How much design needs to go into an office?
In the very early days of Fuze we didn’t give a whole lot of thought to the physical design of our offices. When you are a bootstrapped startup, practical questions largely rule the day.
How many people can we fit into this space?
How much will the furniture cost?
Where are we going to bring clients and have meetings?
As we have grown in size and moved from smaller offices to larger offices, I have seen different workspace design ideas executed with varying degrees of success. I have come to appreciate that the design of your office and workspaces can have a big impact on the productivity of what goes on in the space. But I also believe that the communication tools you make available to your employees can have a significant and under-appreciated impact on which workspace designs will work best.
Designing and building out a new office is always a process filled with aspirational hopes. In my experience, that initial design enthusiasm often gives way to frustrations as the practical problems and employee complaints start coming in. In our most recent office space, we adopted an open concept workspace strategy for the majority of our employees. In living with this design for some time now, we have found that the amount of auditory and visual distractions is a problem for many of our employees.
Now, we are just starting to work on the design of our new offices spaces, and we’ll get another chance to get this right. Before covering our latest thinking on this topic, it is necessary to understand how we got here.
Earlier ideas in workspace design
In the 1950s and earlier, the design of many office spaces was a set of exterior offices along the perimeter of the space for managers, and a central bullpen of desks where the rank and file would sit.
Communication and collaboration between co-workers in this era was largely done in person. The bullpen concept had the benefit of facilitating idea flow and collaboration for teams. Managers liked this setup because of the sense of control they got from seeing all of their employees on the floor.
The big shake-up to this world came in 1968 when the designer Robert Propst working for the Herman Miller furniture company released Action Office 2, the first modular office furniture system. Propst’s vision was to use fabric-covered modular panels to create semi-private enclosures on the work floor. These modular sections could be combined in a variety of ways. Apparently Propst envisioned joining these panels at 120 degrees, creating a sort of clamshell space that had privacy but could also provide a view and plenty of space for each employee.
Customers loved the modular furniture, but quickly realized that if you attached the panels at 90 degrees you could fit many more employees in a given space. Thus the cube was born. Sources say that Propst wasn’t happy at all with what had become of his creation.
The cube came to dominate office work spaces for the next 40 years. A key benefit that the cube had was that it was well suited for the proliferation of business communications systems, particularly PBX systems. By the late 80s, most employees had a dedicated phone at their desk and were spending significant amounts of time on it. The cube afforded some degree of privacy for these phone conversations and a reduction in distractions for employees.
But the backlash against cubes could already begin to be felt. Critics have pointed out that cubes negatively affect health as well as idea flow and collaboration. Some of the most popular expressions of the dehumanizing aspects of cube life can be found in Dilbert comic strips, first created in 1989.
Our own workspace design experiences
When we moved into our current headquarters we transitioned from a cube environment to an open concept design. The open concept design minimizes walls and partitions with the intention of creating open spaces to facilitate communications and idea flow. It’s funny, because it seems almost to be a return to the bullpen design of the pre-cube environment. The open workspace design promises improved employee productivity by fostering of collaboration. This type of open design also looks good when photographed, and a nice draw when bringing recruits and potential candidates on a tour of the office. Supporting recruitment efforts is very important, especially as a fast-growing technology company. And behind closed doors on the management side, no one was complaining about the fact that we could fit more employees into the space than if we went with other setups.
Even with all these positives, it didn’t take long for us to appreciate some of the challenges that an open design plan created. In particular, it didn’t seem to work well for employees that were on the phone a lot: they created a lot of noise and disrupted those around them. Developers and other roles that didn’t need to be on the phone or in meetings found it hard to concentrate on their work because of the many distractions. There weren’t enough spaces to go to for private conversations and meetings. Conference rooms were perpetually booked, and the few common areas we had were often occupied all day. Over time, more and more people worked from home to “get things done.” We knew that we hadn’t gotten things right.
The future of work begs for a hybrid workspace design
Despite all the problems with the open workspace concept, the solution can’t be to retreat back to the cube. We knew that we needed to find ways to solve the shortcomings of our current open design. The main thing we got wrong was that we didn’t include enough alternate workspaces separate from the employee’s primary workspace. In the design for our next office that we will be moving into next year, we have significantly more space dedicated to alternate workspaces. Think informal meeting areas, couches, nooks and crannies to work done individually, phone booths for private calls, etc. This design approach which I’ve seen referred to as a “hybrid approach” seems to keep the benefits of the open concept design (fostering team collaboration), while at the same time addressing the main complaints with open concept (by adding alternate spaces for virtual collaboration or for privacy).
Having the right communications system is a key enabler for this hybrid approach. You need to give your employees software-centric communications tools versus hardware-based options. Why? So users can take their laptops and mobile devices and move from their dedicated workspaces to take advantage of alternate work areas easily (even if that means working outside the office).
The modern office space needs to have pervasive and high-quality WiFi networking instead of wired connections throughout the space. The point is that the tools need to be location-agnostic to allow for maximum flexibility within the workspace. Modern workers want to freely move around the office throughout their days.
To take a specific example, our employees are logged into our voice, video, messaging, and collaboration tools all day long. I often see teams permanently logged into group sessions all day long as they collaborate with other remote team members. These newer collaboration platforms, in a way, aim for the same idea that the open concept design was after – to facilitate the flow of ideas and collaboration, just in a virtual instead of a physical way. However, as exciting as these new collaboration tools are, it would be a mistake to assume that all interactions should be moved to software at the expense of in-person interactions. The best effect will always be achieved by combining a well-designed physical workspace that allows for in-person interactions along with the right communication tools that support virtual interactions when in-person ones aren’t possible.
We look forward to sharing more of our experiences as we design our new office spaces.