Where We Work

In previous blogs, I’ve covered the what, how and who we work with, so now I want to touch on the where we work – my main area of expertise. This field is well-reported on by advocates of activity-based working (ABW), agile working or new ways of working (a term still used despite early adopters like Interpolis and Chiat/Day around 25 years ago).

The basic premise is that different (work) activities are performed better in different spaces. This makes good sense, especially at the macro level. For example, music is better performed and sounds better in a purpose-built theatre with good acoustics. We wouldn’t dream of performing, say, outdoors in a muddy field with make-shift acoustics – well not unless the primary purpose is partying with friends rather than listening intently to quality music. I digress, generally we have different buildings specifically designed to support different functions – sports stadiums, churches, art galleries, shopping malls etc.

So, it follows that within the office we provide different spaces specifically designed to foster and facilitate certain work activities. The desk is clearly not the single design solution for the range of work activities carried out on the modern workplace. Furthermore, surveys repeatedly show that desk utilisation is low, even in those organisations in which you may expect a high level of desk-based work. A good ABW and agile working solution therefore addresses the balance of work settings, replacing empty desks with more useful spaces.   

The first step to designing an ABW environment, is determining which activities occur and which of those are to be supported. We can observe the activities currently taking place and then provide spaces to support them, but a better starting point is to determine the required activities going forward. We might determine what is core business activity and non-core activity, which detracts from the primary business purpose, and therefore might be out-sourced or deterred completely. We may even use Covey’s Time Management Matrix to distinguish which activities are important and urgent rather than simply urgent. In my consultations, I often hear staff complaining about the number of meetings they must attend and the futility of them. Just because lots of meetings take place it doesn’t mean they are all required, or that all those attending actually need to attend (a subject for another blog).

In my recent TEDx Talk, I suggested that many offices are currently designed for Creativity and Collaboration but sometimes neglect spaces for Concentration and Confidentiality (and other Cs as highlighted previously). If the team is predominantly involved in focussed work requiring concentration, such as analysts, processors or developers, then they will most probably require a calming, subdued and quiet workspace. In contrast, those involved in high energy activity, like sales or trading, may benefit from more stimulating, colourful and buzzy working environments. Whether creating a predominantly calming or stimulating space, access to the full range of space types supporting a range of activities will be required at times. Personality also has a large effect on space requirements and I’ll discuss that in detail another time.
For some teams the nature of their work and their associated activities are clearly defined and limited. However, partly due to technology and partly due to labour efficiencies, for most the range of work activities has broadened. Even members of traditional monotask teams will spend time in solo and group activities and spend time at and away from their desk. Logically, if we measure the time spent on all the different activities taking place, we can then estimate the number and type of spaces required to support them. That is if we take the observed numbers and then extrapolate out for future required activities – the ‘black art’, more complex and unknown, element of ABW planning. But even that doesn’t quite work for two reasons.
Firstly, whilst some work is planned, daily activities and routines also change; much work is reactive. People need the option to work in a range of spaces as and when required, not according to a rigid schedule or calculated times. They need to know that if they move to an alternative space they can still return to a familiar desk near their colleagues. So, some flexibility is required in the planning and a slight over-provision of some spaces is recommended to ensure choice. Those implementing ABW purely for space efficiency reasons may be less keen to over-provide, but ample space savings will still be realised if desk sharing is properly implemented.
Secondly, just providing the right amount of different work settings doesn’t cause the required activities to actually happen. The change in activity requires organisational, management and culture changes. Nevertheless, the right spaces are also required and do nudge the change, plus physically represent the change like a permanent visual reminder. As Neil Usher (@workessence) and others have stated, the ‘project’ is actually implementing change with an element of workplace design not vice versa, when managing the change (change management) is often an afterthought in a workplace design and construction project.
The next step is designing the spaces to facilitate the required activities. Quite often I see a focus on the look of the space, whereas basic requirements like technology (access to power and projection angles), acoustics, privacy, access, daylight and even appropriate sized space are overlooked. Seven years ago, I co-conducted research and published a paper on how to create spaces for interaction. We found that meeting room utilisation correlated with our assessed quality (checklist) of the space. We also discussed how different types of meeting (knowledge sharing, personal, decision making and idea generation) required different environments. In particular, designing for creativity is not quite what we might expect – it’s not all slides and bean bags and requires solitary and natural spaces, as discussed in my TEDx Talk and a recent blog.

When I speak at conferences, I am often ask where I prefer to work or what is my perfect workspace. The answer is that it depends on what I am doing and what mood I am in. At the moment I am, more than usual, involved in wiring reports and preparing presentations. So I am spending more time than usual in the cabin at the bottom of my garden (I am a shed-worker), where I can work without distraction. I still go got offices for meetings and networking, as well as the pub. Back to creativity, I spend the first half-hour of the day compiling my ideas and planning my day in the shower (and bed)! Most workers are not so mobile, but nonetheless access to a range of quite different settings inside and outside the office will benefit them.



In conclusion, it is logical in the office to provide a range of work settings designed to support different work activities. The design of the base team zone also needs to reflect the primary required activity, not an assumed one. The design of the workspace can indeed help foster a change in work activity from those currently common to those actually required. This may require an over-provision of some spaces, but there will still be ample space savings by implementing desk sharing and replacing unused desks with more appropriate work settings. Fundamentally, a change to ABW and agile working starts with a need for it, and willingness by the leadership and staff to adopt it.

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