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Office design isn’t just about physical space

Written 26 February, 2018, 4 minutes to read

When it comes to good office design, beer fridges and yoga balls are not nearly enough. Why? Because “fun” design statements won’t work if your company’s outlook just isn’t very fun. We take a brief look at some of the strengths and pitfalls of 19th century office design to explore what actually makes a good office design, and why it goes far beyond the physical space.

The past century has witnessed a dramatic re-imagination of office design, experimenting with aspects of employee privacy, ownership and socialization. Some of the most significant include:

  • Early industrial offices: The harbinger of the modern open office space. Used from early 19th century onwards to reinforce a clear employee-employer power divide, with all employees organized in rows in one space facing their manager. Criticized for its high surveillance and low autonomy.

  • Private offices and cubicles: A hierarchical model made up of a mass of partitioned space with adjoining closed rooms for senior staff members. Adopted from the early 1960s. Criticized for creating isolation and division.

  • Open offices: Move from 1990s towards a flat-structured open model where everyone sits together, regardless of company rank. Intended to facilitate open communication and new interactions. Closed spaces tended to push “visibility” by using glass walls. Criticized for high levels of distraction, stress and interruption.

  • Co-working space: Emergence from early 2000s of communal office space. Small companies, start-ups and freelancers work together under one roof, often on the same floor in an open environment. Focus on unrestricted innovation and spontaneous discussion. Popular for inter-company cooperation and low costs, but limited room for a sense of brand identity or permanence.

So, which office design is best?

The short answer? **All of them and none of them. **

Although some people hate the separation of cubicles, others find comfort and focus between their felt walls. Similarly, some love the collaborative potential of open office plans, while others find them overwhelming.

We simply can’t blanket impose one office design option and expect it to work. Not everyone works the same way, and individual working requirements change all the time; some tasks involve team work and discussion, some require isolation or a quiet space.

People simply don’t work exactly the same way every day. A whole host of psychological and physiological factors make that impossible – so sometimes we feel like talking, sometimes we don’t.

A good office design responds and adapts to all our functional work needs without imposing one formation above the rest. But it takes more than just a good concept.

Good office design gone bad

If you want to know why a good concept alone doesn’t make a good office design, look no further than the sad fate of Herman Miller’s “Action Office” designs.

Their 1964 office design sought to reconceptualize office space by focusing on motion. Their brightly coloured standing desks were all about liberating convenience: outfitted with all the technology workers needed, these “communication centers” featured moving desk surfaces instead of desk drawers, so employees could leave work out for the next morning.

But while the awards rolled in, the money didn’t. Why? Because the design didn’t fit the demands of its audience: it was too expensive, space-inefficient and unregimented. So in 1967 they tried again. Action Office II saw more modularity but stayed true to its flexible ideals: furniture occupied a smaller space; interlocking walls provided privacy and a canvass for shelves, pinboards and decoration; everything was moveable.

Mission accomplished? Absolutely not. Companies adopted Miller’s dividers to break up the office floor and fit as many employees in as possible. The walls that promised individual autonomy became barriers, breaking communication and setting people into fixed spaces. And so the cubicle was born.

The problem here wasn’t so much the design, as how it was implemented by business leaders: it was adopted in direct opposition to what it embodied. The lesson? Good concepts die in the wrong hands; the best office designs require mindful, balanced execution.

Towards an inclusive office design

So, how do you avoid completely ruining a good design concept for your whole team? Instead of physical space, think in terms of “mental space”.

Do you give your employees room to decide and realize their perfect work set-up as their needs and tasks change? Do they feel they have true autonomy over their workspace to decide what’s best for themselves? And do they feel 100% supported and trusted to make those decisions?

Your office design should include spaces which fulfil the different levels of socialization, comfort, personalization and isolation we all need: quiet areas, clustered desks, collaborative meeting areas, private spaces, communal non-work areas. But it also needs the right company-wide attitude. Your people need to actually feel comfortable and fully empowered to arrange their own workspace.

You achieve this in small ways, ( e.g. letting people use headphones as "modern cubical walls” to signal they’re busy), as well as through establishing company policy (e.g. enabling people to work remotely when they need to without feeling guilty).

The right technology needs to be in place to enable your stance – whether it’s mobile devices for untethered working, or mutable opt-in digital communication. For example, at Timely we don’t believe you should be immediately available all the time. We use a range of tools and approaches to make sure people aren’t dragged out of flow unnecessarily. We have a single Slack channel to communicate if you're working remotely instead of a cluncky reporting process.

Our office actually feels more like a home than a regimented business space. Yes, there's an abundance of thick pile rugs, but it feels this way because we all recognize it as such. We all try and eat lunch together every day, but everyone remains the master of their own schedule. And since the office space is designed around our needs, we're always consulted on an potential changes.

The bottom line on office design

When you’re picking the furniture and the floorplan don’t forget what’s really material: creating the right attitude and framework so people feel able to choose the best environment for their work. Beyond beautiful furniture, the best office designs reveal a truly supportive company outlook.

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