thought leadership in leading business and strategic management journals in Canada, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States, including Arab Investor, Design Management Review, Development and Learning in Organizations, European Business Review, European Financial Review, Global Business and Organizational Excellence, Ivey Business Journal, Leadership Excellence Essentials, Rutgers Business Review, Strategic Change, Strategic HR Review, Talent Development, and the World Financial Review. Contact him at: drtkaczyk.com or follow him on Twitter: @DrBTkaczykMBA.

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