By Jason McCann
People are the heart of any workspace, so why are they often an afterthought in its design?
In all their office design (or redesign) plans, facility managers often rely on outside firms that prioritize aesthetics and don’t fully consider the teams meant to benefit from the change. While the resulting workspace may look great, if it doesn’t encourage employees to get up, move around, and collaborate, then all those non-human changes fail to account for the very human issue of employee satisfaction.
The goal of any office design should be to improve employee satisfaction and productivity, which means facility managers should focus on their people — foregrounding buy-in, promoting movement and interaction, and increasing workplace engagement. Yet many managers wind up spinning their wheels on efforts that ultimately fall short. True, space is money, and maximizing its efficiency saves money. But it’s hard to build momentum for a project if the specific benefit to workers (and, therefore, the company) isn’t clearly defined.
With greater insights into how and why employees interact and move today, what hinders those processes, and what areas of the office hold the most potential for them, the active workspace can become a tool for improving wellness and productivity — not simply a treat for the eye.
Understanding What Employees Need
Small- to mid-sized businesses are usually nimbler than more established corporations restrained by years of tradition. Some may have never even had cubicles or felt the need for them, which makes it easier to eliminate other barriers and promote more worker interaction. In addition to these benefits, though, reducing barriers to foster movement can significantly boost an employee’s health, mood, creativity, and engagement.
To build momentum for a more active workspace that fosters interaction and movement, design it with employees’ habits in mind. Data-driven technology can help facility managers gauge traffic patterns and workflow, but observing people’s body language as they go about their daily business is perhaps the best way to obtain this information.
While managers can ask questions and hand out surveys to gain insights into people’s tendencies, research isn’t accurate when it comes to understanding human behavior. People may have perceptions of what they think they want, but until managers really dig into their employees’ actions and reactions by observing what’s going on in the workspace — seeing the grimaces, eye rolls, and heavy sighs firsthand — they won’t get the full picture.
Promoting An Active, Collaborative Workspace
Even with this knowledge, though, designing an active workspace is a process — one that requires flexibility, simplicity, and creativity. But managers who keep the following three strategies in mind as they initiate and implement should find that achieving a successful end result isn’t as difficult as it might seem.
1. Get Employees On Board. When managers fail to get employee buy-in from the start, it’s much harder to get employees excited about changes and much easier for decision makers or data to be blamed when efforts fall short of expectations.
Eliminating the guesswork and relying on worker input gives everyone the chance to know what the active workspace will look like, why it’s important, and how it will improve their lives before any changes are made. Moreover, unshouldering the burden of redesign also frames the process as collaborative and evolutionary, making it clear that whatever is done can be undone and capitalizing on the creativity and insights that different people bring to their different spaces and needs.
2. Test and Learn (With Restraint). Keep the space flexible enough to test new options or systems — such as new layouts or furnishings — so that you can learn what practices work best for everyone. These tests shouldn’t be complex, especially because everything you try costs time and money.
Before you go ripping down walls and building new partitions, start with simple changes. You can centralize trash cans, refreshment stations, printers, and other office equipment to encourage employee interaction and foster movement. If different departments need to collaborate often, you can build (or commandeer) a space just for that. Dynamic furniture, such as movable walls and lighting, makes this possible by creating areas that can be easily adjusted to accommodate employee demands.
3. Think Holistically to Foster Serendipitous Interactions. Apart from the health benefits movement in the workplace can offer, the goal of these redesigns is to increase interaction. Interaction has myriad workplace benefits, including fostering open-mindedness, stimulating conflict resolution and reducing stress, and enhancing collaboration. But not all interaction is created equal.
When thinking of ways to promote interaction and considering how to make the above changes, focus on encouraging serendipitous interactions, or what others call “overlap zones,” between your teams. By using data to determine where traffic is typically heaviest, for instance, you can direct movement to those areas and make it easier for chance interactions to occur. Overall, a holistic approach to designing the workspace is the best way to maximize its potential while promoting serendipitous interactions and employee wellness on a large scale.
The traditional office space is evolving. Cubicles stymie employees’ needs to move and interact, while the open floor plan hinders privacy and can feel staid. As we continue to learn how inactivity negatively affects our work and life, managers who collaborate with employees, test to learn, and think holistically can design active workspaces that foreground wellness and interaction. It’s a “people-first” approach to the office, and it sets your employees up today for greater success tomorrow.
A lifelong entrepreneur, McCann has over 20 years of experience building and running successful companies. As a founder and the CEO of Vari his mission is to help companies reimagine the workspace. Based in Coppell, TX, VARIDESK started with one innovative product and has grown to be a global leader in workspace innovation with products found in over 130 countries.
What strategies have you employed to maximize a workplace design project? Do you and your team solicit input from employee occupants before, during, or after project planning? Share your thoughts, experiences, or questions in the Comments section below.