Flexible Design for a Better Office Environment

The way we work and the culture of the companies we work for are evolving to embrace more flexibility and openness than ever before. Alison Magee explains how office design is enabling this change and the benefits it can bring.

The coveted corner office is an aspirational status symbol destined for the history books in many workplaces. In fact, the idea of even having your own assigned desk, let alone a personal office, is now at odds with the way many companies and employees are choosing to work today.

How we connect with our working world online, plus the rise of flexible working patterns, means there’s less need for many office workers to be tied to one desk. Smaller computers and devices, cloud data storage plus widespread wifi coverage has allowed greater mobility, connectedness, and the ability to work from any location. There’s less need for space to store and access physical files too, with the move towards digital filing.

As the boundaries between work and leisure time become more blurred, physical workplaces are becoming less formal and more homely - where employees and visitors feel relaxed, and can enjoy social spaces and on-site leisure facilities. When you can work from home, the social benefits provide a magnetic reason for staff to come into the office and communicate in person.

Company culture is evolving too, with a move away from hierarchical spaces towards more democratic and transparent office setups.

So how can good office design support these changing needs and create a better environment for modern workers?

Maximising space efficiency

Extracting maximum value from your space is a major requisite in the face of ever rising property costs and rents. Open plan offices, ideally in square or rectangular shapes, continue to be the most space efficient compared with linear buildings with cellular offices and corridors. As the pace of change is also accelerating, open plan set ups are more agile and flexible to adapt quickly to your company’s needs.

Many traditional offices have spaces not used at full capacity all day, such as fixed meeting rooms or lunch areas, so making these more flexible and multi-purpose also maximises spatial value. A good example is in the refit we carried out for Nationwide Building Society’s HQ in Swindon, where the canteen doubles up as meeting space either side of lunchtime.

Having smaller computers with flat screens plus less paperwork to store and view on desks means you can reduce workstation size compared to historic needs. Electronic data filing means storage space can be reduced too, with a paperless office bringing sustainability benefits.

This saved space then allows you to increase work place numbers in an existing office or reduce the size of a new office, moderating running costs. A smaller office area is also more sustainable with a lower carbon footprint.

Each employee having a dedicated desk is also not space efficient for many companies. Accounting firm Deloitte, for example, has no assigned seating in its new Amsterdam office, after estimating that only 25 percent of its employees were at a desk at any one time.

Although allocated personal work space is decreasing, the amount of shared space is on the rise.

Activity-based working is a guiding principle for new office fit-outs, providing you with a range of spaces to suit different types of work. Our layout designs may include hot desks for individual tasks, meeting spaces for group work or informal benches and relaxed lounge spaces with sofas to aid creative thinking.

Providing a range of logistically different work areas, allows your employees more autonomy to choose the space that best suits their task at any given time. By giving staff the tools and environment to make their own decisions you boost productivity, morale and retention.

Noise and distractions are often cited as a big drawback of open plan though some argue that people soon adapt and a low level hubbub can make a space feel more energized.

But by also incorporating soundproofed phone booths for private calls and quiet rooms within a larger open plan space, your employees can have the best of both worlds.

Increasing transparency

Transparency is also being embraced more by office managers and employees, with meetings taking place in glass panelled meeting rooms and managers working in the same open-plan space as employees. This gives a manager a better sense of progress and issues on the ground and they themselves become more approachable.

Complete transparency doesn’t suit every business or department though, depending on the need for privacy. So we might position your HR team, for example, in a corner or against an end wall where screens containing confidential information cannot be overseen.

Designing communal spaces for socialising In other spaces, you can actively encourage sharing. Incorporating a central hub in an office design, with refreshments, tv and printers allows different teams to socialise together, plus swap news and ideas. These communal ‘watering holes’ eliminate boundaries between departments and encourage more interaction.

Having deliberate mingling areas and other linking spaces that employees pass through everyday increases the chance for serendipitous meetings and better connects people across your company. This engineered eavesdropping means you can absorb company goings-on by osmosis and feel more included.

These gathering spaces can be multi-purpose too. Reception areas can double up as a coffee bar where employees gather - to give a buzzy welcome to a business. Rather than a sterile reception desk and security guard, you create a an appealing area that feels more like a hotel lobby. Attending to small details such as serving quality coffee in china cups also elevates the experience. The We Work coworking spaces popping up in many major cities do this hotel-like workplace very well. As you enter, you are welcomed by a cafe-like space offering top quality coffee and craft beer to enjoy for free.

No ‘one-size fits all’

Of course all company cultures are different, so these broad changes and trends must be tempered by a consideration of individual needs.

In companies that focus on internal procedures, standardization and more bureaucratic communication, a hierarchal system remains appropriate and requires a different workspace layout than businesses who need to stimulate collaboration and innovation.

But whatever your discipline, if you invest in an office design that maximises flexible space to enable varied ways of working, plus engage employees via shared values and openness, you greatly increase your chances of thriving.

If you would like further advice on how we can help you improve your office design, please get in touch.

Alison Magee

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