The Re­turn to Pri­vacy


Azure - - CONTENTS - By Dawn Calleja

The work­place is fi­nally get­ting what many of us crave: quiet zones

If ever there was a sign that the open-of­fice trend has gone awry, it is this:

A few years ago, Steel­case teamed up with Su­san Cain, au­thor of Quiet: The Power of In­tro­verts in a World That Can’t Stop Talk­ing, to cre­ate a line of mod­u­lar work rooms with the tag line “Em­pow­er­ing In­tro­verts.” The so-called Su­san Cain Quiet Spa­ces – with names like Flow, Be Me and Mind Share – are de­signed to be plunked down in the midst of an open of­fice, pro­vid­ing refuge via nat­u­ral wood, soft, cus­tomiz­able light­ing, La­gu­ni­tas lounge so­fas and, per­haps most im­por­tantly, sound­proof­ing tech­nol­ogy that “of­fers an at­mos­phere where in­tro­verts can work their best.” In other words, the walls will bless­edly block out not just pry­ing eyes, but also the ring­tone/pho­to­copier/this Is Us-recap/sales-call ca­coph­ony of the typ­i­cal of­fice en­vi­ron­ment. Meg O’neil, a de­sign man­ager at Steel­case’s head­quar­ters in Grand Rapids, Michi­gan, says the com­pany sees “tremen­dous op­por­tu­nity” in de­sign­ing mod­u­lar an­ti­dotes to open of­fices, since so many of th­ese workspaces were de­signed with­out “nec­es­sar­ily think­ing about the holis­tic needs of peo­ple work­ing there on a daily ba­sis.” In­deed, when O’neil and her col­leagues walk through the typ­i­cal of­fice, “we see a lot of work­arounds,” she says. You’ve likely seen them, too: work­ers, des­per­ate for pri­vacy, hun­kered be­hind fil­ing cab­i­nets or perched on bath­rooms sinks, whis­per­ing into their iphones. Or row upon row of peo­ple with noise-can­celling head­phones clamped over their ears – the mod­ern-day equiv­a­lent of the do-not-dis­turb sign (which most peo­ple ig­nore any­way). More than 70 per cent of those in the U.S. now work in open-plan of­fices, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Fa­cil­ity Man­age­ment As­so­ci­a­tion. Yet, stud­ies prov­ing th­ese en­vi­ron­ments are bad for us have been pil­ing up for more than a decade. All of them point to neg­a­tive im­pacts on pro­duc­tiv­ity and men­tal and phys­i­cal health – not to men­tion the bot­tom line. Em­ploy­ees

