Room for improvement?

How funky is your office? Are you working from one of those desperately trendy spaces – you know the sort of thing, chairs and walls in primary colours, posh wallpaper, or maybe a neon slogan urging you to “Go for it” or “Live Life”?  Do you have access to table football or a mini pool table sited conveniently near the kitchen? Is your office china part of an artfully mismatched, fabulously retro set of ‘70s greatest hits? Is there a drinks trolley that comes around mid-afternoon on a Thursday or Friday to make the fact that you’ll be there until 8pm just that little bit more palatable?

If you can answer yes to most of the questions above then congratulations, you’re probably working in a communications agency. Or perhaps an internet pioneer that’s hit the big time and is now coining it in every time you hit the search button in a desperate quest to find a bar that nobody else has heard of.  Anyway, whether you’re working in an office that’s been designed to death or somewhere that could just as easily be an insurance brokers as a creative agency, chances are you’ll be working in an open-plan environment.

Open-plan has distinct advantages when it comes to efficient use of the space – not least because you can accommodate greater numbers of staff than within individual offices, but there are also cultural and developmental advantages. So long as you’re flexible enough from an admin and operational perspective it’s possible to rearrange seating plans to ensure that someone struggling with a specific task is seated next to someone who excels at it. Or if you spot some office politics starting to emerge, it’s simple enough to move people around.  So far so good.

How about grouping people by client? Or by seniority? Er – maybe not such a good idea after all, unless you want everyone working on a specific client going stir-crazy from boredom, or all your account executives plotting a mutiny. Maybe by task then, so that the people who want quiet can all sit together quietly and the people who need a bit of banter to get them through the day can whoop it up in a corner to their hearts’ content?

Either way it’s not easy. A recent What Workers Want survey (YouGov for the British Council for Offices, sponsored by Savills), showed that whilst 75% of participants valued a quiet space for focused work, only 30% were actually satisfied with its provision in their offices. Researchers from the Auckland University of Technology in Australia have just released data that showing that as the number of people workers have to share office space with increases, the less productive and friendly they become.  As people become ever more closely co-located, the noisier their space becomes, the less control they have over their individual environment (I’m thinking here especially of hot-desking), and the harder it becomes to concentrate and deliver great work.

I am a great believer in the impact that physical space has (positive and negative) on people’s engagement, commitment and investment in their work.  There are times when it’s important for teams to be physically together, and times when for maximum creativity, quiet space for thought is crucial. The latest approach to office design speaks to the need for a rethink when it comes to open-plan working, emphasising the need to ‘sneak in’ more quiet space and more privacy, whether that’s using bookshelves or plants to create separation and screening, or creating more bookable spaces to allow room for people to think.

Why does this matter? Well, our businesses are built on creativity, and a pool table and neon sign just aren’t going to cut it if what our people really need is quieter, less crowded spaces in which to think and be inspired. It’s hard to hold people accountable for doing their best work if we don’t hold ourselves accountable for creating the right environment for them to work in.  Food for thought.

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