A research paper called “Noise and Perceived Privacy – Flexible Office Space Matters” published at acoustics.org by Christina Danielsson reveals some very helpful information about how employees respond to different types of office layouts. A study of about 470 employees in various Swedish companies gathered data about the satisfaction level for seven different office types including:
- All private offices (fully enclosed)
- Open plan offices (with assigned workstations and few or no dividers)
- Flex offices that had no assigned workstations but lots of options for where employees could work within the layout – including “backup spaces” featuring varying levels of enclosure
Not surprisingly, private offices were most prized for acoustic and visual privacy. However, those in flex offices reported just as much visual privacy as those in private offices. They also reported better acoustic privacy than employees in open plan offices. Open plan spaces that housed a lot of employees were at the bottom of the list for both types of privacy. Interestingly, satisfaction with privacy was better in flex offices even if they did not specifically offer truly private spaces. Apparently, having the freedom to move around instead of being pinned down to just one place to work makes a big difference. In other words, the perception of autonomy is linked to the perception of privacy.
The paper concludes with this statement: “It is highly important to recognize the relation between perception of privacy and noise, since it is known that privacy has a mediating effect on negative stimuli such as noise. With knowledge of the architectural and functional features importance for these issues costly mistakes for organizations such as a decreased environmental satisfaction and job satisfaction among employees can be avoided for organizations in the design process of offices.”
Whatever type of space you create, be sure there is some built in privacy for all employees. This can be provided in terms of:
- The layout itself (architecture and floor plan)
- How each space is furnished (perhaps a mix of individual workstations, collaborative and lounge furnishings)
- The inclusion of enclosed spaces for individuals or groups (private or semi-private areas)
- A work culture that permits greater freedom of movement within the office environment
How are you ensuring the perception of privacy at your office? Share your ideas in the comments.
Last year, Workspace Design Magazine published a very interesting article on workspace utilization. It discusses ways to monitor and manage facility usage:
- To lower energy costs (e.g., lighting and climate control) on a space by space basis
- To decrease the square footage needed for hosting a workforce of a given size by increasing the flexibility of the office environment
- To assess and reduce the number of workstations required for all employees to have a desktop when needed
- To increase the utilization of available space to maximize efficiency and productivity
The author suggests that the future will hold more and more granular inspection of workspace usage including at the individual workstation level. This is already taking place with seat occupancy sensors, adjustable lighting and electrical consumption management technology that can deliver real time reporting on resource usage.
What’s next? Perhaps you can start putting in decibel meters to track the level of sound in each area throughout the day. This could help you manage workplace noise levels by indicating which spaces could benefit most from acoustic shielding with higher cubicle walls.
It’s always amusing to see the pendulum swinging back and forth between the champions of the open office and the proponents of the cubicle. We blogged about the “Me Place” workstation back in July of last year. But the latest publicity at OfficingToday.com gave us a chance to check out the video featuring an interview with the designers of this piece. They are very careful not to call their invention a cubicle. The article about the un-cubes describes them thus, “This particular workstation range features enclosed desks with walls”. Hmm. Sounds a lot like a cubicle.
But the creators of the Docklands furniture range say this station is not intended to be used as a cubicle. The enclosures are smaller than a cubicle and not as fully equipped. Instead, these pods are intended to be:
- A touch down space for workers who aren’t always in the office
- Hotdesking workspaces for organizations with a frequently varying on-site headcount
- A temporary workstation for visiting clients who need privacy
- A location where employees can go when they need an escape from the hubbub of an open office
Basically, these tiny freestanding offices are a potential solution to the fact that the open office with no walls, no privacy, and too much noise simply doesn’t work for everyone all the time. The designers are calling this a new furniture typology.
Not Quite So New?
We think it’s a cozy and attractive design, but there’s an excellent article by Simon Keane-Cowell at Architon that demonstrates quite effectively that the idea of “semi-private, space-shaping furniture elements” has been around for a long time. The original forebears of the modern cubicle may simply have been introduced before the time was ripe for such ideas. According to Cowell, the reason the Action Office and other early designs were commercially unsuccessful may have been, “…that they were too progressive, that they weren’t so much responding to a shift in organizational behavior, but rather seeking to effect organizational-behavioral change through design.” Today’s open office plans could be accused of the same thing by attempting to force a collaborative atmosphere by how space is used.
The Open Office of the Future Won’t Be Quite So Open
In any event, the current trend seems to be moving toward a balance of open and enclosed work areas. No doubt Docklands and other, similar products will be a part of this solution. However, these changes won’t be cheap. Keane-Cowell points out, “There’s a not insignificant financial investment required to populate your office with bays, pods and hubs.” Of course, he doesn’t know that we have a product that can turn a freestanding desk into a pod in less than five minutes. But you know! Contact us to order desk-mounted privacy panels today and get a quick and affordable retrofit for your open office.
