Designing spaces for today’s high-tech hobos

Image courtesy of Office Snapshots

Image courtesy of Office Snapshots

One of my favorite sessions from last month’s South by Southwest interactive conference was “The Productive Workplace: UX, Technology & You”. The panel included UX designers, workplace architects and an MIT technologist, all talking about how to improve today’s workspaces.

In the past few months, I’ve read a number of articles bemoaning the cubicle, or, as our own Barclay Pollak put it:

Do you know why I enjoy working from home or remotely? I’m not confined to my cube! Everyday 60 percent of Americans go to work and spend eight hours in a box. It shouldn’t come as a big shock that 93 percent of workers despise cubicles according to Yahoo! Finance. Nikal Saval, author of the book “Cubed” says the cubicle, “connotes dread, hatred, the terrible white collar life.”

But I’ve read just as many articles pointing out the shortcomings of the open-office environment:

Despite its obvious problems, the open-office model has continued to encroach on workers across the country. Now, about 70 percent of U.S. offices have no or low partitions, according to the International Facility Management Association. Silicon Valley has been the leader in bringing down the dividers. Google, Yahoo, eBay, Goldman Sachs and American Express are all adherents. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg enlisted famed architect Frank Gehry to design the largest open floor plan in the world, housing nearly 3,000 engineers. And as a businessman, Michael Bloomberg was an early adopter of the open-space trend, saying it promoted transparency and fairness. He famously carried the model into city hall when he became mayor of New York, making “the Bullpen” a symbol of open communication and accessibility to the city’s chief.

These new floor plans are ideal for maximizing a company’s space while minimizing costs. Bosses love the ability to keep a closer eye on their employees, ensuring clandestine porn-watching, constant social media-browsing and unlimited personal cellphone use isn’t occupying billing hours. But employers are getting a false sense of improved productivity. A 2013 study found that many workers in open offices are frustrated by distractions that lead to poorer work performance. Nearly half of the surveyed workers in open offices said the lack of sound privacy was a significant problem for them and more than 30 percent complained about the lack of visual privacy. Meanwhile, “ease of interaction” with colleagues — the problem that open offices profess to fix — was cited as a problem by fewer than 10 percent of workers in any type of office setting. In fact, those with private offices were least likely to identify their ability to communicate with colleagues as an issue. In a previous study, researchers concluded that “the loss of productivity due to noise distraction … was doubled in open-plan offices compared to private offices.”

So what’s the right answer? With more and more people telecommuting at least part of the time, the fact is that top talent now chooses to come into the office and that very flexibility is one of the key perks to increase employee retention. Office spaces need to be designed so that people don’t just want to come to the office, but also so that they can be productive when they need to come to the office.

A recent Harvard Business Review article highlights the link between workspaces and employee satisfaction:

At the global commercial real estate services firm CBRE’s new office in Los Angeles, there are no assigned offices or workspaces; instead, employees can choose from 15 different space typologies based on their activities and needs each day (from collaboration rooms, to comfy couches, to acoustically-treated, single-person glass enclaves.) To encourage this mobility and flexibility, CBRE provided employees with work-from-anywhere mobile technology and created a paperless office environment by digitizing almost all paper files. The firm literally and figuratively brought the walls down to encourage collaboration across divisions, increase productivity, and enable their employees to work in a whole new way.

Workplace choice is just one part of a broader culture of autonomy. With the support of organizational policy, and the right alignment of tools and technology to optimize productivity, it allows workers to optimize their own job performance, leaving them more satisfied, motivated, and creative – exactly the sort of employees you need to deliver high performance.

What I like most about the CBRE example is their idea of mobility and flexibility. It’s not just about working from home. Real talk here: most of us can’t always work from home. But we can redefine remote work. It doesn’t have to mean working from across town, sometimes it just means the ability to work from across the office. With VoIP technology, powerful laptops and high-speed internet, we’re not tethered to our desks anymore. We’re high-tech hobos, who can, and should, pick up and move to whatever space is most conducive to the kind of work we’re trying to accomplish at that moment. Designing our workspaces around that kind of flexibility is a key element of employee satisfaction and productivity.

About Kris Prusynski

Kris works on the Commercial Marketing team at TDS Telecom and helps TDS achieve their online objectives through digital marketing and website optimization. She has worked in the digital marketing space for over 15 years, in product categories as diverse as shoes, banking, beds and pig farming supplies (really!). Kris has both undergraduate degrees and an MBA from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and therefore bleeds Badger red. She’s a veteran blogger on topics ranging from digital marketing to Wisconsin fish frys to the sweet necessity of ugly office sweaters. Nowadays, you’re more likely to find her on Twitter or Google+ trying to decipher the mysteries of A Song of Ice and Fire. In her spare time, you can find Kris kayaking, hanging out at the dog park, or thinking about lawn care.

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One Response to Designing spaces for today’s high-tech hobos

  1. Russell Conner November 5, 2015 at 11:41 am #

    As an introvert, I find the office experience distracting and unproductive.
    The constant random interruptions while trying to do complex tasks or analyze complex problems makes working at home priceless.

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