con­sis­tently put noise and lack of pri­vacy at the top of the griev­ance list. The de­sign firm Gensler, which sur­veys thou­sands of work­ers an­nu­ally across the United States, has found that 77 per cent of them crave quiet time dur­ing the work­day, and 69 per cent are dis­sat­is­fied with noise lev­els. Fur­ni­ture man­u­fac­turer Ha­worth has ar­rived at sim­i­lar con­clu­sions, along with the dis­cov­ery that work­ers are los­ing up to 28 per cent of their pro­duc­tive time due to in­ter­rup­tions and dis­trac­tions. It can take more than 20 min­utes to re­fo­cus on the task at hand, which means we’re los­ing as much as 86 min­utes per day, per em­ployee, due to noise dis­trac­tion alone. Open-plan work­ers are un­health­ier, too. Ex­ces­sive noise raises blood pres­sure and stim­u­lates the ner­vous sys­tem to re­lease stress hor­mones. Fac­tor in the unim­peded flow of air­borne germs and th­ese em­ploy­ees take 62 per cent more sick leave than those who work in en­closed of­fices. So how did we get to a place where go­ing to work is lit­er­ally mak­ing us sick, not to men­tion ren­der­ing us nearly in­ca­pable of get­ting stuff done? There’s an ar­gu­ment to be made that it be­gan with Her­man Miller. In 1964, one of the com­pany’s de­sign­ers, Robert Propst, cre­ated the Ac­tion Of­fice to give work­ers – most of whom toiled in open-plan bullpens like the ones we have to­day – more con­trol over their work­day. The Ac­tion Of­fice was ad­justable and flex­i­ble, al­low­ing oc­cu­pants to shift seam­lessly be­tween head-down work and col­lab­o­rat­ing with col­leagues. But in 1968, Her­man Miller be­gan al­low­ing com­pa­nies to pick and choose mod­u­lar el­e­ments of Propst’s de­sign and, nat­u­rally, they grav­i­tated to the cheap­est one: the walls. Cu­bi­cles mu­tated – or, rather, they ceased mu­tat­ing. They be­came syn­ony­mous with con­form­ity, with mind-numb­ing, soul-killing drudgery. “The cu­bi­cliz­ing of peo­ple in mod­ern cor­po­ra­tions is mono­lithic in­san­ity,” Propst said in de­spair not long be­fore he died, in 2000. It took the dot-com boom to re­vive open-plan of­fices. Tear­ing down cu­bi­cle walls be­came a sym­bol of col­lab­o­ra­tion, agility and in­no­va­tion. But it’s no co­in­ci­dence that the con­cept took off among cash-strapped start-ups. Af­ter all, open of­fices al­low com­pa­nies to cram more peo­ple into fewer square feet, and can cost 50 per cent less than tra­di­tional lay­outs. Larger com­pa­nies seized on the trend, too, with lit­tle thought for the con­se­quences. A lawyer at a large Cana­dian cor­po­ra­tion re­calls be­ing evicted from her pri­vate of­fice and in­stalled at a tiny desk with no bar­ri­ers be­tween her and hun­dreds of col­leagues. She was of­ten forced to con­duct le­gal busi­ness on her pri­vate mo­bile phone in some un­oc­cu­pied nook of the build­ing, lest she breach con­fi­den­tial­ity. Even­tu­ally, the stress grew so acute that she quit. “The ul­ti­mate goal was re­ally cost re­duc­tion,” says Lisa Ful­ford-roy, head of work­place strat­egy in eastern Canada for the gi­ant com­mer­cial real es­tate firm CBRE. “But they didn’t re­ally un­der­stand the im­pact of de­sign and phys­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment on day-to-day ex­pe­ri­ence, and how that can trans­late to lev­els of en­gage­ment and pro­duc­tiv­ity.” Of course, there are tan­gi­ble ben­e­fits to cram­ming a bunch of em­ploy­ees with sim­i­lar or com­ple­men­tary skills into one place and forc­ing them to in­ter­act. “We know peo­ple who col­lab­o­rate face to face have higher trust lev­els and can ac­tu­ally get to so­lu­tions faster,” says Ful­ford-roy. That’s pre­cisely why, in 2013, Ya­hoo’s then-ceo Marissa Mayer re­versed the com­pany’s long-stand­ing pol­icy of al­low­ing em­ploy­ees to work from home – the lack of im­promptu brain­storm­ing ses­sions and ran­dom con­nec­tions was killing cre­ativ­ity. The key is to strike a bal­ance be­tween face time and pri­vacy, and to give em­ploy­ees the power to choose how much of ei­ther one they re­quire and when. “We know that one size fits no one,” says Ful­ford-roy. “We are so ac­cli­ma­tized to cus­tomiz­ing and cu­rat­ing ev­ery­thing we do; the abil­ity to do that in the work­place is crit­i­cal.” Gensler has iden­ti­fied four main “work modes” through­out the day: col­lab­o­rat­ing, fo­cus­ing, learn­ing and so­cial­iz­ing. Some re­quire pri­vacy and some don’t. The most in­no­va­tive com­pa­nies un­der­stand this and, as Gensler has found, are five times more likely to pri­or­i­tize both in­di­vid­ual and group spa­ces, bal­anc­ing fo­cus and col­lab­o­ra­tion.

“Work­ers are los­ing up to 28 per cent of their pro­duc­tive time ev­ery day due to in­ter­rup­tions and dis­trac­tions”

“Peo­ple who col­lab­o­rate face to face have higher trust lev­els and can ac­tu­ally get to so­lu­tions much faster”

Putting this in­sight into prac­tice means build­ing “an ecosys­tem of dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ments,” says An­nie Berg­eron, a de­sign prin­ci­pal at Gensler who fo­cuses on tech­nol­ogy, me­dia and fi­nan­cial ser­vices com­pa­nies. Th­ese en­vi­ron­ments might in­clude a desk that acts as an em­ployee’s home base, fo­cus pods for head-down or con­fi­den­tial work, stand-up sta­tions to boost en­ergy, meet­ing rooms for col­lab­o­ra­tion, and dy­namic cafés and lounge ar­eas for so­cial­iz­ing or sim­ply soak­ing up the buzz. “Choice,” says Ful­ford-roy, “is ex­traor­di­nar­ily em­pow­er­ing” – and so much sim­pler than it would have been two decades ago, when em­ploy­ees were still teth­ered to their desks by land­lines and cum­ber­some com­put­ers. In­deed, Ful­ford-roy points out, CBRE has found that desks are sit­ting empty be­tween 40 and 50 per cent of the time. “It’s not be­cause peo­ple are not at work, but be­cause the way we’re work­ing is much more mo­bile.”

