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Office design keeps changing but we still don't like it

Nobody agrees on how offices should be designed. Let's just start there. We don't even agree on the merits of the American version of "The Office" versus the British original (my 2 cents: the American version is unintentionally darker because it leaves those people in dead-end job stasis for nine years).

But we can all agree that the office can be improved. That's why a recent Fortune article caught my eye. It explores the idea of the "flexible" office from a few angles, including how a startup customizes its workspace to allow for concentrated work, as well as the history of and current trends in office furniture. Here's the thesis:

Evidence is mixed on whether open plans actually foster collaboration, and studies have shown that open office plans decrease productivity and employee well-being while increasing the number of sick days workers take.

What went wrong? And, if an open plan isn’t the solution to the modern workplace, what comes next?

There is no one answer for every company, and we know that the answer won't be cubicles, or private offices for everyone, or even private desks.  The people shaping the future of our workspaces can be disturbingly focused on costs and extracting output. Look at these quotes:

“The cost saving aspect was a big driver — if you take down the walls, you can get a greater density of people in one space,” says organizational psychologist Matthew Davis. ...

"Last spring, West Elm teamed up with a Canadian commercial office interior company to launch West Elm Workspace, a line of office furniture designed to feel like a living space." ...

“We’re no longer designing spaces for people who work 8-to-5,” says Meena Krenek, an associate principal at the New York City-based architecture firm Perkins+Will. “Work is now 24/7.”

And, of course, the robots will take all our jobs anyways. All this said, what do we as employees and managers have control over?

flats-1003080_1280 Credit: Pixabay

Consider two principles, briefly:

  1. Encourage flexibility in methods and settings while all working toward a common goal.
  2. Productivity is not simply about quantity of output or length of work. Quality and efficiency matter, as well as the environments that enable those outcomes.

I can speak to this as someone who works in an office but also spends 20% to 60% of my week working from home. I have a desk, but it's in an open space without dividers. Almost all of the co-workers I interact with daily are remote; many I've never met or even had a phone call with. Work is already flexible; the only question is how we can make it bearable without sacrificing the business.

So, we have off-site people who work in a home office. We surely have folks (freelancers and/or full-timers) working from their couch or bed, or in a coffee shop. Many of them are working for us between other jobs or obligations. In my apartment, I have a dedicated room for work, but it's only because I recently moved. For the past five years, I worked and lived in roughly the same space.

I find I am best suited to working from home when I'm spending my time on deadlines. When it's work that requires some thinking, digging or conversation, I'm better off at the office (though I wrote this at home). The p.m. is better for me to be in the office than at home. Some days, if I'm feeling particularly good, I might work a little later. Other days, I might cut out after deadlines rather than trying to work and getting nothing done.

Going back to our principles, I'm attempting to be flexible in how and where I do my work, knowing that certain work (deadlines) must be done as directly as possible. Secondly, I'm not confusing "working" with "output." Hours worked is not inherently a productive metric.

I'm incredibly lucky. My company's product does not depend on geography, and there is an appreciation for flexibility as long as deadlines are hit. But those principles can still be of help to many of you. If we can't make a wonderful or perfect workplace, we can at least make it a little better.

Maybe my story doesn't help you at all. That's OK. That Fortune article illustrates some strategies you might try. SmartBrief happened to write about this issue nearly seven years ago (my first day at SmartBrief, coincidentally). Important is the idea that not everyone will be happy:

Realize that not everyone is going to like it. In fact, a LOT of your workers aren’t going to like it. Or as one blogger put it: “Open-plan offices are the modern equivalent of working in an 18th century cotton mill. Really, the only major difference today is that you are slightly less likely to lose a hand to a machine or get stabbed in the head by something.”

We also have the experience of a trade association and SmartBrief partner, the National Retail Federation, that recently moved into new offices and had to design its ideal workspace. From CEO Matthew Shay:

[Create] an “ecosystem of spaces” or a mix of private and open space work environments that can accommodate all working styles and personal preferences.

That's as simple as it gets: You cannot one-size-fits-all your office design. If you have multiple sites, people in remote locations, people on deadline-oriented tasks and others working on a different schedule, you need to allow and enable flexibility. How do you keep everyone aligned? Tying their work, and work habits, to the organizational strategy. If you're having trouble doing that, maybe you need a better organizational strategy.

Whether as an individual, manager or executive, try being flexible. Be accepting and understanding of ambiguity and personal preference as long as everyone winds up going the right direction. Be prepared to adjust. If nothing else, start thinking about how you work and how that might improve.

James daSilva manages SmartBlog on Leadership and edits SmartBrief’s daily newsletters on leadership and entrepreneurship. Sign up, and let him know what you think.