This post was written by Lauren Trees, a principal research lead at member-based nonprofit APQC, the world’s foremost authority in benchmarking, best practices, process and performance improvement, and knowledge management.
Executives often think they know what kind of office setup will make their employees happy and productive. Commercial architects have their own ideas about innovative office design, which may or may not align with leadership’s vision. Unfortunately, reconfigurations are disruptive and expensive, so the actual spaces that employees work in rarely reflect the latest in either management theory or cutting-edge design.
According to a new survey of more than 1,000 professionals by APQC, a majority of employees remain stuck in traditional closed-door offices and cubicle farms. Many survey respondents expressed dissatisfaction with their workspaces, but more importantly, they felt that deficiencies in their work environments were a drag on their productivity.
To address these problems head-on, leaders need to take advantage of smart design principles and new technology to increase flexibility, balance the need for quiet and collaborative space, and ensure they are meeting employees’ evolving expectations in terms of where and how work gets done.
Traditional office setups aren’t designed for modern work
Despite glossy magazine spreads touting innovative designs—usually focused on Silicon Valley tech giants’ penchant for moveable furniture, wellness rooms, and workplace arcades—traditional, 20th century office environments remain a mainstay of most people’s work experiences.
APQC’s survey findings reflect this reality. Most respondents report that they spend the majority of their time in traditional office configurations, be it a designated office with a door or a cubicle (Figure 1). This is particularly true of North American respondents, more than two-thirds of whom work from closed offices or cubicles. Twenty percent of global respondents (but only 10 percent of North American ones) have slightly more modern “open plan” setups where their designated workspaces lack walls or doors.
However, almost all the respondents work in static environments where the same physical spaces must be used for a range of solitary and collaborative tasks. Only a very small fraction—7 percent globally and 4 percent in North America—report having dynamic work environments where they choose or are assigned different spaces each day based on their schedule or planned activities.
Where survey respondents spend most of their work time
These office configurations may have been in place for many years, but they do not appear to be meeting employees’ current needs as well as they could be. Three-fourths of respondents said that a conducive physical working environment is a key factor in deciding whether to accept, keep, or leave a job. Yet when asked how much they agreed with the statement, “The physical environment in which I work helps me succeed and be productive” on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree), respondents gave a mean response of 3.54, which was the second lowest score across the 12 statements APQC tested on the survey.
The dissatisfaction was led by millennial respondents, 44 percent of whom did not agree that their physical working environments help them succeed and be productive. APQC suspects that, as more Boomers retire and Millennials become a larger percentage of the workforce, the level of frustration with current office configurations will grow.
Both closed offices and open spaces have proven imperfect in terms of ensuring that employees are both productive (better in private spaces) and collaborative (better in open spaces). Based on the survey results, employers may want to rethink the spaces they provide for employees and ensure that work environments are designed in a way that helps employees meet their daily goals.
Solutions must offer variety and flexibility
When asked what employers could do to make physical workspaces more productive, employees cited a range of diverse needs. Workers want more space for individual work and quiet reflection, but they also want more designated spaces for small-group collaboration, conversation, and networking.
The downside of open-office designs is manifestly apparent in the survey results. More than any other change, respondents expressed a need for increased space for individual work and quiet reflection (Figure 2). Demand for quiet space was particularly prevalent among Millennials, 78 percent of whom said their productivity would increase with additional access to such spaces.
Younger workers’ interest in quiet spaces may be a generational preference. But it is more likely due to the fact that, as relative newcomers to their organizations, they tend to work in noisier or more chaotic areas.
Changes that respondents believe would make them more productive at work
But noisy, distraction-filled spaces are not the only problem—employees also expressed a need for more collaborative space. Although a majority of respondents said their workspaces had sufficient conference and collaboration spaces for large groups of 10 or more, almost two-thirds said their productivity would increase if they had additional conference and collaboration spaces for smaller groups. A similar proportion of respondents felt that additional spaces for informal socializing, networking, and spontaneous conversation would make them more productive.
Of course, the nature of work varies greatly among roles—and even within roles on a daily basis. Most people’s jobs include a balance of collaborative and solitary undertakings. Organizations need to take this mix of diverse activities into account when developing spaces for employees to work and interact.
Adding designated spaces for solitude and small-group collaboration can help employees make the most of their time. However, when offices have space constraints (and they usually do), leaders may need to look at alternative solutions.
Recommendation 1: Invest in noise dampening for open spaces
As a baseline, organizations should be thoughtful about the layout and acoustics of work areas, especially if many people will cohabit the same space. Design research suggests that visual connection, combined with at least partial acoustic privacy (e.g., through the installation of sound-absorbing materials), may give employees the feeling of connection with their colleagues while blocking out ambient noise and allowing them to focus.
Recommendation 2: Consider reconfigurable and flexible spaces
A more innovative option is to use the same space in multiple ways, depending on the nature of the work employees are performing. Sixty-five percent of respondents said they would be more productive if their offices included more reconfigurable spaces where tables, chairs, white boards, and even dividing walls can be moved around to suit different activities. This type of flexible design can allow an organization to supply additional space for quiet work, small-group collaboration, or large meetings depending on the needs of the workforce on a given day.
In addition, half the survey respondents said they would be more productive if their offices had more spaces for hoteling, where unassigned workstations are shared among employees on an as-needed basis. Traditionally, hoteling slots have been used to house temporary workers, remote employees visiting the office, or others who do not have permanent workspaces.
However, some organizations are adopting this strategy more broadly by assigning employees laptops, cell phones, and lockers instead of desks. When employees arrive at the office, they are assigned or decide on a work area for that day based on what they need to accomplish, who they need to be near, and whether they would benefit from a quieter or more collaborative environment.
Recommendation 3: Let employees work remotely to minimize distraction
A final option is to loosen work-from-home policies so that employees can work remotely and minimize distractions when working on tasks that require deep, solitary concentration. Sixty-two percent of respondents said they would be more productive if they had additional flexibility to exercise this option.
A majority of respondents also expressed interest in the option to set aside specific times for individual and collaborative work, which would help them select an appropriate environment based on the primary task they’re engaged in.
Remember to be flexible
Leaders don’t need to anticipate every employee need in designing a workplace. Rather, workers usually appreciate settings flexible enough to be configured as needed. Instead of designing solely for collaborative or individual work, employers would best serve their employees — and thus attract and retain talent — by enabling them to minimize distractions or expedite teamwork based on the activities in which they are engaged on a given day.