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Office Design: Then & Now; Dos & Don’ts

People working in an old office design

For more than a century, employers have been experimenting with and arguing over how to design an office. And although several factors come into play when trying to devise the ideal office design, which includes everything from the ambience to the office layout, the debate tends to devolve into an overly simplistic slugfest between the advocates of collaborative open space and the protectors of partitioning and privacy. If only it were that simple. The truth is that both sides fail to appreciate the rich history of the office and the nuances involved in how to design an office in such a way that it encourages both creativity and productivity. Understanding some of that history and those nuances, however, provides you with the foundation you need to construct an office design that will help you retain employees, build your brand, and bolster your bottom line.

A brief history of the office and of office layout

Although offices have been around since antiquity, the history of the office as we know it began in the 19th century during the Industrial Revolution. In fact, it’s from the factory floor that the office layout of the early 20th century got its inspiration. Until the mid-20th century, most offices were large, open spaces filled with rows of individual desks surrounded by managers behind closed doors who could keep an eye on everyone – just like in a manufacturing plant. By the 1950s, some supervisors had been brought out of their private offices to sit with their subordinates as part of an office floor plan that arranged desks in various formations, providing a sense of separate spaces for different occupations and creating a more egalitarian atmosphere: the so-called “landscape” office design.Office design stems from 19th Century factories

However, it wasn’t until the late 1960s that installing actual partitions between workspaces, even among subordinates, became more popular. This trend reached its (some would say loathsome) pinnacle in the 1980s when newly-created middle-management positions demanded a new type of workspace – something in between the private office and the conspicuous floor desk. The answer was cubicles, cubicles, cubicles, giving rise to the now notorious, hive-like “cube farm” – the butt of almost every joke about modern work life.

The stigma of the cubicle – that it inherently alienates its occupant from their coworkers, sapping their creativity, productivity, sociability, and all-around vitality – has led to what some might call a renaissance of the open-concept office floor plan over the past decade because of its conduciveness to collaboration and innovation. But for all its banality, does the cubicle deserve to be vilified as much as it is? And does open-concept really equate to open-mindedness when it comes to office layout?

The cubicle: Cell or sanctuary?

Those who stick up for the cuOffice design featuring cubicles compared to a labyrinthbicle cite exactly what it was designed to do: give one privacy in the absence of having one’s own office. They argue that privacy is paramount to productivity, and that the open-concept, “collaborative” office layout not only slows productivity thanks to its constant distractions, but that, because of the way it forces individuals to freOffice Design 8quently interact, it’s ironically more Orwellian than the cube farm; in the interest of maintaining team harmony, everyone inhibits their individualism, which quashes creativity and stifles innovation. At least the cubicle allows for the peace and quiet one needs to reach those eureka moments, they say.

Support for the cubicle isn’t always so metaphysical, however. For many, cubicles are essential depending on the business they’re running. For instance, law firms tend to prefer many cubicles over an office layout that’s open because lawyers use the phone a lot and need to make sure that confidential information isn’t being overheard by the wrong people. It’s important to remember, though, that it’s not so much the cubicle itself that some people have a problem with, but rather the “cube farm” concept, which the inventor of the cubicle himself, Robert Propst, derided as an abuse when he famously stated: “The cubiclizing of people in modern corporations is monolithic insanity.”

The open-concept office floor plan: Collaborative or Kafkaesque?

A functional open concept office designDespite all the metaphysical knocks the cube farm office layout has taken these last couple of decades in comic strips, TV shows, and movies, we need to step away from pop culture as well as highfalutin speculations on human nature to ask whether cubicles really do aid or ail people’s productivity and creativity at work. Despite what those in the cubicle camp may say, privacy can just as easily lead to procrastination as it can to productivity. After all, it’s much easier for an isolated employee to check their Facebook, IM their friends, and write their soon-to-be bestseller on the company dime than it is for an employee whose computer screen is in plain view of anyone who cares to look.

