Solving the office design dilemma
Concentration and focus may have been overlooked in the rush to add trendy breakout spaces to open plan office designs, forgetting that effective performance is still the basis for employing people. If distraction in the workplace is too prevalent, the ability to focus and to absorb information can be easily undermined. Of course this is a general criticism of open-plan office furniture design, particularly the very high density layouts. The view on open plan is that it’s generally possible to filter out low-level distractions, and the advantages of flexibility, visibility and communication outweigh the disruptive aspects.
If you ask staff about concentrating on work in their day only a few people will be totally happy so its fair to say open-plan office design is tolerable rather than lovable. With office design companies pushing mixed zone office vistas we need to pose the question ‘how can people successfully carry out ‘concentration’ work in an office that prizes breakout and collaboration?’ Its time to look in more depth at the latest advantages and disadvantages of open plan office design.
Software developers are a good example of work involving collaboration, as well as focused working, by people whose complex tasks can be completely singular. Software development has collaborative sessions with a team working to a collective project brief. The process is then distributed into sub-tasks including periods of dedicated focus set in between group collaboration often conforming to the inevitable 80:20 breakdown. The 80 % single-working mode isn’t all deep concentration tasks. Email and HR aspects mix with coding and debugging which if interrupted interfere with the person’s productivity and train of thought. The 20% involving time with others can be both unplanned conversations, open brainstorming and planned team briefing and reporting.
The conundrum in this scenario is the value of the collaborative 20%. It’s critical to the cohesion of sub-task arrangements, and promotes and supports workplace agility. Yet the proximity of mixed-use islands used in modern office design layouts exacerbate the problems of an open plan. When the space is too noisy and distracting it undermines focus. Project and departmental managers generally ask for team collaboration and breakout spaces to be nearby. Walking up a floor, or to the far end of an office, for breakout and team spaces reduces the spontaneity and adds formality and delays. This gets to the heart of the dilemma.
Balanced Office Design
Balance is at the heart of effective office design.
Open-plan offices are here to stay in part because of the adaptability and also for the savings derived from reduced space needs. The answer is almost certainly found in balancing effective office design. Resist the desire to scatter bright, eye-catching, soft furnishings in breakout islands. Staff can be frustrated with ill-considered acoustics and high-density desking when the first impressions give way to office reality.
The approach to office design can take a leaf out of old-school space planning, with a modern slant. Use collaborative spaces to separate working zones much as cellular offices used to separate assistants and typing pools. Its not as whizzy as open plan floorplates with bright oasis of iconic furniture, warehouse light fittings and textured rugs. But it works. Team dynamics still work when the breakout space is close and individual work is less disrupted when sound and visual distractions are shielded.
The balance comes with planning work zones to retain adaptability whilst isolating noise to a lowered level.
As a contrast web designers collaborate with multiple teams and often interact with coders so the need for an agile workplace with its intrinsic distraction is more everyday. One side effect of this is to give them less control over their space. This mixed task job profile makes a case for several styles of open-plan including team zones and concentration areas. Designers don’t have such a clear 80:20 profile to their day. People can perform well within interactive layouts if they have access to areas that enable them to balance collaborative and focused work as needed. Proximity to the team alongside singular focus work can vary significantly from day to day. A silo-d workplace won’t match the way they work. They need more casual collaboration space, with control to detach and focus. Matching this dilemma to open plan space isn’t so clear cut as an 80:20 profile.
Adapt or die is a mantra from the last 20 years at work, one whose time in relation to office design has never been more apt. The two scenarios outlined both show a clear place for breakout and collaboration within day-to-day work settings. One is fairly well defined, another less so. Both roles need focus and collaboration. How can open plan office design satisfy everyone?
The Fusion sliding whiteboard system may offer one remedy. Lightweight panels with dry-wipe or pinnable surfaces sit on discrete tracks. They are remarkably easy to move, remove, and re-position. They offer enough benefits of a partition wall without any of the so-called demountable permanence and with the flexibility demanded for adaptable open-plan. Designers can mix clear sections with solid, acoustic absorbency with dry-wipe surfaces. They can slide along in seconds, be reconfigured around the open-plan in minutes, removed or installed wherever tracks are in place.
FMs can churn a space to support almost any configuration of desk zones and team areas. Churn costs are minimal. And people love the control, the immediacy of large surfaces, and the balance between open plan and concentration zones. They’re the answer to the wish-list idea of walls only when they’re needed.