When we think about workspaces, we need to reckon with a fact that many decision-makers in this area would prefer not to think about too much: Nobody likes open office plans.
At the same time, we have to confront the reality that open office plans aren’t going away; they’re simply too economical for the enterprise. So what we need to do is to try and use this big, open space in ways that actually do function well for the people who spend their days there.
People don’t dislike open office plans because they’re so territorial that they insist on having four of their own walls around them while they work. It’s because they often can’t concentrate or focus in a noisy office where all kinds of people are doing all kinds of work everywhere they turn. Think of it this way: It’s probably not that hard to concentrate and do some thinking in the quiet car of your commuter train, even though you’re surrounded by other people at close quarters.
Here’s another way to think of it, as brought up in a session at our recent Enterprise Connect 2019 event. “All of us have dropped into a Starbucks to do our work,” said Ted Colton, vice president at Crestron. His point: Few spaces are more public than a Starbucks, yet vast numbers of people get meaningful amounts of work done there. The reason? They fit their work to the space—a space where a kind of social contract and common sense govern behavior. You wouldn’t hold an important financial or HR call in a Starbucks; nor would you randomly bother a customer working there.
For open office floor plans, thoughtful designers are coming up with ways to accommodate these most basic work needs—quiet when needed; a setup for collaboration at other points; ways and places for connecting with remote colleagues. In our Enterprise Connect session, Jason Moss, Global Head of Go-to-Market & Business Development/Video Collaboration at Logitech, cited Herman Miller’s concept of the Living Office. This idea likens the office to your home in one crucial way: It features different spaces for different purposes.
Sandeep Mehra, VP & GM of Webex Devices & Telepresence at Cisco, described how this sort of principle might have employees starting their days at a “touch-down point” at the office, then roving throughout the space during the day, settling in at different types of places depending on whether they have to write a report, attend a meeting, or make a sensitive phone call, for example. Another session panelist, David Howell, GM of Device Partner Engineering at Microsoft, described these different spaces as office “neighborhoods.”
There are lots of different ways of designating and designing certain areas for certain types or levels of activities. Here’s one interesting choice: In a conversation we had before the session, Sandeep told me that when he oversaw an office renovation in Singapore, he used the decision about how—or even whether—to deploy technology as a way to influence behavior within the space. For example, many offices have problems with people camping out in small rooms that are meant for one-on-one meetings or single-person phone or video calls. You can ask people not to do that, and maybe some will comply, but Sandeep went a step further and made the conscious decision not to deploy power to some of these rooms. His goal was to make it physically harder for people to stay there longer than they should.
In the end, ironically, the best way to use office space may be by thinking of all the workers on site as mobile—you can’t assume you know at any given moment where a person might be. That frees up individuals to go to the places within the office that work best for them when they’re doing a particular task.
This could be an adjustment for everyone: Workers may have always felt territorial about their desks, but it’s equally true that bosses liked to feel like they knew where they could find an employee when needed.
Ultimately, we have to make open offices work. “It’s a better way of working,” Microsoft’s Howell said— “If it’s designed right.”
I’d love to hear how you’re equipping and segmenting your office to help employees get work done. Drop me a line at [email protected].