There’s ad­di­tional ben­e­fit to en­cour­ag­ing em­ploy­ees to wan­der around, says Christo­pher Liu, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of strat­egy at the Uni­ver­sity of Toronto’s Rot­man School of Man­age­ment. “Hav­ing very broad net­works is crit­i­cal to in­for­ma­tion flow. [Th­ese en­vi­ron­ments] pro­duce bet­ter ideas.” Take the U.S. Se­nate, which Liu has stud­ied ex­ten­sively. Sen­a­tors serve a six-year term, and ev­ery two years their desks are un­bolted and moved to a dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tion on the Se­nate floor. Liu found that mov­ing just 10 me­tres closer to a fel­low sen­a­tor in­creased by seven per cent the like­li­hood that the two would sup­port each other’s ini­tia­tives. “If any­body un­der­stands the ben­e­fit of hav­ing a broad net­work,” says Liu, “it’s th­ese elite politi­cians.” The good news is, com­pa­nies can make th­ese kinds of tweaks to their of­fice geog­ra­phy rel­a­tively eas­ily. “This is some­thing you can use to drive op­er­a­tional per­for­mance and the bot­tom line with­out any cost,” says Liu. “It’s pure profit.” De­sign­ing the of­fice of the fu­ture takes plan­ning, how­ever. “Or­ga­ni­za­tions are in flux, and it’s eas­i­est, of­ten, to just throw down a master plan,” says Liu. But that’s a mis­take. One of Berg­eron’s clients re­cently moved from a tra­di­tional of­fice to one with no as­signed desks (not even for top ex­ec­u­tives) and with univer­sal tech­nol­ogy in­ter­faces so em­ploy­ees could re­main plugged into the work­flow no mat­ter where they were. Be­fore it un­der­took the project, Berg­eron’s team had em­ploy­ees fill out lengthy ques­tion­naires and spent hours on-site ob­serv­ing their work habits. Then it launched a pi­lot pro­gram to test for po­ten­tial snags. With­out this kind of “ro­bust change man­age­ment,” says Berg­eron, there’s a good chance your em­ploy­ees will re­volt, no mat­ter how slick the new space. “You need a work­place strat­egy to prop­erly as­sess how dif­fer­ent teams within the same or­ga­ni­za­tion need to work,” she says. “Spa­ces be­come end-user-de­fined.”

For in­stance, one di­vi­sion – say, ac­count­ing – might re­quire a high de­gree of fo­cus and should there­fore be sta­tioned in a quiet zone, with ac­cess to lots of meet­ing rooms and lounge ar­eas for spo­radic col­lab­o­ra­tion. Con­versely, groups where em­ploy­ees talk to one another all day long – like Berg­eron’s own mar­ket­ing team – might hap­pily oc­cupy louder, more cen­tral ar­eas, with any­one in need of quiet time able to seek out a pri­vate room. Re­duc­ing fric­tion is key. There are plenty of ex­am­ples of com­pa­nies who had the right idea but failed in the ex­e­cu­tion. A few of the more com­mon blun­ders in­clude us­ing cheaper ma­te­ri­als in open ar­eas (which can cause sound to ping and re­ver­ber­ate) and build­ing so-called pri­vate rooms that aren’t ac­tu­ally sound­proof. Another big one is build­ing too few meet­ing rooms or fo­cus pods. The idea, says O’neil, is to cre­ate enough pri­vate spa­ces that peo­ple can duck into them for 20 min­utes or four hours with­out hav­ing to book in ad­vance or worry about tick­ing off other pri­vacy-seek­ers. The faster com­pa­nies un­der­stand the need for a diver­sity of spa­ces, the bet­ter. Never has the global war for tal­ent been quite so fierce, and en­sur­ing your of­fice – rather than the lo­cal Star­bucks – is the most in­spi­ra­tional place for em­ploy­ees to be is a pow­er­ful tool for both at­tract­ing and re­tain­ing the best and bright­est. Berg­eron had one client whose job ac­cep­tance rate went from 50 per cent to 93 per cent in the wake of an of­fice re­vamp. It’s not just the slick­ness of the de­sign that counts, how­ever – ac­cord­ing to Berg­eron, em­ploy­ees want work en­vi­ron­ments that of­fer a choice be­tween fo­cus and in­spi­ra­tion. And that holds true re­gard­less of age. Gensler has found there’s no dif­fer­ence be­tween mil­len­ni­als and older gen­er­a­tions in terms of em­brac­ing flex­i­ble, tech­nol­ogy-en­abled of­fices. “It’s more what you do that drives your space needs,” she says, “not how old you are.” In the end, it comes down to bal­ance. “The busier our lives get, the more the work­place needs to sup­port some of my per­sonal life,” says O’neil. “Some­times I need to call my kid’s pe­di­a­tri­cian or take a call from the school in the mid­dle of the day, just [as] at home I’m tak­ing work calls at 10 p.m.” In the mean­time, O’neil and other de­sign­ers will con­tinue to feed the mar­ket with mod­u­lar work­arounds like Quiet Spa­ces. Th­ese might be stop­gap so­lu­tions, but at least no one on the out­side can hear you scream.


For the L.A. ad­ver­tis­ing agency Can­vas World­wide, New York ar­chi­tects A+I used dichroic glass par­ti­tions to cre­ate sep­a­rate rooms within an oth­er­wise open workspace. The colour­ful glass walls de­mar­cate board­rooms and meet­ing spa­ces that are suited for...

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