Success Is On The Move: The Impact Of Personalized Workplace Design

The future of workplace design is engaging with individuals and asking them what they want from their space.

Once Upon A Time…

Since the 1920s, when the first office designer, Frederick Taylor, introduced the ‘ideal’ office design, it consisted of an open-plan floor, with lots of staff sitting behind rows of desks, and doing so for long periods. One hundred years on and many of us are still doing precisely this, despite the known health risks and that it is slowly, but surely, killing us.

Sitting in poor postures for long periods, with little movement, is negatively impacting our physical and mental health, well-being and reducing our productivity. That is a fact. Marc T. Hamilton, Director of the Texas Obesity Research Center, has proven a direct relationship between sedentary behavior for long periods and health problems, such as weight gain, metabolic syndrome and diabetes.

Even as far back as 1700, studies were done to measure the relationship concerning lack of movement and health problems. Italian physician, Bernardino Ramazini, found that Tailors, who sat for long periods as they worked, had more health problems than Messengers, who moved lots while they worked.

Workplace Ergonomics

Nowadays, everything is almost too accessible, it seems that even our movement outside the workplace is waning. Everything can be purchased from home and delivered straight to you; food, clothing, groceries, thousands of hours of content available for immediate download. So, we go from sitting behind our desk to sitting in the car/train/bus, to collapsing on the sofa to stream the latest boxset.

Ergonomic office furniture is one of the essential elements of the work environment and is now a necessity for most offices. Varieties of high-tech office chairs flood the market with benefits of ‘added comfort’, ‘durability’, ‘recline and swivel ability’, ‘adjustable features’ that can prevent ‘back and circulation problems. They are, of course, more expensive, but companies recognize this as a worthy investment because it is a way to keep their staff sat comfortably behind their desks for prolonged periods.

But the advantages of ergonomic furniture, like reduced lower back strain and relieving muscle and joint stress, are just making us avoid the real issue – that we are still sitting! If we want to find a solution to this unhealthy sedentary lifestyle, then the answers must be those that take us away from our chair and make us move.

The once-trendy treadmill desks offered users the potential to increase activity while working. But physical therapist, Amy Wunsch from California noted that the multi-tasking of writing and walking did not suit everybody. She examined overuse of the machine; problems included foot aches and inflammation. Questioned about treadmill desks, she said, “We’re in a world where computers and technology have taken over. We have just gone along with it and made our bodies fit into the electronics instead of making the electronics fit us.”

The convenience of apps and technology may be killing the high-streets, but convenience in the workplace is different and often misrepresented. We do not need to have everything at arms-length, and we shouldn’t expect office furniture to encourage us not to move. In my opinion, ergonomics has a limit, and sometimes you need to force people to get up, move and work differently.

If we aren’t careful, ergonomic furniture will take over, and movement will become a thing of the past. We’ll end up like the brainwashed humans from Pixar’s ‘WALL-E’, bound to their ergonomic chairs.

‘Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere’

There have been significant developments since Robert Propst’s invention of ‘Action Office I’ (i.e. office cubicle) in the 1960s – before its widespread domination in the 1980s which became the ‘cubicle farm,’ heavily satirized in films like, Office Space, Fight Club, and American Beauty.

At the turn of the 21st Century, new technologies, world wide web, laptops, smartphones, and the quiet steps of social media, gave us the freedom to step away from our desks and encourage ‘Martini’ working: Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere.

Recent studies, following on from Ramazani’s study of Tailors and Messengers, confirm that the more we introduce movement into the workplace, the more beneficial it will be.

Silicon Valley giants (Google, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, eBay) were some of the first to recognize this as a benefit to staff productivity and innovation. Google’s Californian HQ popularized ‘agile working’ and led many other companies to follow in their footsteps – allowing staff to work more autonomously, whenever and however – this instills trust and rids the hostility that micro-management brings to the work environment.

