The move towards flexible, human-centred workplaces

Hand in hand with a shift towards flexible working practises, go flexible working environments; physical spaces that are increasingly being designed around the comfort and happiness of the people using them, in order to improve productivity, innovation and employee retention.

In the 1960s, when Robert Propst and George Nelson, created Herman Miller’s ‘Action Office’, they inadvertently led to the creation of what is now considered to be the worst kind of office layout; The Cubicle. The Cubicle was originally designed to offer employees a greater sense of privacy and control over their surroundings. They were meant to be inviting spaces, often arranged in a clam shape, where colleagues could comfortably stop by for an informal chat. A key feature was to encourage people away from sitting in one position throughout the day, with options for adjusting their workspace for comfort, such as changing desk height in order to stand. In practise, office designs have ignored the ideas of Robert Propst, and cubicles are used as a method of cramming as many desks as possible into a space, usually arranged with walls at 90 degree angles. They are often hated by their occupants, who usually sit with their backs exposed in the cubicle entrance, leaving them feeling tense as they are unable to see people approaching. The majority of cubicle inhabitants also have no access to views of nature or natural light.

Then we have the open plan office, with its roots in early 20th century office design — giant spaces resembling assembly lines. It became firmly established in the 1980s, and is also proving to be unsuitable for many organisations. The idea behind open plan offices was that without physical barriers, employees would feel more camaraderie — they would be more inclined to have informal conversations, ideas would flow across the space, and innovation would come about due to serendipitous conversations or observations. In practice, workers can feel as though they are being watched, and are driven to appear busy at all times — all while experiencing interruptions, high noise and stress levels, and a lack of privacy. The combination of these factors contributes to high cognitive load and low productivity. You only have to look at the number of employees in an open plan office who have their headphones on to see that people are retreating into their own space by whatever means possible.

In 2016, Design and Architecture firm Gensler conducted a ‘UK Workplace Survey’. They surveyed over 1,200 UK office workers in 11 different industries, and found that 70% of workers have no choice in when and where they work. The majority of workers in the UK work in open plan office environments, which do not support the wide ranging activities that people undertake in the modern workplace. It’s no surprise that productivity and employee satisfaction are suffering as a result. Government statistics state that more than 130 million days are being lost to sickness absence every year in Great Britain, and working-age ill health costs the national economy £100 billion a year. Addressing the workplace environment could help to improve productivity, creativity, and job satisfaction, as well as reducing absenteeism.

So, how can the workplace support employees, and enable them to effectively undertake their work?

At Modern Human, we undertook a project that involved taking an in-depth look at the studying experience of students and researchers at the University of Cambridge. We found that there were a number of influencing factors in an individual’s choice of working environment; activity, length of stay, and wellbeing — put simply, people seek out the right environment for the activity they are undertaking, and the level of intensity required for optimal concentration and productivity. The intensity of workspaces can be graded from high intensity spaces, which have very low levels of movement and noise, such as a library, to low intensity spaces, which are more relaxed and comfortable, such as a coffee shop. What we found is that people maintain their concentration and productivity if they have the ability to move from space to space, allowing them to “switch gears”, and maintain comfort. This idea of ‘Activity Based Working’ has been around since the 1970s, and is based on the premise that a successful work environment is designed around the demands, needs and behaviours of the employees who will be using the space. A single organisation is likely to have need of a range of different spaces — collaborative spaces for meeting with other members of a team, private spaces for focused work and phone calls, and social spaces for more informal interactions are just a few examples of the different environments that may be utilised within a company.

In addition to providing different environments for different aspects of work, our study at the University of Cambridge also found that people benefit from a variety of different aesthetics across the spaces they are moving between, allowing them to diversify their day. In particular, we found that areas in which elements of nature were incorporated were particularly popular — using plants to block line of sight in study spaces vastly improved occupancy rates, as students felt they had greater privacy and personal space. Our findings are supported by a number of recent studies into the benefits of biophilic design, which aims to incorporate elements from nature in architectural design. Studies have found that workers who are exposed to a higher level of contact with nature were 15% more productive, compared to those with minimal contact. People have also been found to have fewer negative emotions, improved short term memory, and reduced blood pressure in a biophilic environment. The likes of Apple, Google and Amazon are investing heavily in Biophilic elements in their workplaces.

