How to Create a Legible Workplace

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Chair of the Month

Dr. Michael O’Neill, a senior research strategist for Haworth, explores how we’ve moved from cube farms to chaos to something a lot better: legible workplaces.

As O’Neill describes below, this image of AIREA Studio in Detroit illustrates a number of easy-to-read workspaces. Photo by Jason Keen.

The days of heads-down, individual, focused work at a desk for eight hours are gone. Technology has untethered us. Employers seeking innovation are encouraging collaboration among workers and groups. The “cube farms” of the Baby Boomers are giving way to the flexible workstyle of Generation X workers and the desire for social and group workspaces of Generation Y. Successful organizations recognize that the definition of work is shifting to include times to refresh, be inspired, socialize, move about, and collaborate. Thus, they’re providing a variety of workspaces that meet the needs of these varied modes of working so that their employees can be more effective. They allow people to choose to work in a way that is optimal for them for any given task. How these varied workspaces are configured within a workplace will have a large impact on attracting and retaining Generation Z workers.

More than heads-down work and heads-down space

Let’s say I start out my day with a task that requires focused attention and sustained concentration, like writing a proposed project plan description. I’m going to want a spot with minimal visual and acoustic distractions and easy access to my resources. I’ll need to take a short break in there to recharge, too. Perhaps today I’ll head to a casual, social space that has places to perch so I can scroll through some emails as I enjoy the first few sips of a fresh cup of coffee. By early afternoon, I may need to shift gears and sit in on a problem-solving session with four of my colleagues. Before doing that, I’ll want to orient myself with the subject matter and scan through my notes from a previous meeting. I’ll look for a spot to lounge comfortably for 20 to 30 minutes prior so I can pull out my tablet, refresh my memory, and jot down some notes. In contrast, the problem-solving session itself happens in an enclosed space for acoustical control that also has whiteboards and space-dividing screens — a place where we’ll move about, interact, and use any given choice of technology. Before my day ends, I’ll want to pause long enough to catch up on emails and phone calls, so I’ll look for a place where I can land for a bit and not disturb others while on the phone. Not uncommon, is it?

Choosing and getting to where you want to work

Employers are attempting to provide flexibility to employees desiring a variety of work modes by supplementing private offices and cubicles with different kinds of social and interactive spaces for a variety of individual and collaborative work. However, the sheer number of options offered, and the sometimes ambiguous intentions of these spaces in terms of the activities supported create a layer of confusion for people as they enter into a workplace. How do I find an appropriate space if I need to talk on the phone and not disturb others? How do I see and find others when I need to talk? How do I understand and navigate through the space to locate needed spaces and resources? If the workplace is “legible”, I should be able to do this quickly and easily.

Legibility, a people-centered approach to design, uses an easily recognized pattern for the overall configuration of the workplace with visual access to landmarks, signage, and architectural elements.

Legibility, a people-centered approach to design, uses an easily recognized pattern for the overall configuration of the workplace with visual access to landmarks, signage, and architectural elements. When we enter into a space, we first create a “mental map” of what that overall space looks like. We look for markers that tell us how different spaces should be used, how to identify the space we want, and how to navigate through the space. The more obvious the answers to these questions, the fewer resources (cognitive effort, energy, and time) we need to get where we want to go — and do the work we want to accomplish.

Remember my plan for recharging? Take a look at the photo at the top of this post. There, I’m going to head into the bright, airy café space with the stools so I can perch. Check out the pair of chairs with the small table. That’s where I’m going to prep before moving into the meeting space with the glass doors that I reserved earlier that day. These were fairly easy to identify and find, right? It makes sense that instead of taxing employees with confusing and non-intuitive configurations of spaces in their workplace, free up those resources for intended work by designing in legibility.

This is particularly important for Generation Z. These new workers have a lower tolerance for ambiguity. Workplace legibility, when done well, makes choosing the location for our next task and the transition between different work modes easier and quicker for all of us. It also reduces the stress of navigating and enables using the entire work environment more effectively.

Active ergonomics for all work

Once we get to the right workspace, the design, furnishings, and technology of that space should meet the ergonomic needs of that mode of work. Active Ergonomics extends existing ergonomic principles to these varied activities. It offers organizations a means to support employee health and effectiveness beyond people’s individual work activities at single workstations to include the variety of workstyles for both individual and group activities. Heads-down, concentrated, lone work is still needed about half the time, so what does the rest of the time spent in either individual or group activities look like? How long and what postures do people use when needing only a place to stop and prepare? How do people move about when sharing knowledge visually? Does it look different if that sharing is informal or formal? What technology supports these activities and how is it being used? Active Ergonomics moves traditional ergonomics from the workspace to include quick postural changes, visual and physical access to collaborative technology and people — as well as their ideas — to the entire workplace.

Heads-down and individual work is happening in places other than private offices or cubicles, and workspaces are needed for all the different ways people collaborate. Organizations that design workplaces with legibility and Active Ergonomics in mind have the opportunity to promote a healthy and effective work experience for everyone who comes to their space.

This post was sponsored by Haworth.
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