Indulge me while we contemplate the various designs I’ve seen over the years of my career and whether any of them had a thread that connected whether I was engaged and/or productive at work:

Imagine a very large building — about 120,000 square feet — with aisles to take you from department to department. The only walls that exist were partitions at the intersections of those aisles. Within those quadrants are rows and rows of desks — no cubicles whatsoever.

The idea of “quiet” was absurd. However, this organization did have a “quiet hour” at the beginning of every workday. Phone usage wasn’t allowed, nor was work between other co-workers. Back then, we were to use this hour of productivity to the highest level before we became distracted by various interactions with co-workers or customers all pulling at our concentration during the day. Needless to say, this set-up did not achieve the productivity and engagement it had intended.

Spend wisely

Since then, there have been a variety of office configurations. Some were a modified version of what was described above but with the well-known cubicle farm meant to muffle some of the noises. In many instances, employees were not fond of this configuration due to the lack of privacy and noise interruptions. Productivity can be an issue in this environment if measures are not taken to address employees concerns.

A more recent configuration is those instituting workspaces to resemble your own living room with sofas and recliners. These designs are intended to cater to the quiet, relaxed atmosphere that brings out innovation and creativity. Some organizations have even added additional spaces that have a line of treadmill desks where workers can easily accomplish their work while getting healthy. Or there might be a room set up like a coffee house where the atmosphere is spirited and lively, and ideas start bouncing off the wall. Others integrate spaces that give workers an outdoor feel.

Some of these configurations are welcomed by both employees and management, while others may miss their mark. One thing is surely a must before a great outlay of money is spent — what is your organization trying to accomplish and why, and what is the best way to address these goals?

"These designs are intended to cater to the quiet, relaxed atmosphere that brings out innovation and creativity."

Consider everything

There are a lot of designs out there, but the right one for your organization should not be contrived based on what your competitor is doing or by the latest fads. It should be a thought-out design with multiple inputs from a variety of departments and employees within the organization. What type of environment are you trying to create and how best will your employees perform? Is your focus on innovation, inspiration and collaboration or is it designing a space for introspection and concentration? Technology, flexibility in space, privacy concerns, communal space, functionality and a place to socialize are all components that should be addressed. Are workers dispersed globally or centralized, and what are the demographics of your workforce? Do you have to consider multi-generations that are used to working in a variety of ways? What constraints will you be working with and what input does your senior leadership have in this design? What is the culture of your organization, and will that be reflected in the design? 

Whatever the answers are, your project must be thought out because without everyone’s consideration, it might fall flat. For the money outlay these projects typically involve, organizations may be living with this design for 10 years or longer. By investing in the research to answer these questions prior to a redesign, companies can avoid creating the memories that I have from 40 years ago — a dreary line of desks with our enforced “productive” time.