The problem with most workplaces is that they impose their own culture, often to stultifying effect. Just think of the language people use when they write letters on their company letterhead, or speak at client meetings.
That dreary management-speak reflects the environment in which office denizens operate every day – where the furniture, lighting, neutral colours, attitudes and movements of those around them, all speak of hierarchy, defensiveness and uniformity. In places like this, there is little room for individual inspiration and fulfilment, let alone innovation.
And that is a pity because, although the study of the workplace design is still in in its infancy, we already know that simple things such as good lighting and adequate daylight can reduce absenteeism by 15% and increase productivity by up to 20%, a solid return on investment by any CFO’s measure.
The way the workplace is designed can be a crucial influence on the way people approach their work. Marilyn Zelinksy, whose book The Inspired Workspace is one of the most thoughtful and comprehensive reviews of the subject, offers five words to describe the ideal workplace:
There are great ideas in this book, and a recognition that different people need different things at different times. But those requirements are sometimes contradictory. How can you have a workspace that is simultaneously serene and playful?
Actually, it may be possible, but we need to think beyond the physical workspace itself, as I shall explain in a moment.
With its famously collaborative culture, Google would come high on anyone’s list of companies that make a real effort to foster enjoyment, creativity and expression in the workplace. Here are just some of the things Google employees can expect to find in the company’s work spaces:
- Local expressions of each location, from a mural in Buenos Aires to ski gondolas in Zurich
- Bicycles or scooters for efficient travel between meetings; dogs; lava lamps; massage chairs; large inflatable balls
- Googlers sharing cubes, yurts and huddle rooms; very few solo offices
- Laptops everywhere – standard issue for mobile coding, email on the go and note-taking
- Foosball, pool tables, volleyball courts, assorted video games, pianos, ping-pong tables, and gyms that offer yoga and dance classes
- Grassroots employee groups for all interests, like meditation, film, wine tasting and salsa dancing
The Google model doesn’t just work functionally; it clearly inspires too. One of its offices even has chairs round a paddling-pool. No wonder people are proud to work for a company that believes that work can and should be enjoyable, and that knowledge should be shared.
But would the Google workplace work for everyone? It is highly idiosyncratic. Besides, there are not many organizations with the resources to offer such a remarkable variety of environments and entertainments.
Let’s get back to some of the essentials of workplace design. We know that nearly half the world’s top companies have adopted a highly mobile way of working, with at least a third of their staff working away from the conventional workplace – either at home or on the move.
One of the first essentials, therefore, is to consult your IT specialists and facilities managers to ensure that everyone can find and use the space, materials and software programs they need to do their jobs.
Much in the way that companies like Citrix implement a Bring-Your-Own-Device policy to deliver savings on IT costs and empower workers, the right approach to the workplace can be a win-win prospect, financially and commercially.
Homers and phoners
Within an organisation, this kind of flexibility will only be satisfactorily achieved by handing control to your employees, be it the ability to open windows, adjust air-conditioning or lighting, or even decide where and when they work.
Employees need access to different types of spaces, from communal spaces and designated break-out areas to boardroom-style meeting-rooms, so that great ideas can emerge from casual conversations as well as scheduled meetings.
At its new harbour-side headquarters in Auckland, New Zealand, Vodafone offers all that you would expect from a modern workspace – plenty of informal, colourful, adaptable spaces with coffee and food counters and games, available to customers and staff alike.
The informality and adaptability apply equally, as the company puts it, to “homers, zoners, roamers and phoners”. In other words, you can use the company’s facilities in person on a regular or occasional basis, or by phone, or electronically, from home.
Feeding the brain
This is what I mean by thinking beyond the physical workspace itself. Every person’s most important workspace is their head, so we must ensure that the brain has what it needs from its environment – not the stultifying cubicles, doors, partitions, filing cabinets and corridors of the traditional office.
In my view, the brain has four essential requirements for its physical workspace: possibility, energy, calm and flexibility. Open space with options on view, like games, tables, food and drink, enhance the feeling of possibility. Colours, objects and people moving around create energy; but calm must be accessible too, whether via chairs and tables in quiet corners, window views or proximity to water.
Finally, there must be flexibility – which means not just adaptable spaces and materials, but a mechanism for consultation so you can ensure that your workplace continues to serve its people in the way they want.
About the Author
Mark Dixon is CEO of Regus, a global provider of serviced office accommodations in business centres worldwide.