Everyone has seen pictures of the amazing open plan offices in Silicon Valley startups, which offer their staff quirks and perks:
- Wall paintings by famous graffiti artists
- Slides instead of stairs
- Bring your dog to work
- Sleep pods to take naps during the day
- On-site free catering, daycare, and even laundry!
But the question remains as to what is the office layout and facilities which actually brings out the most innovative work in people?
Is it the open plan offices that we see with startups, and which are being popularised by the co-working scene of WeWork?
Future offices need to be flexible
In the video above, I speak with Robbie Robertson, a spacial experience design expert, and Partner at Deloitte, about how office layout affects the work that people are able to do.
Main points covered during our conversation:
- [01:15] How he started asking himself about what spaces and experiences looked like if you were to stand in a customer’s shoes
- [02:30] The scale of design capabilities at Deloitte
- [05:00] What impact the spaces we work in have on the people who work there
- [06:15] Technology now means we are no longer locked to our desks, or to our teams
- [08:00] How the flexibility of modern ways of working needs to be translated into flexible working environments which can change as required
- [09:15] How conflicting requirements between neighbouring teams can cause distractions and lower performance
- [10:30] Is there a perfect office layout?
- [11:30] Building spacial strategies, taking in cultural requirements
- [12:30] How technology of the future may change the very jobs which people perform, and therefore how they fit into the physical environment
- [14:30] How the companies in Silicon Valley used their corporate purpose to create the culture, which then translated into the office spaces
- [15:45] How open plan offices leads to lower productivity
There is no single perfect office design.
In Robbie’s white paper on the Future of Workplace, we also get some fascinating insights into what is coming our way our next offices:
- The need to create a balance between Work, Worker and Workplace
- 47% of today’s jobs will be gone in 10 years, according to Oxford Economics, National Bureau of Economic Research, and Bureau of Labour Statistics
- Technology can help us make best use of the available space in the future, and help people make the most of the time they have available
- The objective of a thoughtful workplace strategy is to build a high performing space that optimises the organisation’s biggest investment – their people
- What Millennials perceive as “very important” when choosing to work for an organisation: 57 percent value a positive workplace culture and 44 percent believe in opportunities for continuous learning, as well as flexibility around hours and location
- Offices are being seen more as a simplified canvas and the furniture pieces that goes inside are an agile kit of parts that people can move around to do their best work
“Headlines everywhere predict technology taking humans’ jobs. What about thinking it via another way: Humans have been taking technology’s jobs for 200 years. We’re the ones that have designed bureaucratic organisations that are rules-based, routine-driven, risk averse and focused on certainty. These elements are codifiable. So, if the mundane jobs now being lost were actually fit for purpose for technology all along, what could our real human potential be?”
SEAN GALLAGHER, Director, Centre for the New Workforce, Swinburne University of Technology
Links discussed during the interview with Robbie Robertson:
The death of open plan offices
After being designed by a German team in the 1950s, open plan offices have spread quickly, being adopted by almost 70% of companies as a way to promote collaboration and productivity. Critics argue that their main purpose is just to save money by squeezing more people into the same space, and this is being backed up by science.
More and more research on the impact that open-plan offices have on an individual’s performance is showing just how detrimental it is, which you can see in this video below:
This research showcases the harmful impacts that open-plan offices have on our ability to do our best work:
- Open plan offices DECREASE collaboration: When moving from cubicles to an open plan office, one study in the British Psychological Society showed that people
- spent 73% less time in face-to-face interactions
- use of email increased by 67%
- use of instant messenger increased by 75%
- Open plan offices DECREASE productivity: In a study of more than 40,000 workers in 300 U.S. offices, open plan offices led to higher levels of noise distractions, visual distractions and loss of privacy.
- Millennials really hate dealing with noise and distractions: Oxford Economics surveyed 600 people and found that millennials are very annoyed by ambient noise in the office which distracts them from work. Many resort to strategies like wearing earphones or leaving their desks to escape the noise.
- Open plan offices can lead to people feeling more self-conscious about their appearance, especially women.
As we can see above, open plan offices (and their next evolution of Hot-Desking) do not make a company more collaborative or productive.
What office environments make people more creative?
One aspect of enabling people to produce their most innovative work is understanding how the physical space you are in affects your creativity. After all, creativity will be one of the most in-demand skills in the workplace in the coming years.
There has been quite a lot of research into the impact of your physical office environment and how it impacts your ability to come up with new, original ideas:
- Loud environments (85+ decibels, which is about as loud as city traffic if you’re in a car, or a garbage disposal machine) have been shown to distract people and lead to a decrease in creative performance
- However, a moderate level of noise ( 70 decibels, which is about as loud as a normal conversation) leads to higher creative performance that quieter areas.
- Having a higher ceiling height (10+ feet) facilitates people having more creative & abstract thoughts, while lower ceilings (8 feet) lead to more focused work
- Viewing Curved architecture (and other curved objects) activates the Anterior Cingulate Cortex, a brain region responsible for reward and emotion. Alternatively, viewing objects with sharp edges activates the amygdala, which is responsible for fear.
- Darker lighting has been shown to lead to an improvement in creativity
- A messy environment leads to people being more creative than a neatly organised environment
- Looking at the colour red improves attention to detail, while looking at the colours blue and especially green (even just looking at plants) result in higher creativity.
These pieces of research illustrate that depending on what you want your people to achieve, it is effective to have a variety of environments, some of which promote creativity, and different areas which promote focus and productivity.
The ‘perfect’ office environment for innovation and productivity
It should be clear by now that there is no one single design which is best for innovation.
Certainly not open plan offices.
Instead, an office layout needs to find elements to facilitate a mix between work, worker and workplace.
This can be achieved by building in flexibility, but also having different types of environments [I call them Zones] which are designed to be best for the types of tasks which people want to achieve.
Throughout a day, a week, a project or a year, individuals will sometimes need to focus on individual work and sometimes spend time discussing and collaborating with other team members.
So the criteria for an office environment best suited to both generate and execute on ideas would be as flexible as possible, and include the following:
- Focus zones: designed for peak individual focus and productivity
- Collaboration zones: facilitates teams to debate, discuss and design
- Laboratory zones: produce prototypes, rapidly experiment and iterate
- Mind-opening zones: give staff the time to come up with original, divergent ideas
- Communal zones: build a culture which encourages trust, purpose and collaboration
- BAU Zones: areas of work which are least likely to change over time
- Client / Feedback zones: get feedback from and present to external stakeholders
- Virtual/external zones: allow people to work in whichever way works best for them
Based on the research of what facilitates creativity, and knowing which type of work needs be done over time by both teams and individuals, we can suggest the following high-level criteria for an ‘ideal’ office environment:
Putting these criteria into a potential floorplan, you can get any combination of designs.
Here are two potential floorplans to encourage both innovation and productivity: