Future of Corporate Workspace: Property is a People Business

To me, the majority of office floor space looks and feels the same, well it certainly does in the UK (take a look at any interior design magazine if you don’t believe me). There are a few exceptions but most offices are fully open plan with rows of homogenous desks built around a core of so-called collaboration space and other supporting areas.

The more adventurous organisations may have quirkier breakout spaces, themed meetings rooms and a funkier colour palette, but the layout of the space, with the ubiquitous bench-desking, repeatedly follows a familiar pattern. The even more adventurous organisations may be experimenting with new ways of working, reinvented as flexible or agile or activity based working, but nevertheless a concept that has been around for at least 25 years.

The design and use of space is fundamentally driven by cost. The office is considered (by many) a cost burden, an overhead, rather than a means of improving business performance, an investment with potentially lucrative returns. So currently office design is all about space, it is about efficiency, high density, and reducing property costs.

Le Corbusier famously claimed “the home is a machine for living in”, so logically it follows that the “office is a machine for working in”. The primary objective of the office is, and has always been, to facilitate the business of the occupying organisation. And the key asset of any organisation is its people.

To get the most out of our people we provide them with the best technology, training, business processes and management. We provide an organisational infrastructure that supports their needs. The workplace is also part of that infrastructure, it’s a tool for the job, and should be treated so. We should consider workspace projects in terms of the return on investment (RoI) of our people rather than as a cost burden to the business. Therefore I think, and I hope for the sake of the economy, that the focus of the future office will shift away from property cost to people investment. Property is, indeed, a people business.

In the future, I believe we will celebrate individual differences, recognise the business benefits of mixed personality types and embrace local culture. We will move away from designing homogenous workspaces for a heterogeneous workforce to providing a workspace of variety, choice and adaptability that covers a range of individual and group needs. Today I want to focus on how we provide spaces that meet our psychological needs, in particular providing for different personality types.

Do you know what these people have in common: Bill Gates, Ghandi, Einstein, Lincoln, JK Rowling, Darwin, Virginia Woolf and Chopin?  Well, they are all classic introverts.  A few years ago Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, reminded us that the workplace contains similar proportions of both introverts and extroverts. Nevertheless, introverts are often overlooked despite making considerable contributions to business and society.

Extroverts tend to be gregarious, assertive, and sociable in nature, they are thrill seekers, require stimulation and can be impulsive. Extraverts tend to direct their energy outwards to the external world of people. In contrast, introverts tend to be reserved, reflective, and quiet, preferring solitary activity and their own company. Introverts prefer to focus their energy and attention inwards and are more self-contained than extroverts.

Our own literature review of research into team and business performance revealed that the most effective teams are those that consist of a healthy mix of introverts and extroverts. Whilst these heterogeneous teams take slightly longer to bond, they ultimately deliver more creative, innovative, well-considered and successful outputs.

Psychologists know that extroverts prefer stimulating, buzzy, open plan environments whereas introverts are more productive in low stimulating, quiet and subtle work spaces. The two personality types also prefer to communicate in different ways. Introverts prefer well-considered logically presented detailed written reports. In contrast, extroverts prefer face to face interactions, they like to brainstorm, discuss, debate and present big ideas. Our own recent research study of 937 people (sponsored by Herman Miller) demonstrated that introverts spend more time in solitary activity, predominantly communicate using email and when they meet prefer enclosed offices and meeting rooms. On the other hand, extroverts spend more time in face to face communication and prefer meeting in bars, hotels and huddle rooms.

Yet there is a tendency to only create open plan, noisy, buzzy, crowded environments that are stimulating and facilitate interaction and collaboration. It is assumed that this is what is required by all organisations and all office spaces – Susan Cain argues that we design for an “extrovert ideal” which is more socially acceptable than being introverted. But these environments can be stressful for the introverts; they can cause distraction and poor performance, especially for those involved in complex analysis, detail and logic (the roles that attract introverts).

For some time I suspected that architects and interior designers are more extroverted than those in other job functions, and as a consequence they design workplaces based on their personal perception of what is required. Unfortunately our own survey didn’t validate my hypothesis, but it did however show that architects and designers score higher on the “openness” scale on the Big Five Personality Inventory. This means architects and designers are more open to new experiences, have a wider range of interests and fascination with novelty, plus they tend to be more creative and artistically sensitive than other disciplines. We also found that more open people value daylight and views out plus they prefer the bar/hotel, huddle room, brainstorm rooms and cafes for generating new ideas but prefer not to use meeting rooms. They also appear to spend more time on average carrying out quiet/focussed work (e.g. thinking and developing ideas) and less time on their PC/laptop than others. So it does seem likely that the personality of architects and interior designers does affect their perception of what is required in the workplace.

Another common personality factor is “neuroticism”, often referred to as “emotional stability”. It reflects the degree to which a person is calm, collected and self-confident; those scoring high on this factor have a tendency to be nervous, anxious and insecure. We found that those scoring high on the neurotic scale have similar workplace requirements to introverts. We also revealed specific workplace requirements depending on how “agreeable” and “conscientious” people are, the remaining two factors on the Big Five Personality Inventory. (Do come to one of our future Herman Miller seminars to hear more detail)

So we need to provide choice and respect different individual needs, if we want to get the most out of all of our people. The biggest challenge for architects and interior designers is to provide the right mix of stimulating and calming workspace that appeal to all personality types, and not just to themselves. We need well-designed landscaped offices with a choice of interesting work settings, not open plan high density seas of desks with a few token nice bits. The landscaped, or hybrid office, is not open plan but it is also not cellular. If we want to put our people in isolated boxes then they might as well stay at home than come into the office. 

A relatively new field of psychology is evolutionary psychology. Over time our bodies have evolved and adapted for survival and wellbeing. Evolutionary psychologists believe that our innate human behaviour and psychological processes have also evolved over time. The problem is that Homo Sapiens have evolved for around 400,000 years for living and surviving on the Savannah, whereas we have only worked and survived in large office blocks for 150 years or so. Our natural preferences and what is offered in the standard office environment are therefore out of synch.

As a consequence we like views to the outside and prefer not to be overlooked from behind, which harks back to our protective instincts. We are most comfortable in places where there is good daylight (and actual sunlight), fresh air and noise levels similar to the background sound found in nature. We are also social animals and inquisitive, we like to move around, explore, socialise and share stories and food. Often these basic human requirements are amiss in the modern office, despite research showing that they can increase job satisfaction, improve health and well-being, and reduce depression and absenteeism.

Evolutionary psychologists refer to biophelia, our innate affinity to nature and plants. Greener environments have been proven to reduce stress, anxiety and anger but also increase creativity, concentration and productivity. Studies have shown that when we sit and contemplate within a natural environment we are more inclined to enter a state of “non-taxing involuntary attention” and solve previously unfathomable problems.

People are social animals but there may be an upper limit to the number of members within a social group that we can recognise. Robin Dunbar, an Oxford anthropologist, found that the size of our social network is limited to around 150 members due to brain capacity. He correlated the neocortex size of a range of primates with their social group size then extrapolated that for humans it is 150. The size of basic hunter-gatherer communities, Christmas card lists, military units (the company or Roman maniple) and the average number of Facebook “friends” are all approximately 150, thus verifying Dunbar’s Number. Apparently an unwritten management rule is that organisations below 150 do not need a management structure, and that is partly why Gore only builds self-contained factories that contain up to 150 workers. Dunbar believes that in organisations above 150, the workforce don’t all know each other resulting in a loss of flow of information and a reluctance to help each other out. Many offices today are built with huge floor plates containing 400-600 desks. This is beyond the human scale and must impact on management, flow of information and performance.

Personal space is another psychological factor – it’s probably learned or culturally, rather than innate or evolved, but nevertheless important. In Hall’s Proxemic Frameworkhe calculated the preferred distances required between people interacting with each other. The distance required for interaction with business acquaintances was estimated to be 1.2 to 2.1m. In today’s offices, it is not uncommon to find desks 1.4m wide or less. Such desks will not only be perceived as an intrusion of space but can lead to discomfort, concern and stress resulting in absenteeism and loss of productivity.

Our preferred personal space is also affected by cultural background. Using their worldwide survey, Steelcase demonstrated that some cultures are more tolerant of high density working environments and others are not. They plotted each country on six cultural dimensions and found significant differences that impact on our office space requirements. For example, some countries are more collaborative at work than others and some require higher levels of privacy and confidentiality. Although many organisations are now global, and may even carry out similar work across countries, it does not mean that the same standardised workspace will suit employees from different cultures and traditions. We need to respect and accommodate cultural differences.

In conclusion, I propose that future offices will be humanised – we will cater for our psychological needs, we will respect and welcome that we are individuals with different psychological needs, and we will accommodate rather than ignore those needs. Only by supporting all individuals can we truly facilitate the performance of the whole of the business.

This blog forms the basis of what I will present at the IFMA Workplace Conference: Exploring New Models of Work and the Future of Corporate Spaces in Madrid. I have drawn on my previously published paper on psychological needs plus our new Psychology of Collaboration research – apologies for the repetition but hopefully it will be new to those in Madrid. Any feedback on how to improve the blog/presentation is welcome.


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