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How to Approach the Task of Designing an Office

You might be convinced that you know how to design your company’s office – whether by re-engineering an established workplace design or filling out an empty office space. Indeed, typically, how an office environment is laid out reflects and reinforces the company’s core values.

For example, in attempts to foster openness, transparency and collaboration, more businesses have embraced the open-plan office. However, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to space planning. Some of your staff could actually find an open plan arrangement riddled with distractions.

It’s important to emphasise, then, that there’s no single, simple answer to how your company’s work environment ought to be designed. As many of your employees might even yearn for control over their own workspaces, there’s a sense in making your office design process a collaborative one.

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Start by asking yourself a simple question

This question can be left entirely your decision. You may have already pinpointed aspects blatantly crying out for improvement in the design of your existing office environment. For example, what if your business relies heavily on collaboration between its staff? You might be wondering how you could free up more space in your office building for a dedicated meeting room.

There’s nothing wrong with raising such a subject, to begin with; it could, after all, deliver the crucial spark of inspiration that lights the touch paper. Nonetheless, you should light that touch paper in the presence of your staff, and include them in your subsequent decision-making processes.

Otherwise, you could risk running into an “out of the frying pan, into the fire” situation. Yes, you might be able to tell that something about the current office design is leading the collaborative well to run dry. However, do you actually know exactly what will get that well working again?

Consider the following attributes of your workplace

In an article for the Harvard Business Review, design gurus Peter Bacevice, Liz Burow and Mat Triebner have compiled a “Collaboration and Quiet index consisting of seven attributes that can more concretely enable people to match a desired way of working with a physical space”.

These attributes are location, enclosure, exposure, technology, temporality, perspective and size. Each attribute can be measured on its own scale – and where exactly your workplace design should fall on it will depend on how your recruits prefer to work.

Naturally, to learn their preferences, you will need to ask them. On the subject of, say, location, you could ask whether they would prefer meetings to be held in a dedicated meeting space or near where other team members not involved in the meeting would likely gather regardless.

Some of the attributes are self-explanatory, but others less so. Temporality, for example, concerns the extent to which staff would be inclined to linger in the space. Meanwhile, perspective refers to the direction in which the user would focus their attention as they work in the space.

Answer further questions as they naturally pop up

You could find that, in answering – or, at least, attempting to answer – that first question, further questions present themselves without you having to force the issue. You could soon find yourself asking more questions than the Riddler, but you’re the Batman who has to answer them.

So, you might know who your current employees are, especially if you run a tight-knit startup or other small business. However, do you have a general idea of how your workforce could take shape over the next five years? Also, who else – like clients and job interviewees – use the space?

Taking those visitors into account could lead you directly onto considering how you would like them to perceive the space. After all, from this space’s layout and design, they could take cues about the fundamental philosophy, direction and work ethic of your company.

You’ve probably instilled all three into your corporate culture right from the start. However, it doesn’t necessarily follow that a change wouldn’t be in order. You might have already spotted room for improvement in the way people work in your current office.

You might have discerned, for example, that certain types of work are unjustifiably limited to a select few members of the employee base. Conversely, other workplace behaviours might be too widespread, leading you to want to promote the most shining examples of working practice.

Carefully tailor each work area to the employee set to use it

Online, it’s not hard to find articles advocating what “works” for specific demographics of the global workforce. Perhaps you’ve seen titles like “What millennials look for in a job” or “Why you should market your job vacancies to Generation X”. However, these articles do something of an injustice…

What injustice exactly? They make the mistake of portraying workers in broad strokes, failing to sufficiently account for the particular nuances of each individual worker. The same can be said of articles that categorise different employees as “introverted” or “extroverted”.

Truthfully, you can’t just assume that your workers would be easy to segment in this way. For example, it’s not always true that an introvert insists on simply working independently in a quiet corner of the office. Meanwhile, an extrovert doesn’t always thrive in a more bustling area.

It would be more accurate to say that individual workers are inclined to switch between these working practices to suit the task at hand. For this reason, it would be beneficial for you to give your staff ready access to a range of working spaces rather than chain them to just one workstation.

Better still, let each employee design their own space

Office layouts don’t have to be left static. In fact, research suggests that they shouldn’t be. This research includes studies by the University of Exeter’s School of Psychology. The main revelation of this research is that workers can be up to 32% more productive if allowed to tailor their workspaces.

