Summary: Too many offices are designed for an era of work that no longer exists. Knowledge work benefits from creating a collaborative environment with the emphasis on connecting people, not hiding behind screens
Back in 2005, I wrote a blog post – 7 productivity tips that don’t come packaged with the software – to highlight that you can improve knowledge sharing and collaborative outcomes in ways that don’t always require digital technology. And one of those ways is the physical environment where people work. Over 10 years ago, I would tell clients about my then employer’s – Microsoft UK – best knowledge management tool. The atrium. At the time, virtually everyone in the UK was located out of three brand new connected buildings in Thames Valley Park. Having a centralised location that most people had to walk through to get from A to B encouraged serendipitous meetings. Providing a coffee bar and seating area meant people could easily stop and chat. My peer group would often agree to arrive early and have breakfast together. Measurable? No. Valuable? Absolutely.
Pixar is a more famous example of this philosophy. When they moved to their new headquarters, the building was designed around a massive central atrium (shown in the image above) for the exact same reasons. To encourage people to bump into people they might otherwise not interact with as part of their daily work. Apparently Steve Jobs even wanted there to be just one bathroom to further increase the likelihood of chance meetings and prevent people from being tucked away in silos.
Now we are beginning to see academic research published about the need to design office spaces differently to facilitate knowledge work. In the October Harvard Business Review magazine, there is an article – Rethinking the decision factory – exploring how knowledge work is more effective when organised and managed as projects rather than a standard ‘job’ and the need to create a different type of working environment to facilitate the varied interactions. This makes absolute sense to anyone involved in knowledge work but is not how the typical office is managed. Open plan offices have been introduced primarily to save costs rather than foster collaboration. Racks of identical desks in rows with cheap partitioning to help reduce noise. Even organisations with atriums and more modern working environments have tended to stick with standard desk layouts for where the majority of the working day is spent.
There are a string of connected trends that demand a rethink in the design of the modern workplace, such as:
- People receiving an education and awareness far above the level of work they will be expected to perform
- People used to being able to look-up answers and seek opinions instantly via mobile devices outside of work
- People becoming more vocal about wanting to make a difference and not just be a ‘number’ at work
- Organisations facing increasing market uncertainty that benefits those who can quickly adapt to change
So much talent is wasted within organisations because the office is designed around old-fashioned methods that worked when people were assigned the same tasks every day. As technology continues to automate the routine and repeatable work, it’s time to move away from the assumption that all a worker needs is a desk, chair and computer to be effective. Many organisations would benefit from creating different spaces for different activities. With more emphasis on connecting people with each other to converse and debate rather than sitting behind a screen looking busy producing reports that few people will read. The rise of smart devices means meetings can and should be more productive, with collaborative decision making replacing ‘listen and learn’. Offices also need to design around a more natural working environment. Look to sports and the arts for a reflection of how successful creative and knowledge-based work gets done – periods of intense activity in between periods of rest and reflection. It’s not about a constant average output.
Interestingly, just last week at Gartner’s Portal and Collaboration conference, Peter van Hees shared a slide showing one organisation that has been doing just this. Changing the office layout from generic workstations to a variety of specialised spaces to facilitate different aspects of knowledge work. With great results:
Source: Peter van Hees, Twitter
Imagine creating an office environment that made people 10% happier in their work, 10% more able to find and meet with colleagues, 10% quicker at finding information needed to make decisions, 10% more knowledgeable about factors that may influence the results from those decisions… you get the idea. Would the outcome be better or worse for the organisation? Too many offices are designed for an era of work that no longer exists.
- A digital dream factory in Silicon Valley – New York Times, January 2001
- Rethinking the decision factory – by Roger L Martin, Harvard Business Review, October 2013
- There are other ways to improve the productivity of your workforce than buying software! – Peter van Hees
- Proctor and Gamble office design – by Aedus
Featured image: Pixar HQ kindly shared on Flickr by Jiahao Chen