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Working Well

Finding the Right Balance for Employees in Office Design

Office design trends are increasingly leaning toward adapting a variety of closed and open spaces to appeal to many types of people and types of work. But are employees warming up to their new workspaces?

What’s your ideal work environment?

I posed this question to friends and family and got a variety of answers. A librarian’s assistant enjoyed her job mostly because in the hours spent shelving books, she could listen to music, did not have to interact with other people and was not bothered by the sun. Someone in the audio/video space sometimes felt disconnected from co-workers in his closed office but appreciated that space when knee-deep in the audio-editing process.

What’s your ideal work environment? Photo from West Elm.

Personally, I enjoy some mixture of outdoor space, where I can assess my notes in the sun, and indoor space, where I can lay out pages on a large table and make my own organized mess while I work. Cubicles are perfectly fine except for some tasks when it’s nice to get a change of scenery. Open workspaces are perfectly fine except for some tasks when I need seclusion.

Providing more variety in office spaces is a major theme in Workforce’s upcoming video story about modern workspaces. Human Capital Media video and multimedia producer Andrew Lewis and I visited the West Elm collection and spoke to Peter Fowler, the vice president of Workspace at West Elm.

Fowler caught us up on many trends in office design. Meanwhile, we also visited the Chicago office of health and wellness company Vitality, which modernized its office space two years ago. Todd Burman, vice president of quality, partners and risk at Vitality, talked us through their design process which meshed with many of the concepts Fowler brought up.

One important idea in these conversations was the rise of the open workspace — and how adopting that alone is not effective. In the extreme part of the open office trends, companies just took down walls, and eventually people figured out that didn’t work, said Fowler.

“At one point, we were getting rid of every closed office known to man,” he added. An exaggeration, yes, but the idea behind that holds true. Doing the total opposite of a closed office space isn’t the solution to problems of the closed office space.

The solution is balance, said Fowler. “Real estate is not getting any cheaper, and we have to be really clever with how we use space these days,” he said. So, as an employee’s personal space gets smaller, a clever solution could be to provide more spaces to work that fit different work needs, from quiet, more secluded spaces to open, collaborative areas.

Vitality strived to find the balance between a completely closed office and a completely open office when it redid its space, said Burman. His suggestions for balance were valuable to hear. Vitality utilized white noise makers and other sound abatement features so that people still felt some degree of privacy in open spaces. It also put people next to the resources that they would utilize the most. For example, it put wellness strategy managers, who spend all day on the phone with clients, next to small call rooms where they can have private conversations.

Another major takeaway from these interviews was the connection between design and employee well-being, which Workforce explored in our upcoming video story.

What’s been especially interesting, for me is comparing the ideas from these interviews with what studies have found. In theory, I like and agree with many of these concepts. But if a company is to shift their office design specifically to appeal to employees, the impact on employees matters.

For example, a recent report looked at the impact activity-based working environments, or ABWs, have on employee behavior. An ABW is “based on the premise that no employee ‘owns’ or has an assigned workstation. Rather, the broader workspace provides employees with a variety of predetermined activity areas that allow them to conduct specific tasks including learning, focusing, collaborating and socializing.”

This is like the extreme version of what Burman and Fowler discussed, where personal space was shrinking but at the same time employees had more times of communal spaces to choose from.

Leesman, an independent assessor of workplace effectiveness, found that many ABWs have employees with traditional work styles, meaning they stay in one place rather than use multiple settings. Yes, allowing all this alternative space was good in theory, but people might not be using these separate work settings as planned.

“This may be because the nature of their role doesn’t require them to work in a mobile way; or it could be because the physical, virtual and cultural infrastructure does not actively encourage the appropriate mobility behavior,” said research company Leesman CEO Tim Oldman in an email statement.

Taking all this into account, the question becomes, how do you motivate employees to use your new, modern space when you’ve gone through a redesign? What if their jobs don’t easily allow them to make that switch throughout the day? How can a company make something trendy and potentially effective for employees into something practical and actually effective?

I don’t have the answer, but I imagine that cultural infrastructure Oldman hinted at above plays a big role.

What has your experience been with open office plans and how employees have adjusted to them? Feel free to share in the comment section below.

[Please read: “Some Offices Designing Ways to Help Employees Move”]

Andie Burjek is a Workforce associate editorComment below, or email at editors@workforce.com. Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.