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Send  Share  RSS  Twitter  20 Aug 2010

THE WORKPLACE: Designing the Ideal Workplace


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“The brain is a wonderful organ,” wrote the American poet Robert Frost; “it starts working the moment you get up in the morning and doesn’t stop until you get into the office.”

There is plenty of truth in Frost’s rueful wit. The problem with most workplaces is that they impose their own culture, to often stultifying effect. Just think of the language people use when they write letters on their company letterhead, or speak at client meetings. That dreary management-speak reflects the environment in which they operate every day – where the furniture, lighting, neutral colours, attitudes and movements of those around them, all speak of hierarchy, defensiveness and uniformity. In places like this, there is little room for individual inspiration and fulfilment, let alone innovation.

The way the workplace is designed can be a crucial influence on the way people approach their work. So how do we design somewhere that can get the best out of different kinds of people? Marilyn Zelinksy, whose book The Inspired Workspace is one of the most thoughtful and comprehensive reviews of the subject, offers five different visions: the nurturing, fantasy, serene, playful or artistic workspace. There are great ideas here, and a recognition that different people need different things at different times. But those requirements are sometimes contradictory. How can you have a workspace that is simultaneously serene and playful? Actually, it may be possible, but we need to think beyond the physical workspace itself, as I shall explain in a moment.

Google, with its famously collaborative culture, would come high on anyone’s list of companies that make a real effort to foster enjoyment, creativity and expression in the workplace. Here are just some of things Google employees can expect to find in one of its workplaces:
• Local expressions of each location, from a mural in Buenos Aires to ski gondolas in Zurich
• Bicycles or scooters for efficient travel between meetings; dogs; lava lamps; massage chairs; large inflatable balls
• Googlers sharing cubes, yurts and huddle rooms; very few solo offices
• Laptops everywhere – standard issue for mobile coding, email on the go and note-taking
• Football, pool tables, volleyball courts, assorted video games, pianos, ping-pong tables, and gyms that offer yoga and dance classes
• Grassroots employee groups for all interests, like meditation, film, wine tasting and salsa dancing

The Google model doesn’t just work functionally; it clearly inspires too. One of its offices even has chairs round a paddling-pool. No wonder people are proud to work for a company that believes that work can and should be enjoyable, and that knowledge should be shared. But would the Google workplace work for everyone? It is highly idiosyncratic. Besides, there are not many organizations with the resources to offer such a remarkable variety of environments and entertainments.

Let’s get back to some of the essentials of workplace design. Although the study of this subject is still in its infancy, we already know that simple things such as good lighting and adequate daylight can reduce absenteeism by 15 per cent and increase productivity by up to 20 per cent.
We also know that nearly half the world's top companies have adopted a highly mobile way of working, with at least a third of their staff working away from the conventional workplace – either at home or on the move.

One of the first essentials, therefore, is to consult your IT specialists and facilities managers to ensure that everyone can find and use the space, materials and software programs they need to do their jobs. At Regus, we took the best advice we could before opening our flagship Berkeley Square office in London, with the result that first-time visitors are struck by the unusual combination of a pleasant, airy reception area with several sound-proofed pods in which solo operators are working at PCs while all around them other business people mingle, sit in comfortable chairs and drink coffee, make enquiries of the concierges, or move off to one of the meeting-rooms at the side or on another floor. All that remains is for us to keep consulting our customers to ensure that they have what they need, when and where they need it.

Within an organisation, this kind of flexibility will only be satisfactorily achieved by handing control to your employees, so that they can open windows, adjust air-conditioning or lighting, and select their own soundtrack without disturbing anyone else. They also need communal spaces and designated break-out areas, as well as boardroom-style meeting-rooms so that great ideas can emerge from casual conversations as well as scheduled meetings.

The final crucial ingredient is harder to define. It’s about bringing inspiration into the workspace by pleasing the eye, as well as the other senses. Tastes vary, but we can safely say that beige, although soothing, is never inspirational. So bring some colour in, whether with brightly painted walls, pictures, photographs or objects. Certain features, like running water, delight almost everyone in some way. And games, like pool tables, appeal to enthusiasts without necessarily offending anyone else.

At its new harbour side headquarters in Auckland, New Zealand, Vodafone offers all that you would expect from a modern workspace – plenty of informal, colourful, adaptable spaces with coffee and food counters and games, available to customers and staff alike. The informality and adaptability applies equally, as the company puts it, to “homers, zoners, roamers and phoners”. In other words, you can use the company’s facilities in person on a regular on occasional basis, or by phone, or electronically, from home.

This is what I mean by thinking beyond the physical workspace itself. Every person’s most important workspace is their head, so we must ensure that the brain has what it needs from its environment – not the stultifying cubicles, doors, partitions, filing cabinets and corridors of the traditional office that Robert Frost so memorably satirised.

In my view, the brain has four essential requirements for its physical workspace: possibility, energy, calm and flexibility. Open space with options on view, like games, tables, food and drink, enhance the feeling of possibility. Colours, objects and people moving around create energy; but calm must be accessible too, whether via chairs and tables in quiet corners, window views or proximity to water. Finally, there must be flexibility – which means not just adaptable spaces and materials, but a mechanism for consultation so you can ensure that your workplace continues to serve its people in the way they want.


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