The introduction of space planning strategies such as open plan workspace, modular cubicles, reduction of enclosed offices and hotelling were designed to save costs, both on the space and the inevitable churn. In an effort to sell these concepts to the corporations and their workers, they came with the promise of improved productivity.
This productivity increase was to be a by-product of enhanced teamwork, more interaction and better communication – a result of the new space-use strategies.
Unfortunately, recent studies have shown that open plan, for instance, is not always the most productive for employees. While this would depend on your specifics, it’s worth considering.
In one study reported on by many outfits, including the Huffington post’s Open-Plan Offices Detrimental To Worker Productivity a survey of 42000 US office workers found that those in open plan offices were less satisfied. It seems the benefits of open plan, including collaboration and communication, are outweighed by other factors. Does dissatisfaction relate to productivity? We only need to consider our own situations to know the answer to that.
Here is a link to the report with an abstract and some graphs. The full report is available for a fee : Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices
The office designs used to execute these strategies, including open plan cubicles, saved costs by focusing on modular design, fixed cubicle sizes and an overall reduction in space allocated to each employee. Technological advances in modular furniture supported this initiative as has communications technology and trends to work from home, telecommuting, etc. Increasing flexibility of designing office space through standards as well as reducing churn costs is also a benefit.
These new designs met and even exceeded the requirement of the new strategies in decreasing space use and therefore costs.
Unfortunately, while the ideals put forward by space planning strategies were based on solid theory, they are failing on a practical level, and with the increasing emphasis on knowledge workers, the gap is widening. This is because of the Human Element. Based on the dynamics of human interaction, the changing corporate environment and a historically narrow approach to impacting the bottom line, the Human Element is quietly disproving the strategies of the past and prompting a re-look at how office environments are planned and shaped. There is no doubt that the bottom line is an important measurement of corporate success.
In order to focus on the bottom line, business cases for the current space planning strategies promised cost savings. Productivity was usually left off the page entirely as a result of the age-old problem of putting a dollar value on productivity. This isn’t surprising, as Facilities costs were escalating and the bottom line was getting thinner.
The emerging importance of the Facility Management professional within the corporation required a concrete, measurable formula for proving savings and calculating pay-back. The Human Element couldn’t be quantified, so it was largely ignored, even though the cost of space typically represents only 5-10% of the total cost of employing the average worker.
The Human Element is increasing in importance as a result of the changing corporate environment and the new global economy, which is increasingly based on highly skilled knowledge workers. Success relies on squeezing as much productivity, creativity and entrepreneurial thinking from employees as possible just to keep ahead of the wave.
The strategies of the past emphasized team work, interaction and communication. They are still important, however the traditional means of fostering them are much less effective in this new environment, and the lack of privacy and the increase in distractions provided by typical space plans are taking their toll. In practice, the open workspace is a distraction to most workers and has a significant impact on their productivity.
While the current space strategies correctly recognize the importance of fostering interaction among workers, design solutions almost always focus first on space reductions and cost savings rather than solutions that support the Human Element. An office with more enclosed offices and a higher level of privacy doesn’t necessarily discourage interaction, it simply changes the dynamics of the interaction and allows workers to spend more time concentrating on their work without distraction.
That’s not to say that the current space planning methods can’t continue to be applied. In specific work environments, they are very effective. The issue is to what extent we can continue to apply a generic, rigid approach to office layouts that focuses primarily on cost savings without considering the Human Element and the true relationship of cost savings to the employees ability to add value to the bottom line.