The last five years has seen a dramatic shift in the design and use of individual workstations with a move toward open environments that promote collaboration and sharing of information.
Forward-thinking companies in the Silicon Valley were the first in the U.S. 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, and senior managers could share their strategic vision, life experiences, industry or technical expertise, and much more.
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. The recent dramatic shift in workspace design involves the flipping of this ratio to 70 percent (or higher) being collaborative and 30 percent being personal workspace.
This shift is occurring among Fortune 500 companies through better space utilization that moves managers and directors into open work areas, and restricts private offices to vice president-level or higher 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: 1) technology has made it easier to share information and connect team members, and 2) telecommuting is on the rise.
A host of technologies are game-changers for team collaboration, starting with the growth of cloud computing where 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.
Within this decade, employees will access standard work-related applications such as Microsoft Word or Microsoft Excel from the Web, create documents that “live” on the Internet, share them in real time across the world, and leave them stored in the cloud, never downloading a thing to their laptop or mobile device.
With respect to employees having face-to-face meetings, videoconferencing options such as Skype and other voice-over-IP (VoIP) solutions as well as GoToMeeting and WebEx have made conducting business and sharing information online very easy.
Telecommuting has had a big impact on recent workspace designs, as industry research indicates that as many as 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. 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 and 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 for one reason, that being 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. 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 8×8 and 8×10 workspaces have given way to 7×7 or even 6×6 ones.
How does this shift translate to individual workspace? 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 were 6’4” to 6’8” high to help with acoustics. However, industry research indicates that panel height can be reduced to 5’4” 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.
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 creating a very personal environment for employees.