Editor's Letter

April 22, 2015

Is Your Office Ready for Alternative Spaces?

As the Roman poet said, one person’s meat is another person’s poison. There are plentiful supplies of both in the office workspace. Consider these conundrums:

  • Many office employees say that time spent in interactions with colleagues is among the most productive parts of their day; many also say that interruptions by colleagues are among the greatest obstacles.
  • Many people like a place where they can see what other people are doing; many people also want to hide from others.
  • Many people consider nearly any noise to be a distraction; many also enjoy the hum of activity in a Starbucks or an informal collaborative area as a backdrop for their office work.
  • Some distractions or interruptions are restorative; others dent productivity. The time it takes for an employee to recover from the latter can be longer than the time of the interruption.
  • Some work requires head-down concentration, which for me would include writing this column. On the other hand, some tasks, like routine replies to emails, can be pushed along with some friendly distractions because they require less concentration.

Such behavioral opposites are confounding enough without considering this truism: on any given day – or hour – people can migrate from one extreme to the other.

While these paradoxes of human behavior seem like irreconcilable differences, office designers focus intently on solutions to them because employees who are satisfied with their surroundings are more productive. This fact has enormous potential for the bottom line because employees are the most expensive resource of most organizations, so a small improvement can have centrifugal force. And only 11% are highly satisfied with their workspace, according to one Steelcase study.

So what solutions are available to enhance productivity, particularly when firms are intensely aware of their real estate costs and the average space per office employee has been dwindling for decades? Many firms are trying flexible alternative spaces that give employees choices on where to work on various tasks through the day – like cafés and lobbies that are also working spaces, more quiet spaces and fewer private offices, smaller but more numerous conference rooms, and recreation components.

This issue focuses on ideas (beginning on page 24) that blur the boundaries of traditional office space. Is your organization ready to experiment?

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