Designers as Analysts

Office design is a collaborative process that must absolutely take into consideration how a client would like their new office to look and function, but workplace designers must consider the practicality and longevity of their new office as a sustainable workplace that will really cater to its users for years to come.

After a project briefing and consultation with a client, what follows is a workplace study. This is when it’s time to extensively analyse how a client utilizes their current space. The findings typically highlight an office’s trends and flows, revealing not only how their employees work but also how they use the workspace – taking into consideration elements like occupancy ratio (amount of people actually using desks), which varies throughout the working day. For example, a client may suggest that they need to have 120 desks in their new space. They justify this because they currently have 100 desks for each employee and they plan on growing by 20 percent so expect to need a total of 120 desks. On the surface it sounds logical, but the reality is that it would be an expensive mistake.

The workplace study documents the utilization of individual workstations. More often than not, only 70 percent of the desks are ever used permanently. Thirty percent of staff are rarely at their desk or often use a different space to work, other staff may be away on holiday, on sick leave, or out with clients. So if they are at 70 percent occupancy, then they actually only need the 100 desks that they already have, but would benefit from some alternative work spaces for the extra 30 percent to use ad-hoc.

This analysis is also great for determining meeting room usage, as most clients will tell us that they don’t have enough, so factor in additional space for meeting rooms in their new building. However, the workplace study finds out that their 20-person Boardroom in being used 90 percent of the time for two-person meetings, and the eight-person rooms only ever have four-six people in them. Not only are these findings beneficial for cost-savings, they allow for our team to implement a variety of versatile spaces in the workspace, offering its users greater choice, which is more crucial than many organisations believe.

Approaching Design

As Creative Director of Maris Interiors, a big part of my job is getting the best out of people and their workplace, but encouraging clients to recognize that one size does not fit all, and that effective office design is a by-product of choice, is a challenge I face daily.

‘Choice’ gives users control over how and where they work, but to incorporate choice, we must first change how they are accustomed to working. However, ‘change’ is seen as the forbidden c-word. People fear this word, afraid that change will disrupt their normality and what they are used to.

To cushion the change process, make a client’s desires significant to the design approach. User participation in the design is crucial to developing a work culture. A survey conducted by Deloitte showed that 94 percent of executives and 88 percent of employees believe a distinct workplace culture is important to business success. Culture is reflected in the workplace but should develop naturally through the character and personality of an organization.

Therefore, it is only right that those who use the space most should be massively influential in its creation. It’s important to meet with executives, managers, and departmental staff to gather a deep understanding of their work trends and habits, and what their ideal workspace would be like to better engage them with their environment. A survey conducted by Gallup states that engagement indicates a deeper emotional and behavioral connection to a job and company, and found that only 29 percent of millennials are engaged at work. Gallup estimates that millennial turnover due to lack of engagement costs the U.S. economy $30.5 billion each year.

There is tremendous success in this approach and companies recognize the impact personalized workplace design has on their staff productivity, loyalty and attracting new talent.

This is how workplace design is evolving, it is far more personal than it has ever been, engaging with individuals and asking them what they want from their workspace is how companies should be approaching their offices.

I was recently asked, by a talented new employee, “Where do you see the future of workplace design?” So, I said:

“Imagine the perfect home. You have an abundance of choice and it’s personal to you: a desk, a dining table, a sofa, a breakfast bar, a bed, a beanbag, a garden, or even the ability to step out to your local café – you pick the space to suit your needs, and you change your space to meet the needs of a different task. Blurring the line between home and work is good, but it’s not enough. Modern offices should be inviting and a delight to be in. Your workspace should be able to compete with the comfort of your home.”

More from Colin Owen

1 Comment

  • As you touched on at the beginning, sitting down all day in front of a computer does have it’s down falls, not only does it need to be addressed in the work place, it also carries on after work – i.e keeping fit and active after hours.
    The design of an office is down to preference and what is deemed to work for each environment, I think the idea of having a workplace where you can follow the rules of anytime, any place & anywhere would be fantastic and really open up productivity.
    Great article, thanks for sharing!

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