Nobody starts a business and is immediately able to waltz into a shiny high-rise, demanding the entire 31st floor, with a gym and city views. Most of the time, successful ventures begin at kitchen tables or in garages, or at cafe tables as entrepreneurs use their lunch breaks to launch the next big thing.
Once you have staff, though, or need to meet with clients or investors, there comes a day you realise you need a proper office. Lucky for Australian entrepreneurs, there’s no shortage of desk space or approaches to designing an office and the culture around it.
However, when recent research into hot-desking — the sharing approach that’s found a home in countless co-working spaces — revealed “flexible” and “activity-based” office arrangements could actually hurt, rather than help, employee trust and satisfaction, it raised questions about whether the most popular office setups are the most effective.
This week, we’ve asked business owners about the rooms their companies were born in, and spoken to experts about what you should consider before outlaying a massive investment.
Put function ahead of pride
Research into hot-desking and “activity based” office setups, where there’s a variety of couches, office and communal desk spaces, has uncovered concerns about both staff morale and productivity with these two methods, depending on the nature of a team’s work.
Those forced to hot-desk can report wasting time getting set up everyday and not being able to find their colleagues, while formats that include lots of different desk and work setups can be too distracting for productivity, meaning that despite the fancy exterior, they might not actually deliver results because employees might be reluctant to change work locations.
With multinationals like Amazon pledging cutting edge workspaces and dog parks for when their canine friends come to work, it might be tempting to storyboard an office around great perks for employees. This approach isn’t necessary for success, though, with several businesses telling StartupSmart and SmartCompany their success came, quite literally, from their garages, as Adore Beauty founder Kate Morris recalls.
“It was freezing in winter and a sauna in summer, but it kept overheads low and the business survived,” she tells SmartCompany.
The online beauty retailer moved into a small North Carlton office space soon after, and 17 years after it founded, has a staff of 44 and annual revenue of almost $16 million.
Morris says in her experience, getting the basics right is much more important than spending big money on flash setups you don’t actually need.
“As a B2C [business-to-consumer] business, it’s hard to justify big office rents when they don’t deliver any extra value to the consumer … that said, of course you need your staff to be comfortable. Parking, heating/cooling, and access to coffee seem to be the main priorities!” she says.
Realise employees want a say
Director of workplace think-tank Reventure, Lindsay McMillan, says news of the perils of hot-desking are not so surprising given the concept was created not with workers in mind, but in the interests of conserving space.
“Hot-desking is a challenge — it was originally started when architects would say people would work out of the office, so if you have a staff of 50 but not actually 50 desks. The challenge for SMEs is often though, if not everyone is allowed to come and go, there’s a sense of, “Why do those people have the ability to come and go, and I don’t?”
In cases where your office setup and workplace practices make it hard for colleagues to see who is at work and when, emotions can run high.
“It’s a truism that resentment can emerge,” McMillan says, highlighting the need for any office setup to be decided in consultation with the people who will be working there — and giving them the most choice possible.
“The good news is that people that love that hot-desking, open plan, tend to be those that are gregarious, extroverted, who have a personality where they love being around people … where it doesn’t work well is when people need to concentrate,” McMillan says.
“I think it’s about matter of choice — there are people who like the open plan and those that need quiet spaces and are more project driven and introverted. Some buildings will be open, but have meeting rooms.”
Thinking about how your specific team will react to an environment is a good starting point, but you can also use forward planning to sell your entire business to other talented workers, says founder of Zen Space Desks Lewis Back.
Back’s business provides ergonomic office setups, and he says businesses are increasingly understanding that if they set up their workspaces well, this becomes an actual selling point for talented potential employees.
While canvassing the needs of current employees is always a good starting point for working out the basics of things like furniture, ultimately it’s up to the employer to make the decisions that will ensure office spaces will work for the long term, he says.
“There is onus on employers, both in relation to their ongoing success and the health of their employees, to take active steps to ensure these concerns are adequately addressed and often see new businesses investing in their future from day one,” Back says.
Performance is the most important thing
For startups and SMEs, the reality is that nobody is going to judge you by your space or your approach to it if your business results leave a lot to be desired, says McMillan.
“I think we can be seduced by looking at those bigger companies but the reality is that people in those organisations still need to deliver,” he says.
“And what you don’t tend to read in those stories [about Facebook’s office perks] are the heavy demands that are placed on people.”
However, Australian workplaces do tend to have one thing in common.
“The concluding observation is that for all of these elements that we have proposed and designed for better working relationships [through research], people are still very focused on screens,” he says.
Designing your space so people can communicate with each other, but also have a chance to get the job done, is more important than any individual features.
“There is no one model … and the current research is saying we’re now beginning to be confronted by a range of different workplace approaches, that didn’t even exist five years ago,” he says.