Note: this is the second in a series of four blog posts on transformations in the workplace environment. Click here to read article 1 of 4 first.

Proximity and desks were the original collaborative productivity ‘technology’ – fixed locations helped people find each other and work together. The demands of knowledge work today, however, have fundamentally changed the function and configuration of space.

Innovation-driven work requires teams to work together intensely. This could be for short projects (weeks or months), and if those teams are many floors apart, or worse, in separate buildings, they will lose valuable time coordinating, moving and meeting.

In response to these new modes of working, the most significant transformation in workplace design (since the cubicle) is flexible office configuration. There are many variations and associated concepts – from “hot desking,” to “open floorplan,” to “activity-based working.”(1)

At its core, the flexible workplace is a shift away from assigned desks
 and private offices, incorporating shared productivity tools (meeting rooms, breakout spaces, phone booths) and shared amenities (kitchens, greenspace, gym). The most central aspect of the dynamic office, however, is collaboration. Working together is how we work today, and it is directly related to workplace design.(2)

Some critics cast the flexible office as a trend, but over 60% of companies acknowledge that digital working practices are affecting real estate portfolios, design and management today.(3)

Another large-scale, long term study of the most innovative employees found that they work away from the office over 26 percent of the time.(4) Working away from a desk has been found to increase productivity – a Harvard study found an uptick of 13%. That equates to about one additional day per week.(5)

But simply giving employees more freedom to allocate their time may not be an effective strategy. Default office spaces will be neither effective nor attractive (that 26% might creep upward, or time away might be less and less productive).

The largest independent study of workplace design found that activity- based working does in fact deliver on its claims… provided that the design is effective. The report also highlights the challenges of flexible offices, and the dangers of a more dynamic workplace – if poorly designed, they can default to chaos.(6)

In a flexible office, an employee of a large corporation might spend a staggering amount of time each day looking for the best space to work and changing location over the course of the day. Furthermore, finding colleagues for a meeting introduces yet more lost time, and lost productivity.

This lost value might be obscured in a number of ways. Productivity was
 an easy problem to solve in the era of manual labor and factory lines, or even cubicles, but it is much more challenging for today’s collaborative and creative employee. A recent study published in Harvard Business Review sought to disentangle enterprise productivity from individual productivity.

 

“Knowledge work gets done through networks of individuals working together with frequently changing goals and varying degrees of context… How can you truly understand what your employees are doing at an enterprise level if you rely on a set of backward-looking, inflexible financial and operating metrics delivered to you weekly, if not monthly or quarterly?”

Their analysis finds that in a multi-billion dollar technology firm, over one million hours were not associated with enterprise value – the equivalent of 500 full-time workers – yet every employee was doing his or her job well.(7)

At the center of this paradox is workplace design. When each employee reported at 8am to their dedicated desk, it was easy to see when they were or were not doing their job. Today, as employees move between locations, desks, activities and meetings, it can be difficult to identify whether flexibility is a collaborative tool, or a waste of time and energy.

What problem is the flexible office really solving? A large-scale study found that half of workers cite lack of sound privacy as a problem, almost a third cite lack of visual privacy as a problem, and a mere ten percent cite ease of interaction with colleagues as a problem.

This amounts to a massive dilemma of workplace design. How to make an office that supports collaboration and engages a dynamic workforce… and at the same time, eliminates frustration and inefficiency? In other words, how do we move beyond the ‘open office’ hype, to create a contemporary workplace without the frictions that usually come with flexibility?

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