Understanding work: the role of open spaces and space design

 [this post had been in draft mode for many months know. Somehow I never seemed to find the time to finish it. A conversation over at LinkedIn with John Stepper and Paul J Corney prompted me to finally finish it]

If you’ve ever worked in an open space environment you surely know how things can get pretty chaotic at times: phones ringing, people chatting, coffee machine working, constant interruptions. A permanent background noise, sometimes low enough not to bother but many times a real pain on focus and productivity.

Not all is bad, though. You happen to overhear conversations and jump in to help, provide insight, learn or share a word of caution. You make sense of what is going around in the office. You bump into other colleagues more easily taking a few minutes to talk about the weather, life, football, the weekend, that meeting you’re having next week or that report you found useful.

But research from design companies such as Gensler or Steelcase is increasingly showing us that we’ve probably been optimizing office space design too much for interaction and collaboration at the expense of focus and flow.

We often mistake interruptions for collaboration as the authors of Rework remind us:

“Interruption is not collaboration, it’s just interruption. And when you’re interrupted, you’re not getting work done”

Which is probably why measures to stimulate social interaction, such as the ones implemented by the president of a Manchester UK housing consortium as told in this recent story by the BBC, should be seen with a cautious view for the fear that we are stimulating not collaboration and interaction but constant interruption.

In a recent talk for The RSA, technologist Ben Hammersley addressed the impact of open plan offices and technology on our ability to get into a flow state and engage into problem-solving & creative activities, reflecting on both office design and technology “signals”, those constant notification signs and sounds of new sms, email, like, comment, share…

 “Technology is actively preventing you from doing good work… We have optimized staying on top of things instead of getting to the bottom of things.

Tomorrow’s Work. Why Yesterday’s Expectations Are Ruining Today’s Future from The RSA on Vimeo.

In his view, we need to reassess how we organize work – including the physical space and the role of technology – against what it is we are trying to achieve and know how best to use the tools.

But that also means that we need to get serious about understanding the complexity and diversity of work, especially for the so called knowledge workers, in this time of riveting change.

Scott Belsky wrote not long ago about the diversity of tasks, and corresponding work modes, that can fill a typical workday for many of us and suggests each of us would do a sort of work audit to better understand how we invest our precious time at work.

5 Types of Work (Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco)

5 Types of Work (Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco)


Steelcase built upon the work of Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi, authors of The Knowledge-Creating Company, by exploring the 4 types of work:

Focusing – Every worker needs some time that’s uninterrupted to concentrate and attend to specific tasks such as thinking, studying, contemplating, strategizing, processing, and other “head down” work best performed in one’s own mental “zone.”

Collaborating – Fundamentally, collaboration is about working with one or more people to achieve a goal, such as collectively creating content, brainstorming, etc. Ideally, all perspectives are equally respected, brought together to leverage the group’s shared mind.

Learning – Learning is about building knowledge. Whether in a classroom or a conversation with peers, learning happens best by doing and building on what’s already known. When thinking is made visible to others, learning is accelerated and becomes an integrated part of organizational culture.

Socializing – For knowledge to be fully internalized and useful, it needs to be socialized. When people socialize and work with others in both formal and informal ways, both learning and trust are built. Combining trust with an organization’s intellectual capital creates the necessary ingredients for innovation.”

And on the topic of understanding the role of physical space design in the present and future of work, Gensler’s Design Forecast 2013 named “Supporting Focus Work” as one of the trends at the workplace. In their words:

“Gensler’s WPI survey shows that individual focus work is the most significant factor in workplace effectiveness. WPI respondents rated it “most critical,” perhaps because—as the WPI data shows —if you support it well, then collaboration, learning, and social interaction go up; if you don’t, they go down. The challenge is how to support focus work in open, collaborative work settings.”

And in their Design Forecast 2014 they continued to explore these topics:

The revolution is about design. This is a time of profound change in how design supports work in all its varied forms. Old ways are being set aside as organizations look at work and its settings holistically.”

And went on to conclude that one of the trends for this year would be:

Effectiveness requires choice. The workplace suffers from a case of “opposites detract.” People need to collaborate and are hungry for places suited to conversations among a few people. They need to focus, but they also need to interact—conference calls, virtual meetings, and people stopping by. Look for activity-based choices, usershaped space, and furniture to calm distraction—look for balance.”

They further explored the topic of balance here.

Steelcase’s research reinforces these ideas:

 “Workers need choice and control over where they work, so provide a range of settings and acoustics for collaborative, social, learning and focused work. Consider a range of “I” to “we” settings in open and enclosed areas. Don’t forget that more-open spaces also need enclosed spaces for focused work, conference calls and telepresence meetings.”

This is in sharp contrast to what Hammersley has been witnessing:

 “offices and our culture within those offices are not a reflection of ourselves but a force upon us… The open plan office, and new technology, being selected and driven by managers and thus being more about surveillance and control than about empowerment and collaboration.”

The key, as many things in life, is balance and choice. For as long as we keep thinking that the one size fits all model of work and workplace design will work, it most certainly won’t. 


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