Steelcase is well known for publishing lengthy articles about upcoming trends in office space design. These are some of our favorite resources to share with readers because each one is chock full of interesting ideas for discussion. For example, here’s one from issue #63 of 360 Research about what company executives are noticing and changing about their workplace layout. The office building itself is an often overlooked resource that organizations are learning to tap to bring out the best in their human capital.
This particular article focuses on agility and collaboration – two topics that are linked (in the minds of many businesses) to the open office space without panels. However, we see quite a few opportunities in the new “spacial concepts” touted by Keane for the inclusion of desktop mounted privacy panels or even panel extenders for traditional cubicles. Here are the top 3 based on quotes from the article:
“Running a successful business requires teamwork and frequent collaboration, but rare is the office that can ably host even a two-person meeting.” If you need small, enclosed spaces for two or three people to meet and discuss a project, the simplest answer is a freestanding pod with high walls. It’s cheaper than a built-in conference room and can easily be repurposed for other work when it’s not being used for collaboration.
“Using a strategy we call ‘Best Place”, we created a great range of flexible workspaces to meet changing needs. You have the freedom to move, to collaborate, to put your head down and focus.” Employees may feel cooped up in a cubicle or too exposed at a desk depending on the time of day or what mood they woke up in that morning. Having a range of different workstation types to choose from can help deliver just the right environment for every day of work. Our panel extenders come in a variety of heights and lengths to create a varied landscape to support all types of activities and attitudes.
“You have to give users more options, more control over their space, and be ready to change any space, even the spaces you love the most.” Oh, yes, we’re familiar with the need to change. That’s why we created the panels in the first place. Employers need an option for adjusting wall heights without tearing down and rebuilding workstations. With our panel products, any workstation can be upgraded in a few minutes using just an Allen wrench.
A highly informative article by Janelle Penny at buildings.com reveals the benefits of allowing individuals to control their own lighting in open plan offices. An in-depth study by the GSA compared their standard lighting setup vs. an arrangement that allowed employees to control the local lighting at their workstation. The first surprise was that energy usage goes down (sometimes way down) when you let employees have more control. Computer users are particularly prone to dimming their lights to reduce screen glare and avoid eye fatigue.
Even better, the percentage of employees who were satisfied with their lighting was increased by a substantial amount. Those who said the overall lighting at their workstation was comfortable rose from 55% to 70%. Those who complained that their work surface was unevenly lit dropped from 50% to 25%.
We’d love to have the GSA test out our privacy panels and see how employees like having control over their noise exposure and visual privacy as well. We’re betting the results would be pretty impressive.
This year, Gensler released findings based on half a decade of data collected from 90,000 employees using its Workplace Performance Index™ tool. A whitepaper based on these survey results came to the following conclusion:
“The WPI’s unexpected revelation is that the most significant factor in workplace effectiveness is not collaboration, it’s individual focus work. And we also found that focus is the workplace environment’s least effectively supported activity.”
The authors of the whitepaper blame the usual suspects for the dip in concentration: open office design, too much noise and lack of visual privacy. These findings may come as a surprise to Gensler, but at OBEX we already knew this. It’s the reason employers buy our cubicle extenders – and the reason we added the desk-mounted privacy panels to our product line this year.
Why You Should Focus on Focus
What we did find noteworthy is the fact that Gensler found the four “modes of work” (focus, collaboration, learning and socialization) are more interdependent than previously supposed. But they aren’t equally important. In fact, focus is the core value upon which all the other work modes depend. According to the whitepaper, “Workplace strategies that sacrifice individual focus in pursuit of collaboration will result in decreased effectiveness for both.”
They also point out that the office space doesn’t have to be extra-specially designed to promote collaboration. If people want to team up, they’ll be flexible and find a way to do it. “The most critical factor in collaboration is who you’re collaborating with, not where. Space plays a role, but a secondary one.” In contrast, the Gensler research shows that space must be carefully and deliberately designed to foster high levels of intense concentration.
Participants surveyed consistently said they spend most of their time (55%) doing focus work and that it was by far the most critical aspect of their job (88%). Obviously, employees want to do their jobs well and employers could see huge performance gains by making that possible. It’s time the workplace was redesigned to support what’s best for business and for people.
From Compliance and Safety comes an infographic that may shock you – unless you work in IT or HR and already know the shenanigans the average employee gets up to at work.
While employees’ own actions are obviously the top cause of poor productivity, they aren’t completely to blame. That 14.7% of time wasted due to distractions might be partly because of the way the workplace is set up. “Open offices” with no cubicle panels and the low cubicle panels that do nothing to increase concentration might be a factor as well. Think of how much money you might save by cutting down on time wastage by boosting panel heights!