R/GA in New York had an interesting challenge when it came to rethinking how their space worked. Starting out in a single building in the 1980s, they had taken additional buildings along the same street as their numbers grew. While these buildings had close proximity to one another, they were very much seperate, resulting in a broken and disorganised arrangement, that wasn’t working for their employees. They decided to invest in a new 200,000 square feet space, that could fit all their New York based employees on one site, and enlisted the help of Architecture firm Foster + Partners. They set about to rethinking how their employees came together, and how each department within R/GA could begin to improve how they collaborate and innovate.

R/GA were very cautious that they needed to get the spaces right, as they needed them to work years into the future. They conducted utilisation studies to record and analyse how people were using their existing work spaces, recording activities and occupancy levels. This would help inform what spaces their new building would need to include. They wanted to improve how multi-disciplined teams worked together, and studied how people from different teams interacted with one another, and how often they needed to interact, this would go on to inform the location of specific departments. Employees were surveyed about what was important to them when it came to their place of work, they reported that they wanted variety and choice in their work spaces, natural light, informal collaboration spaces, and privacy when they needed it.

Due to the huge floor plan of their new office, it was not possible for everyone to have the natural light that had been widely requested, so a system of lighting was used that helped to allow for peoples circadian rhythm, ensuring that the light at the exterior of the building was mirrored artificially on the interior, meaning everyone is getting the same quality of light, wherever they are in the building. In their existing buildings they found that large spaces had less occupancy than smaller rooms, so aimed to create a series of booths, of different sizes, targeted towards a different types of interactions, whether they be, a quick huddle space, a war room, or more formal client meeting space.

R/GA wanted to empower people by allowing them customise their workspace, to their needs, providing them larger than average personal workspaces, with sit-stand desks, and options to move furniture, and walls. Reflecting strongly the ideals that Robert Propst expressed when he created ‘Action Office’, way back in the 1960s. Ultimately when people began to occupy the new office, employees instantly found collaboration was more natural, and that serendipitous conversations happened more easily.

Providing a flexible workplace is not just about people sharing the same physical space, in our connected world we can offer a variety of options for where, and when people conduct their work. One way is to utilise the innovations in technology that we have experienced in recent years. The ubiquitousness of wifi and good mobile data coverage allows us greater connectivity with our co-workers, even when not sharing a physical space, and allows employees to access emails and files from just about anywhere. Co-workers can also easily communicate via video conferencing, or by using instant messaging tools such as Slack or Skype. With these advances, the need for colleagues to remain in one area in order to maintain communication is greatly decreased — employees can work in the space that best suits their particular needs at any given time, all while maintaining close contact with colleagues working in a different space.

Despite all that technology can offer remote workers, and freelancers (numbers of which have been on the rise since the economic downturn), people still believe in the office as a feature of work that is here to stay, in fact they are actually seeking out the office environment, this is evident in the rise of co-working spaces — spaces where individuals, and businesses can rent desk space, sharing a range of facilities with other tenants. Not only are people choosing to go to work in an office, they are actually paying to do so. A key reason people are seeking to use co-working spaces is that, while people may enjoy freedom of working for themselves, in a place of their choosing, we are naturally social beings, and being able to chat in the kitchen over a coffee, going for a pint after work, and feeling part of a community are important to us. As a result co-working spaces have been the fastest growing workplace movement of the last decade.

The office of the future, is one that responds to people; to their needs, their well-being, their quirks, and their personal control. These offices can continue to evolve and respond over time, depending on the work that is being undertaken, and the individual who is undertaking it. These are not things that can be manufactured, or controlled by outside forces, and managers, instead we need to provide a framework, and flexible elements for people to create their own space. By investing in a flexible approach to workspaces, organisations can empower their employees — reducing absenteeism, increasing employee retention, and improving productivity. While many employers are beginning to realise the importance of creating environments that work with the needs of their employees, there is also some way to go before we leave behind workspaces modelled around the assembly lines of the early 20th century; purely focused on the business goals of an organisation. There is a careful balance to be met between employee well-being and business needs, and unfortunately there is no one-size-fits-all approach to this problem. Different organisations have different requirements, so tailored policies and plans need to be created to formalise flexible working, and changes to workplace, in order to sustain flexible workspaces for the long term.