Designing workplaces conducive to work


In an episode of the US sitcom Better Off Ted a staff survey revealed low employee morale. To solve this, the director Veronica calls Linda, an employee, into her office and asks what would make the employees happy. Linda says the company treats them all like drones and suggest Veronica let everyone decorate their cubicles to let their workspace feel more personal and individual. The next day Linda arrives at her cubicle to find it’s already been decorated with cats. Veronica explains that upper management believed it too risky to allow employees to decorate their own spaces and so each was decorated for them in one of four inoffensive themes: Green Bay Packers, cats, cars, and space.

This unfortunately is not so far fetched from some of our own workplaces where customisation, personalisation and social identity are often suppressed or discouraged. The norm is to assign people a generic workspace of sorts with a desk, PC, chair, small filing cabinet, pinboard and a whiteboard if you’re lucky.

We are all familiar with the Google style of offices – kooky interiors, in house chefs, gym fit outs, dream boy games rooms and the like to encourage creativity, innovation, engagement and collaboration. Closer to real life many workplaces are redecorating with bold colours, a variety of tastefully mismatching furniture and eye catching wall graphics in the hope of envoking a sense of fun and impacting organisational culture and collaboration in a positive manner. These are often architecturally impressive but functionally disappointing.

Macquarie Bank, at their new state of the art fit out at One Shelley Street in Sydney takes the ‘Google model’ one step further with the introduction of activity based working. From architects Woods Bagot:

In this new environment, no occupant has an assigned desk: rather the work space provides employees with a variety of settings that allow them to do specific tasks in tailored work settings. This design philosophy encourages increased collaboration and a more productive mode of working. An employee has an anchor point, which is allocated as their ‘home base’ and it is here that their locker and storage resides. The design embraces the changing needs of Macquarie staff (and other users) through the employment of technology (laptops, touch screens, USB ports, WiFi etc.) to enable completely mobile and flexible ‘real time’ work with colleagues.

It does also include some of that Google office style and feel as architects Clive Wilkinson describe:

Numerous work zones surround the atrium, designed to house 100 employees each in adaptable neighborhoods…The Main Street on Level 1 offers communal spaces that are highly conducive to corporate and philanthropic events and includes a café and dining areas. Within the office floors ‘Plazas’ were modeled after collaboration typologies—the Dining Room, Garden, Tree House, Playroom, and Coffee House, where cross-pollination among business groups is encouraged through spontaneous encounters.

This recognises that people’s work styles are changing and each have differing work preferences and needs – which can differ on any given day and according to the task at hand. Activity based working provides autonomy to employees to work in the space and manner of their choosing.

When determining favoured work styles I like to ask the question: how do you work at home? I listen to music, change rooms throughout the day, and my posture will vary from lying on the couch with the laptop on my lap to perching on a bar stool at my breakfast bench to sitting at a regular desk with an OHS style chair. It is in these spaces where I feel comfortable that I am most creative, productive, efficient and happy rather than my more sterile white work pod.

Activity based working as demonstrated by Macquarie Bank translates my home experience to some extent into the workplace. It allows people to work where the want, the way they want, according to the work they need to achieve.

The lesson here?
This era of mass customisation and individualism has not yet invaded the majority of organisations who still attempt to control the space and methods of how people work. People want to be able to create and customise their own workspace according to their preference, mood and need on any given day as much as they vary the music they listen to on their iPods. This requires a large shift in trust in organisations – where proximity to supervisors, clean desks, neat dress and strategy models plastered to pods does not make a good or a happy worker. Instead, design workplaces people want to work in, that are conducive to work. Create flexible workspaces where furniture is easily movable and adjustable into a variety of configurations suitable for both individual and collaborative work. If people are familiar and comfortable within their space it assists in inspiring motivation, efficiency, productivity, creativity, innovation…and work.

If you have other examples (and preferably an image) of other organisations using activity based working or flexible configurable workspaces I would love to hear about it.

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8 thoughts on “Designing workplaces conducive to work

  1. Woods Bagot do some amazing work. I worked for the VIC EPA in their new building which WB were involved in. The retrofitted space had a really great feel about it, built around a central light atrium. But I think one of the standout features was the internal staircase. You really have a better feeling of being connected to the rest of your workplace and the people in it when you can move between floors without taking a lift.

    I think it’s a shame that organisations are often not putting their money where their mouth and updating their spaces to reflect the innovative cultures they are trying to pursue. Space is so important for collaboration and creativity.

  2. Some days, I’more productive in an office environment. Other days I can concentrate more if I am able to work in a less restricted atmosphere.
    I think it has to do with the tasks at hand and how much collaboration or isolation is required to get the job done.
    I believe one day the office will be a thing of the past and a more flexible schedule/space will be the norm. Great post.
    I got a lot of inspiration for my commercial design project.
    Thanks!

  3. Couple of years ago, my VP proposed an office layout where individuals would not be assigned to any particular workstation. Every morning, employees will have an option to pick a workstation depending on the proximity of folks they will collaborating during course of that day. I loved the idea. Activity based working takes that idea one step further by completely eliminating the concept of a workstation. I like! 🙂

  4. Agree whole-heartedly. Office design is more than a coat of paint. My big office gripe is something that is probably subconscious to most – ceiling tiles! These drop-down ceilings in all offices scream transience to me. The ceiling façade is a constant reminder to me that the whole design is masking the cold reality. I would love to see office design pay more attention to the ceiling, as hard as it may be with air-conditioning, lighting and cables.

    I think the office design needs to be considered as a whole, from the organisational layout to the floor and ceiling and everything in-between.

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