Shhhh … Don’t tell anyone, but as I write this post, I’m “hiding” in a remote conference room in our design firm’s open workspace.
Seriously, it’s moments like this—when I pine for privacy to think and write—that make me question the value of open-plan workplace design. Now, don’t get me wrong; an extrovert by nature, I enjoy the engagement in an open work environment. When I really need to think, however, I have to retreat to a quiet, private space. Only then can I actually contemplate and create.
As a specialist in integrating workplace design and culture, I’m routinely asked by clients to create an environment that can both increase productivity and promote collaboration and innovation. This is a tall order.
Open-plan design may inspire collaboration but it can also impede productivity. According to a recent New York Times article, noise is a serious problem in the open-plan office, and speech, because it is directly understood in the brain’s working memory, is the most disturbing type of sound. Likewise, when a conversation carries to an “unwilling listener,” his or her performance measurably declines in cognitive tasks such as reading, writing, and other forms of creative work.
In spite of this, market demands have all the major office furniture manufacturers, such as Knoll, feverishly rolling out solutions for creating a “collaborative workplace.” (And this is not to overlook how a weak economic recovery has every company also seeking to save space and money.) Among the countless different solutions are benching (think long dining tables with workers sitting across from one another) and smaller, panel-less cubicles.
So as workers forego their privacy, audibly and visibly, how can they get any work done, let alone increase their productivity? Moreover, how can introverts—those who by nature are energized by solitude—really produce in open workspaces?
At TED2012, author and self-identified introvert Susan Cain gave a passionate talk aiding the argument that today’s office design must still support contemplation and individual work. Cain acknowledged the value of serendipitous interactions that occur in workplace cafés and the like. Yet, since introverts comprise up to a half of society, she also contended that the workplace must consider their unique needs.
Even as an extrovert, I understand Cain’s point of view. Still, the privacy I require to write this post, for instance, runs counter to my clients’ cries for designing collaboration-driven workplaces. How can two opposing ideas—the need for collaboration and the need for privacy—be realized in a single design solution? One word: choice. Additionally, choice can be demonstrated in both the physical and cultural aspects of an organization’s work environment.
Having ample space for contemplation, collaboration, and casual collisions presents workers with critical choices. In other words, the physical workplace that offers many diverse settings for a variety of work needs is one answer.
At our company, an architecture and design enterprise, teamwork is tantamount to optimal performance. Accordingly, at our headquarters office in Milwaukee, we provide one private meeting space for every eight staff members. Additionally, we have several open spaces where more casual collaborations can occur, including a café, kitchen, and library, as well as wide corridors with alcoves. Many of the private spaces can be reserved, whether for group or individual work, while others are left open for immediate access. This combination of spaces provides plenty of opportunities for our numerous introverts (along with “situational introverts” such as myself) to retreat from noise and other distractions.
An organization’s cultural environment can also help meet workers’ individual needs for privacy. A culture that allows or even encourages employees to work off site when needed is one such example. Moreover, new technologies, such as video or Web conferencing, can support workers who want to work with more privacy off site yet still be accessible to others. A culture built on trust between leadership and employees is also important.
According to the 2012 State of the Industry Report by CoreNet Global, a corporate real estate association, the continuing demand for the workplace is to serve as a central place for collaboration. Similarly, The Smart Workplace in 2030, a report by global manufacturer Johnson Controls, predicts that the permanent physical location of work will be “The Hive,” a more agile workplace that responds to “a complex and competitive world focused on collaboration, innovation, and creativity.”
As long as leaders pay attention to workers’ diverse needs for collaboration and privacy, the future of workplace design looks bright. And now that my work here is done, I can relinquish the privacy of this conference room … and reconnect with my colleagues in our open workspace.