In this sense, the open, airy, liberated office design touted as the catalyst for collaboration doubles as a panopticon, where the boss not only has an unobscured view of everything that’s going on, but so do ambitious colleagues. Therefore, everyone drives everyone else to work at a certain level because everyone’s afraid they’ll look lazy by comparison. Cynical? Yes. True? Not necessarily, and even if this scenario is true to some extent, it’s not likely what most organizations have in mAn employee looks around suspiciously due to open concept office designind when they opt for an open-concept office floor plan; rather, they really do believe that open space allowing for free movement and easy conversation will give birth to new ideas. Some companies even go out of their way to build social focal points, such as kitchenettes, in high foot-traffic areas to encourage serendipitous encounters between colleagues. What these organizations tend to overlook, however, are the practical problems that come with such an office design, namely noise. Noise may be the single most complained about side effect of an open-concept office floor plan as it leads to low performance, high stress, and high turnover.

From blandscape to landscape

So, privacy has its perks, but then so does openness. What to do? Easy: compromise. Despite the tendency of many organizations to lean one way or the other, when it comes to office layout, the landscape configuration made popular in the 1950s offers a mix of private spaces, collaborative spaces, and some sense of egalitarianism while not at the same time undermining the boss’ authority. (In fact, many argue that a supervisor should have some kind of distinguishable and distinguished workspace because it drives employees to strive for promotion.) The contemporary take on the landscape configuration can even include communal desks and offices open to anyone who needs them at any time. But transforming your office layout is easier said than done. There are several factors to consider, all of which require reflection and research.

Have your employees help determine your office layout

Before you start pushing furniture around, make sure there’s some method to your madness. Take a few days or even weeks to observe where your employees gravitate to at different times of the day and under what circumstances. Then ask them about it. If you’re part of a small company, this should be easy enough. If you’re at a larger one, try an internal survey. Your employees are the ones using the space, after all, and they deserve a say in how it would work best for them. Changing things without their input could be disastrous. Not only might the new office layout not work from a productivity standpoint, but it could eventually cause resentment, low morale, and turnover.

Design an office that’s on brand

Office design reflecting a company's unique brandDo architectural firms look like law firms? Do marketing firms look like accounting firms? Of course not. The business you’re in will help determine what your office design will be because your office is as much a communication tool as anything else, both for your external audience and your internal one, and you want to make sure that the message you’re sending is in line with what customers expect of your goods and services as well as what your employees expect in terms of similar organizations’ levels of egalitarianism, stimulation, and intra-office interaction.

Ergonomics and décor matter – a lot

Studies show that comfort, colour, and ease-of-use increase employee satisfaction and retention. No one wants to sit in a cold, hard, painful chair all day. An investment in ergonomically designed furniture, includingA man in casts at a desk reflecting bad ergonomic office design desks and mouse pads, is anything but frivolous – it’s an investment in talent and in the future prosperity of your business. The same can be said of visuals, from wall colours to carpeting to decorations. Does that mean that if you’re in a creative sector you need to replace your stairs with playground slides and splatter neon colours everywhere? No. In fact, too much stimulation can be a distraction. And you have to consider exactly what kind of stimulation you want. Colour psychology is a real field of study and it has shown that light hues of green and blue are soothing to employees, while darker versions can cause sadness. Orange and yellow are warm and welcoming, but when they’re too bright, they can cause anger and eyestrain. Red is rousing, which can be good for productivity, but too much of it can feel threatening. Even patterns matter. Stripes and checkers, for example, are distracting and can be headache-inducing.

Remember – a productive office design is a practical office design

A man at a desk in a basement reflecting impractical office designThen of course, there’s the space itself. Apart from tearing down some walls, there’s not much you can do with the actual shape of your office, so you have to make sure that your office layout uses the space you have wisely. Make sure everything you need to plug in can be plugged in and that communal equipment, such as storage units and copiers, is out of the way but still easily accessible. Also, take advantage of windows. Sunlight has undeniable health benefits, and a nice view is always inspiring. With that said, when an employee faces directly out a window, they can be easily distracted. Try to configure people’s workstations such that they can all enjoy the sunlight and the view, but at a reasonable distance from the window. As with most things, devising an office design that will maximize the creativity and productivity of your employees is all about striking the right balance.

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