Three Simple Ideas for Effective Space Planning – AKA what I learned at 30,000 feet.

“Tell me about your office” when my father was alive we would chat regularly about work and family, and at some point in the conversation he would inevitably inquire about my office.   Over the years, and with a minimum of embellishment, I described my progress from a shared workspace to private office and then a larger private office.  Speaking to a man who started his career in the 1940’s, an office communicated one’s status and power in the workplace.  As such he measured the progression of my career based on my work environment.  Perhaps he would know that I had truly “ascended” once I had a corner office, especially if it had a nice view and perhaps a liquor cabinet with a bottle of acceptable scotch and some crystal glasses.  Hopefully we’re conjuring up images evocative of Mad Men’s suave and successful Don Draper, or at worse Lou Grant and not a stumbling, intoxicated, Larry Tate.  Perception is everything.

You can imagine Dad’s perception when my company went “virtual” in 2003 and I started working from home.  Well, it’s not the 1940s or even the 1990s anymore and in today’s world the notion of office as a corporate throne room has waned, and yet we get mixed messages as to what constitutes the ideal work space.  I recently read three articles on the topic; the first asserted that “Generation Y” wants a “blended life” and that this mix of socialization and work required space that emulates a chic Seattle coffee shop.  The second decried the noise and distractions cause by open work environments and closed with plea for a quiet, private place to work.  The third, and perhaps most insightful, simply asserted that people were less productive when they had to work in a cardboard box.  They came to that conclusion by, quite literally, observing research subjects working inside a large cardboard box.

To cut through the confusion and contradictory viewpoints here are three simple ideas for effective workplace design.

(1)    Make the space functional

This became abundantly clear to me about ten years ago flying in a coach seat from Newark to Seattle.  As you can imagine I was in a particularly cramped seat made worse by the large passenger beside me and the individual in front who kept his seat in full recline for the whole flight.  Not ideal conditions as I tried to meet a pressing deadline on my generously sized early 2000s laptop.

Luckily, I was in an aisle seat and was able to cantilever my laptop off the edge of the tray table and into the aisle to achieve modest usability (except when the drink cart came by).  “What I wouldn’t give,” I remember thinking, “for two square feet of flat surface area and an electrical plug?”  I didn’t need a leather chair, ornate office furniture or scotch served to me in a crystal glass.  I just needed some unencumbered workspace.  A week later, I booked two hours in a quiet airport business office that had about four square feet of desk space, an Internet connection (a rarity at the time), a printer and proper lighting.  This tiny, but highly functional and well-designed office had everything I needed to be productive.  Since then, I haven’t craved anything larger or more ornate.

(2)    Get the mix right

I have worked with clients with wonderful collaboration space… but then had to go outside or into a stairwell to make a private phone call.  Other companies have beautiful private offices but meeting rooms need to be booked days (if not weeks) in advance.

Companies that strive for a single vision of an ideal space or office layout will strive in vain.  Throughout the work day, we engage in a variety of activities.  Some of these, such as analyzing information and writing reports may be essentially solitary in nature, thus benefiting from quiet space where intrusion is minimized.  Other activities require collaboration of teams of various sizes better served by more open, collaborative space.

The workplace shouldn’t be designed to meet a specific aesthetic or ideal espoused by another organization.  Instead it should provide a mix of space and functionality which, in aggregate, productively support the various types of work performed in the organization.

(3)    Let workers select the technology they need to be productive

“Wait a minute” you’re thinking, “this post is supposed to be about space planning & now you’re writing about technology”.  If space defines the environment for our work, tools are the medium through which we produce and interact.  The two are intertwined.  For some knowledge workers in transit their office can shrink to the size of a smart phone, and this smart phone can represent a highly functional “office”.  Tools and technology have become our workspace; yet we find that companies with the most elegant space solutions often hamper their workers through excessive standardization and inflexible policies surrounding collaboration and work tools.

Standardization is a byproduct of mass production.  In the early days of the industrial revolution the only way to achieve high production volumes was to ruthlessly standardize every single manufactured part.  Henry Ford epitomized this mind-set in 1909 when speaking of the Model T he stated, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.”

Unfortunately, standardization is counter to human nature.  When Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel the Vatican did not try to constrain costs by dictating the type of paintbrushes he could use.  In our buildings most mechanics and tradesmen own their tools and choose what best fits their needs for a particular job; yet this simple logic gets lost once the worker steps out of the maintenance department and into the office.

Ironically, manufacturing has moved beyond the tyranny of excessive standardization but many IT departments focus on standardization to ostensibly minimize direct costs, ensure security and streamline support requirements.  Sadly the basis for this excessive standardization is overstated.

Within our own organization we find productivity is maximized when consultants are given the flexibility to select the combination of laptops, monitors, tablets, phones, other devices, programs and applications that best suit their needs.  Despite the diversity we do not experience file compatibility problems or significant support issues.  A number of our clients with similarly flexible approaches report similar experiences.

Personalization allows users to select the tools which function best in their environments; and better adapt to what might otherwise be suboptimal environments.  Case in point; once again I’m working and writing in the coach seat of an aircraft… but this time I’m using the little red laptop that I carefully measured and selected based on that fact that it fits ever so nicely on the airplane tray table.  On top of that, I’ve got a great view from up here.

One response to “Three Simple Ideas for Effective Space Planning – AKA what I learned at 30,000 feet.

  1. Some good advice, and it’s becoming increasingly important for companies to make effective use of their office space. Functionality is vital, as you say, but don’t underestimate how aesthetics can affect your productivity. As long as it’s not overdone, an attractive splash of paint or ornament here and there can make a big difference.

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