wanted: neglected office looking for TLC

Working from home initiatives have been so effective that offices that were once full are struggling to justify their overheads, particularly in the age of rising rents but flat revenue growth. Hence many companies are looking to make the office attractive again, or more specifically, working from the office.

When you’re still sitting in your pajamas, scanning your emails and reading the sports reports from the night before, you’d be forgiven if you didn’t miss the hour-long commute into the office. Working from home can save 10 hours a week, which could be dedicated to wiping toast crumbs from the keyboard or just more work.

But let’s not forget that working in close proximity to colleagues can have some major business benefits particularly around collaboration and creativity.  For one thing, we communicate better and more frequently when we’re in close proximity to one another.

In the 1970’s Professor Thomas Allen of MIT observed that the frequency of communication between two parties decreases as the distance increases. If two engineers sat within the same building they were more likely to talk to each other on the phone than if they were thousands of miles apart. It’s counterintuitive, but research plays this out.

With the emergence of the internet and collaborative tools and the falling cost of communications, many thought this rule would be broken, but in a recent update of his research, Allen found that it is still true today: “Rather than finding that the probability of telephone communication increases with distances, as face-to-face probability decays, our data shows a decay in the use of all communication media with distance (following a near field rise),” adding "The more often we see someone face-to-face, the more likely it is that we will telephone the person or communicate in some other medium."

That is not to say that long distance collaboration is impossible: on the contrary, for some companies it is essential and deeply ingrained in their corporate culture. But working permanently away from colleagues may be counter-productive. We all need to spend some time together and with other staff outside of our working group.

That’s certainly the conclusion of high profile organizations like Yahoo and Best Buy which are applying the brakes on teleworking. They believe that somehow along the way, they sacrificed creativity on the altar of productivity. (Yahoo may have perhaps taken it a little too far the other way by banning teleworking.)

Sometimes the decision made by management to inhibit teleworking is very subjective: perhaps they notice the office car park is emptier than it used to be and there is a general lack of buzz around the place; or that conference calls take forever to organize because virtual teams are spread over multiple time zones and there’s only a small window each day when they can all meet; maybe they find out that teleworkers are duplicating each other’s effort because they don’t know what each other is working on.

To my mind, complete retrenchment to office-based working would be a negative, unproductive and costly step. For one thing, teleworkers are healthier and happier than staff that are handcuffed to a desk.  Secondly teleworking has helped to cut facilities cost my millions of dollars for large organizations, and allow them to recruit talent from a much more widely dispersed pool (because potential recruits are not faced with an unrealistic commute).

So organizations can harness productivity and creativity by getting a balance between work locations: the office must become as appealing as working from home.  But what is attractive to one person, is a turn off to others. The office of the future needs to reflect our personalities.

don't interupt, i'm trying to collaborate

A recent Australian study of 40,000 office workers found that those that worked in open-plan environments were more likely to be dissatisfied by their working conditions.  The main gripes were a lack of space, privacy and distracting noise.

“What the data tells us is that, in terms of occupant satisfaction, the disadvantages brought by noise disruption were bigger than the predicted benefits of increased interaction,” said lead author Jungsoo Kim, a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning. “Between 20% and 40% of open plan office occupants expressed high levels of dissatisfaction for visual privacy and over 20% of all office occupants, regardless of office layout, registered dissatisfaction with the thermal conditions.”

Architects Gensler found a similar result in their study on workers attitudes to their workplace in the US. And this article from the Wall Street Journal reports that face-to-face interruptions account for one-third more intrusions than phone calls or urgent emails.

So simply tearing down the office walls and unbolting the room dividers will not instantly lead to the creativity and collaboration that managers are hoping would return when the staff work together rather than in their home studies. So what will help?

Firstly, recognizing the difference between introverts and extroverts.

In an open plan space, an introvert may seek the corners of the floorspace to minimize the chances of "drive-by socializing". They may also create a virtual bubble around themselves by stacking files at the extent of their space. Carpet tiles may be dividing line between where their territory ends and their co-workers' begins. (And this becomes even harder to reinforce in a hot-desking environment which forces desks to be cleared at the end of the day. They don't know where their domain is: one day sitting next to sales reps, the next stuck next to their boss who is micromanaging every action.) The open-plan workspace can make introverts feel anxious and impinge on productivity, collaboration and creativity, rather than enhance it. Office planners need to give these people a space to defend themselves.

Conversely, an extrovert may respond differently. They may want to be in the center of the action, conversing, sharing, enjoying being part of the hubbub. Moving around desks in a hot-desking environment can be a good thing as they can enjoy the variety from regular change. Being in the office can help them bond with the their team or maybe they bring people together. (Sometimes extroverts also need to get their head down and work, and have to fight their natural inclinations to join in the hubbub around them.) So allowing people’s own personalities to choose where they sit would be one thing.

But it is also important that they have the right sort of break-out space. Tom Austin, Gartner Fellow argues that replacing “generic cube farms with multiple, specialized spaces” can save the employer thousands in capital savings, many hours of employee time losts to interruptions and a decrease in email volume. The answer lies in the “specialized spaces” part – if there are 22 informal meeting spaces within 75 feet, you get 102% more fruitful interactions than when there are only 4 meeting spaces (Original research is here, behind a HBR paywall).

So there you go: don’t cram more desks in than the space affords and allow enough room for chance encounters to quickly move from an at-desk chinwag to standing over the coffee machine. It’s more conducive to a good chat and you don’t distract those around your desk, and perhaps you could share your nightmare commuting experiences.


image © Picture-Factory - Fotolia.com

Stewart Baines
Stewart Baines

I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.