The coffee shop gets a lot of press for being the “go to” location for off-site work. But there’s another community gathering place that might actually serve as a better model: the local library. It makes a lot of sense when you think about it. There’s a lounge area for socializing and a private corner for work that requires more focus. Of course, the ways in which an ideal workplace should resemble a library go beyond these basics. For example, a well equipped library has the equivalent of:
- A hot desking area where workers who don’t need a permanently assigned workstation can sit on a first come, first serve or reservation basis
- Worksurfaces divided with desktop panels for added privacy, peace and quiet
- A culture that strongly encourages keeping your voice down and minimizing distractions to others
- Private meeting rooms of various sizes featuring technology for specific purposes
- Especially quiet areas for individuals taking any kind of pre-employment test
- Outdoor seating for open air work when the weather permits
- An area where kids are welcome to sit and play
- Friendly mentors available to help you with anything you need and to teach you how to use the equipment properly (including ergonomic office furniture)
- Extra computers mounted on standing height desks to serve mobile employees who just need quick access for a minute or two
- Plenty of natural light through windows and skylights
- A ban on having private cell phone conversations where others can overhear!
It’s easy to see how a library would make a decent model for a workplace where people actually get things done. That’s not to dismiss the coffee shop idea completely. A café would be a great atmosphere for a break room, training and orientation area, or even a conference room where people could chat and snack before getting back to work.
Image courtesy of Flickr user Fryar’s Balsam
The Facility Management Journal covers every conceivable aspect of office design from air conditioning and ergonomics to sustainability and lighting. It’s not surprising that you’ll find great information on how to arrange office furniture at FMlink.com as well. The case study for GlaxoSmithKline is particularly interesting. This employer was looking for ways to increase productivity and profitability while reducing overhead.
GSK used a very simple method to assess how their current office space was being used. They did a walk through 10 times per day for 2 weeks and recorded the types of activity taking place and where these areas were located. Based on this information, they found that employee workstations were only occupied an average of 41% of the time. This was actually pretty consistent across 7 different work sites (the numbers ranged from 36-45%). The rest of the time, the workstations were temporarily unoccupied or just sitting empty.
The Missing Pieces
Where were these employees when they weren’t at their stations? Some of the time, they were trying to get work done in groups. However, they didn’t have the right facilities for this kind of team effort. GSK chose to address this problem by adding multiple conference rooms to accommodate group work throughout the day. They reduced the number of workstations and increased the number of chairs available – moving to a hot-desking system.
This is actually a configuration that can benefit greatly from the addition of panel extenders. When individuals don’t know where they will be sitting from one day to the next, they need additional protection from audible and visible interruptions. When a person works at the same station every day, they may learn to ignore things in their peripheral vision or sounds they are used to hearing. With a hoteling system where everyone is playing musical desks, that doesn’t happen. Any change or novelty in a worker’s surroundings is a distraction in itself. Having some extra height on the cubicle walls or adding privacy panels to desks in open areas is a quick, affordable way to help reduce the disruption caused by switching to a different office configuration.
Commercial real estate and architectural design firms are all buzzing about the latest article from Steelcase. The office furniture manufacturer is making some bold predictions about upcoming trends that will affect everything from space management to furniture purchases. Many of these trends will mesh well with the use of cubicle extenders, desktop mounted privacy panels, and other cube accessories. For example:
- The trend toward moving cubicles into a “wagon train” circle around a central conference area will mean employees are breathing down each other’s necks more than ever. They’ll need a higher panel in back or in front to feel like they have some visual privacy. Steelcase suggests that workstations will need to have a door as well. There are several sliding and rolling cubicle screen accessories on the market that fit the bill from manufacturers such as Quartet and Teknion.
- Shared private enclaves (created out of space saved with smaller and more efficiently spaced cubicles) will also need to be shielded from surrounding areas. High acoustic panels can help bring the noise down a little in these areas. Since they can be mounted to any standard table, desk, workstation, or bench surface with our universal mounting hardware, creating an impromptu privacy pod will be simple.
- Employees who are in the office more might get more perks such as bigger cubicles. Since these non-mobile workers are stuck in the middle of the buzzing office all day, some will probably also crave cubicle panel extenders. These can be added based on job type, location, and employee preference.
- Finally, as more and more high-level workers with traditional offices are moved out in the open to conserve space, they won’t want to give up all the privacy they once enjoyed. Our panel products can help ease the transition for these employees. The culture shock of moving from a private office into a cubicle can be mitigated by creating a more secluded atmosphere within the workstation.