When designing an office for your staff, it’s easy to take a “top-down” approach, where you cast your own idea of a suitable workplace design onto your staff. This design might have your firm’s own corporate identity permeating right through it, but you should permit a degree of flexibility.

In two of the university’s studies, participants handled successive tasks in workspaces that were “lean”, “enriched”, “empowered” or “disempowered”. Participants in the “enriched” spaces, decorated with plants and images, worked 17% more productively than people in the “lean” spaces left bare and functional. Results were better still for workers allowed to design their areas…

It was these “empowered” individuals who achieved the 32% level of productivity in comparison to their “lean” counterparts. The workers achieved this productivity boost without making a higher number of errors, boding well for bosses who give their staff free rein over their work areas.

However, we might not expect such positive results from “disempowered” workers, whose self-made designs are redesigned by a senior staff member. Dr Craig Knight, who oversaw the research, observed: “When people feel uncomfortable in their surroundings, they are less engaged – not only with the space but also with what they do in it.”

He added: “If they can have some control, that all changes and people report being happier at work, identifying more with their employer, and are more efficient when doing their jobs.” Quite how you make spaces customisable is up to you, but a modular type of office design could work out well.

You could also invest in multipurpose office furniture, such as the sit-to-stand desk. This type of desk would allow the user to easily adjust it, whether they would prefer sitting or standing as they work. The sit-to-stand desk is also not to be confused with the standing desk, which is built to remain in its standing position. The more adjustable desk is the better option…

In 2018, Apple CEO Tim Cook revealed in an interview relayed by The Telegraph that “we have given all of our employees, 100%, standing desks. If you can stand for a while, then sit, and so on and so forth, it’s much better for your lifestyle.”

Therefore, standing desks might still work in certain contexts. Still, the most important point to make here is that you shouldn’t require your staff to stay either sitting all day or standing up all day. That’s because neither practice would be healthy, as also indicated in an article on website The Business Journals.

Which of your staff will be in the office at any given time?

You could be surprised by how long you find yourself deliberating over the amount of space your office should have. It would be fair to say that, for many workers, the days of staying tied to the office for a whole eight-hour stint at a time are fading into history.

You could find, for example, that some of your employees often work from home or even while on business trips. It’s amazing how much you can get done on a smartphone or tablet these days! Other employees might work in satellite offices in pretty far-flung parts of the globe.

Even when you allow workers to arrive and leave your brick-and-concrete office as they fancy, you could find that these workers take up the offer surprisingly rarely. Perhaps the fault for that could be the layout of the office itself. Does it accommodate how people often work in the modern age?

You could consider adopting hot desking. This is where, instead of being given their own permanent workstation in the office, each employee is, whenever they enter that office, allowed to take whatever seat they like out of those available.

If many of your employees are often out of the office, then switching it to a hot desking layout could help your business to minimise its office footprint. Even if you are overhauling an existing space, hot desking could enable you to take on more staff without having to relocate to a larger office.

According to research conducted by Vodafone and mentioned by IT PRO, embracing hot desking could lead UK businesses to save £34 billion annually. It’s certainly not the only prediction to have portrayed hot desking so positively from a financial standpoint, either.

Still, hot desking is not necessarily right for every person – and, therefore, every business. Some of your workers might actually enjoy the familiarity of working in the same place and next to the same person day after day. Therefore, putting this stability at risk could hamper their mental health.

This is why, if you are weighing up a move to hot desking, you must consult your existing staff first. That way, you can help to ensure that you do not inadvertently tread upon their toes.

Let Mother Nature add her own finishing touches

You might have been casually advised to add greenery – like potted plants, flower gardens and living walls – to your workplace. It would be wise advice, too. The Global Impact of Biophilic Design in the Workplace study revealed that workers in spaces with natural features reported benefitting from 15% higher levels of overall wellbeing, according to Forbes.

The respondents also reported feeling, at work, 6% more productive and 15% more creative. Perhaps your workplace could intelligently and seamlessly integrate outdoor spaces, like a rooftop patio or staff garden, and let natural light enter more abundantly, such as through skylights.

The case for increasing the amount of organic light is made clear by other research – this time, a study by the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis at Cornell University. This research showed that workers sat no further than 10 feet of a window reportedly experienced an 84% fall in cases of eyestrain and headaches as well as blurred vision symptoms.

If you’ve bought some real estate for your office but remain uncertain what to do next, contact our experienced design team here at Maris. This article has hopefully led you to come up with some exciting ideas, but we can help them to gel into a cohesive design solution for your office.