Smart companies understand that workspaces are a business tool. An office environment reflects and reinforces a business’s core values, through the placement of different teams and functions and design elements that reflect culture, brand, and values.
For example, we’ve seen an explosion of open office layouts, in part because openness, transparency, and collaboration are some of the attributes companies strive for today. Sometimes these designs work well; however, research shows that this collaborative push may be too much of a good thing. Increasingly, people are rediscovering the value of quiet and focus and asking for spaces where they can concentrate.
In fact, collaboration and quiet are two ends of a continuum with a range of in-between work modes — each with an optimal setting. The best way to identify these is to identify everyday work patters and micro-moments that correspond to office design decisions.
This is easier said than done, however. It’s one thing to note a person working solo in an otherwise empty seminar room, or a group of people huddling around someone’s desk because a conference room wasn’t available. It’s quite another to imagine what an alternative, effective scenario might look like.
To get everyone speaking the same spatial language, we created a Collaboration and Quiet index consisting of seven attributes that can more concretely enable people to match a desired way of working with a physical space: location, enclosure, exposure, technology, temporality, perspective, and size.
To better understand how these work, try the exercise below on your own or with your team. Pick an example of a work activity that happens regularly, like a daily or weekly standing meeting. Using the continuum below, try to identify the ideals for your particular situation (they will likely fall somewhere between the two extremes on either end). For the attribute “location,” for example, you could ask your team: Is the meeting best facilitated if it’s held in an in-demand central meeting room or near where other people are likely to gather? Or is it best facilitated closer to your team’s work area and away from where you are likely to encounter others?
When you’re done, consider all your answers collectively — this can help give you the language to identify your needs beyond, say, “We need more collaborative meeting space.”
To illustrate how this all plays out on a larger scale in real companies, here are two mini case studies from businesses we’ve worked with.
Adobe’s New York office had been growing due to its acquisitions of smaller technology companies. And as a mature company in a fast-growing sector where the competition for talent (especially in New York City) has led competing firms to heavily invest in their work settings, Adobe saw an opportunity to rethink the future of its Midtown Manhattan office.
At the same time, the company knew they had some challenges. For one, employees in the Midtown office had stopped using the space on a regular basis, for a variety of reasons. Many were opting to work from home or elsewhere, and the company had a fair number of employees working remotely across the globe. As a consequence, even those who did work Midtown were often spending much of their time collaborating virtually.
The space itself wasn’t giving people a compelling reason to come to the office unless they had to, either. The layout was consumed with individual offices, cubicles, and few amenities. Furthermore, people from newly acquired divisions began working side by side, but brought legacy work culture and space needs along with them — and they often conflicted.
Instead of redesigning their office under the blanket statement of “we need more collaborative space,” Adobe asked us to help them figure out what employees specifically needed to support their daily work. To support Adobe’s analytical and data-driven culture, we worked closely with their real estate team, which collects and analyzes data about their workspaces, and got feedback from employees on the seven attributes above as a key part of planning process.
To create more of a “destination” work environment, we learned that employees wanted spaces that were transparent and provided a greater perspective to other activities in the office. They valued purposeful spaces that provided plug-and-play technology so that information could be more easily shared among team members, and to better support virtual collaboration. And people wanted more meeting spaces that could be used quickly and informally.
But while they valued more openness, the survey results indicated that they didn’t want the work environment to feel like a start-up. Boundaries that delineate among activities and teams were still important to them. These results were later validated through subsequent meetings with Adobe staff in order to further refine the requirements.
The design of Adobe’s Midtown New York space is underway, and there is excitement about where it’s heading. Because of its adaptation to an online visual format, our methodology was able to communicate to Adobe team members in a way that aligned with how they engage their end users — through imagery and through analytics.
Since its 2005 founding, the marketing company had grown to over 1,100 employees. The New York headquarters housed over a third of its workforce, including developers, the sales team, operations, and leadership. Yodle’s developer teams typically worked on a number of rapid projects that require easy coordination and the visualization of timelines and tasks.
The company wanted to preserve the energy of a start-up while creating sufficient space to accommodate future growth. The old, now-crowded space had evolved in an ad-hoc way, and people were packed into nooks and crannies. Teams were separated with no central places to meet, while executives remained isolated in private offices. The scrappy functionality of the space culturally constrained their evolution from start-up to mature business.
After undergoing a rapid visioning exercise using the seven attributes to define and differentiate the different work modes for each of their teams, several surprises emerged. The developer teams realized that they were more interactive than they initially imagined, but also needed quiet space to churn out quick turnaround projects. To address this, the final design ultimately incorporated a “quiet car” — a semi-enclosed area in a quiet corner of the floor where they could take their laptops and work without disruption on these intensive projects. This setting also visually signaled that people were not to be disturbed when working in the space.
Another surprise was the realization that the company needed a town hall space and central gathering area. The final design incorporated a large feature stair that was wide enough to provide stadium seating for larger gatherings. Despite mixed opinions and initial skepticism among staff about the usefulness of the feature stair, it has become one of the most actively used settings in the entire office. Managers note that the fact that people linger there after meetings has increased inter-group learning. As word about the new space has spread, the number and quality of job applicants has increased.
The challenges that Adobe and Yodle faced are common, and illustrate how projects can begin with a statement like, “we need more collaborative space” and conclude with a much deeper story about how people work the way they do, and why.
To begin the discussion in your organization, in addition to analyzing the seven attributes with your employees, company leaders should also ask themselves the following questions:
- Who are our employees, and who will they be in the next 5 years?
- Who else uses our space (visitors, clients, community members, etc.), and why?
- How do we want clients, prospective hires, or other visitors to perceive us when they enter our space?
- To what extent do we value flexibility and choice over how work gets done?
- Are certain modes of working seen as a privilege only available to a select few?
- What current workplace behaviors would we like to change?
- What are the most satisfying attributes of the existing workplace that sustain productivity?
- If people aren’t regularly coming to the office, do we understand why not?
The design and outfitting of workspace is a major capital investment for any organization that can affect a number of business outcomes, including productivity, employee satisfaction, engagement, talent recruitment, and brand impact. Given the myriad ways to design and plan a space, leaders should approach workplace design in a strategic way. Imitating the latest fads start-ups are adopting won’t necessarily get you the results your company desires; asking the right questions — and, above all, listening to employees’ answers — will.
Credits Harvard Business Review