The shift toward more collaborative workspaces started a decade ago with forward-thinking companies in Silicon Valley. They were the first in the United States to pioneer higher-density floor plans for workstations to help “people collide” and foster a greater exchange of ideas.
Leaders at those companies wanted to increase productivity through the imparting of tactical knowledge by senior managers to their team members and vice versa. Staffers could ask why and how systems and processes work. Senior managers could share their strategic vision, life experiences, industry, and technical expertise.
In the past, when corporate culture dictated bigger spaces, the ratio of private offices or workstations to collaborative work areas was generally a 70-30 split.
But this recent dramatic shift in workspace design flips this ratio to 70 percent (or higher) for collaboration, and 30 percent for private work.
This shift is occurring among Fortune 500 companies, too. They are designing better space utilization by moving managers and directors into open work areas, and restricting private offices to vice president-level or higher-level executives.
To lower perceived hierarchy between executives, these companies employ a universal office size with uniform dimensions. In some cases, to promote transparent leadership, executives will sit in an open cube environment and have an on demand quiet area, when needed.
Two factors are driving this shift:
- Technology has made it easier to share information and connect team members
- Telecommuting is on the rise
The influence of technology and telecommuting
A host of technologies are game-changers for team collaboration, starting with the growth of cloud computing. Now, huge amounts of information and applications can be stored on the internet and securely accessed via a standard web browser from anywhere in the world.
Technologies such as Microsoft SharePoint already provide an application to create and manage a vast repository of online data. And within this decade, employees will access standard work-related applications such as Microsoft Word or Microsoft Excel from the web, too, thereby creating documents that “live” on the internet alone. (With Google, this already is happening).
Further, employees can share these cloud-based documents in real-time across the world, leave them stored in the cloud (without needing the overhead of servers), and never download anything to their laptop or mobile device.
When it comes to meetings, employees can have face-to-face exchanges by using videoconferencing options like Skype and other voice-over-IP (VoIP) solutions, from GoToMeeting and WebEx to Join.me. They all make conducting business and sharing information online very easy.
Indeed, given these virtual meetings, telecommuting also is on the rise. Telecommuting has had a big impact on recent workspace designs. Industry research shows that 83 percent of employees work remotely at least part of the day.
Telecommuting represents a win-win for companies and their employees. Companies gain more productivity from employees who work longer hours to retain the privilege of telecommuting. And telecommuters realize a 17 percent reduction in monthly expenses — mostly from transportation costs — making it a very attractive perk.
In the past, companies did not promote telecommuting because leadership wanted to see its employees working. With the advent of performance-based management, more employees now are given the opportunity to work anywhere as long as they fulfill their business goals and objectives.
Since telecommuters come to the office primarily to communicate with fellow workers, the office environment must be set up to enable smart, efficient collaboration. New office designs are behaviorally based and provide more on-demand workspace to allow employees to make their own decision on where they want to work.
Today, there are more communal, huddle areas to eat, talk, and connect with others. Consequentially, personal space has become more limited in favor of collaborative areas. The private 8×8 and 8×10 offices have given way to open 7×7 and 6×6 workspaces.
How this shift translates to individual workspace formulas
Five years ago, the average square footage per person was approximately 245 SF. Now, new workspace designs call for approximately 170-180 SF. In the future, this number could lower to as little as 125 SF as telecommuters simply need a “touchdown area” from which to work.
Panel heights around workstations will shrink, too. In the past, panels might be 68” high to help with acoustics. However, industry research indicates that panel height can be reduced to 64” with no significant impact to noise levels. As a result, new designs are lowering panel heights — or eliminating panels all together — to encourage a performance based, homogeneous culture.
How two companies are increasing collaboration through design
Network Capital, a nationally recognized mortgage-lending firm, had a vision for is new headquarters — one that would support the owners’ transparent leadership style and promote employee engagement.
Having received a five-star rating for extraordinary service, the firm believed success should be equally distributed amongst employees, offering each of them the opportunity to make a difference within the company. So open lines of sight bring maximum transparency to the office to encourage meaningful connections between employees and team leaders.
Telogis — ranked by Inc. 5000 as one of America’s fastest growing companies by Inc. — provides satellite-based asset tracking. The company’s leaders desired a space that would engage their clients and inspire their employees.
So they partnered with my firm to transform their Aliso Viejo office into a space that would provide indoor-outdoor areas to encourage collaboration while taking advantage of the West Coast climate.
The open floor plan, sunshine-filled glass expanses, high ceilings with large area of exposed ductwork, and tech-appointed outdoor areas engage employees and allow them to work anywhere they choose. The executive briefing center provides the latest in technology for telecommuters and Skype meetings, and there is an open dining area and lounge to promote interaction.
Moreover, Telogis emphasized amenities and collaborative areas; they created smaller individual workstations with the intention of maximizing collision spaces where employees could connect.
They eliminated perimeter, private offices and ensured same-size work environments for everyone. I have found this natural egalitarian approach to be a catalyst for collaboration, so we utilized lower panel heights on individual workstations accompanied with glass on individual workstations to promote the transparent and open vibe among all employees.
As companies migrate from private workspaces to more collaborative work areas, the size of workstations may shrink — but social interactivity, information exchange, process improvement, and creative ideation in the office will all grow.
Ultimately, this will create a very personal environment for employees.