Working to plan: Why some workplace designs succeed and others are an expensive waste of time

Working to plan: Why some workplace designs succeed and others are an expensive waste of time

The atrium at Google's Dublin Office.

There was a time, about a decade ago, when some companies started waxing lyrical about the use of exercise balls as office chairs. But no one seems to have said anything since, so either the employees at those companies are happily bouncing at their desks or have quietly exchanged the inflatable spheres for conventional office chairs.

If the results from ergonomic studies have played any part, the latter is more likely to be true, but you can see the original attraction to exercise balls. Not only did they seem better for workers’ backs, they were also cheaper than buying premium office chairs. It turned out that only some employees—those with certain existing lower back conditions—benefited from the trend.

The same mistake happens over and over in workplace design; a fad takes hold and only after enough organisations have joined the bandwagon does a university or research group decide to investigate claims. In many cases, the design is a theory and the workplace is an unsupervised experiment.

Businesses take a long time to see if some claim made at the design stage really does increase productivity, or collaboration, or concentration, or creativity. So what can your company do now to make sure a workspace design is sustainable and not just an expensive waste of time?

Fit out to work

Activity based workspaces (ABW) has become a popular design trend in recent years, but not all organisations are yet to see the benefits of the increased collaboration and productivity this style of workplace is supposed to enhance. This may be because the change management from conventional layout to ABW has not been handled well or simply that ABW does not suit the industry or the style of work to be performed.

As with any design, form must follow function. A landscaping business, where teams work in clusters to contribute to a project, is perfectly suited to the collaborative space ABW provides. A lawyer or accountant will probably find a shared space like this distracting and unproductive for their line of work.

ABWs therefore need to take into account different uses of space at different times for different workers, while recognising that all of these activities are unlikely to occur at a single desk. This might mean a mix of large shared spaces for collaborative work, smaller quiet areas for employees to focus on individual tasks and breakout areas for social interaction and more creative uses.

Hot or not

Hotdesking suffers from similar issues as ABWs as some businesses fail to reap the benefits from this flexible style of workspace.

Hotdesking developed after some bright spark noticed that offices were never at capacity on any given day as workers spent time at client premises or worked from home. To save on overheads, hotdesking requires employees never have a set work area but instead take whatever is available that day, to increase workspace efficiency. 

Workspace efficiency, however, is not the same as workplace effectiveness. The most common frustration hotdeskers have is with inadequate IT infrastructure not coping with the constant relocation of workers. The second is a lack of personalisation, which affects an employee’s sense of belonging and engagement with an organisation, and in turn, loyalty and performance. 

As with ABWs, a transition to hotdesking needs to be considered in tandem with the style of work being performed. Hotdesks are great for a mobile, on-the-go style team working flexible hours and not so good for staff tied to certain infrastructure or employees who need visual planning aids.

Stand and deliver

Sitting, like carbs, is now entering every health-conscious person’s endangered list and not without cause.

As any chiropractor will tell you, the human body is not designed to sit for a third of a day and sedentary behaviour is now coming under scrutiny. Standing desks, said to boost everything from metabolism to productivity, have been a popular response. Introduced without due consideration, however, and instead of improving posture it can lead to hip, knee and ankle problems.

Like any change, moving from sitting to standing desks needs a transition period and employers must ensure the design accommodates this, from variable height desks that quickly and easily move from sitting to standing without loss of productivity, to technology that allows for different positioning. Don’t forget that standing also requires comfort features such as a padded mat to stave off fatigue.

Understanding how your employees work and what might enhance their performance is an essential part of any workplace design change. The most important thing you can do is secure their buy-in by including them in the planning phase to identify their needs instead of simply ordering a fit-out in line with the latest trend. That way, your workplace design will be a better fit for the work, not the fad of the day.

Marc Levin is co-founder and chief ergonomic officer of Jason.L, a third generation provider of office furniture as well as office fit out services for SMEs.

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