Your physical space matters for productivity.
If the only comfortable place to have a meeting is the conference room–and those need to be booked at least a day in advance–you won’t have many spontaneous multi-person discussions. If everyone’s in cubicles, and people are often on the phone, you’ll have trouble spending long stretches of time on focused work.
Of course, most of us don’t get to design an office from the ground up. If your business is just starting out, you may take what space is available and cheap, and if your company has been around for a while, you may be living with the design priorities of a different era. So if a complete renovation isn’t in the cards, how can you work with what you have?
I asked Vanessa Bradley, manager of advanced applications at office furniture maker Steelcase, for her top suggestions for making an office that works. Some ideas:
“I think collaboration spaces have a tendency to get short shrift,” Bradley says. If your conference rooms are booked, then your question is “How do you take something underutilized and make it this great hub?” Everyone likes coffee, and at parties, everyone gathers in the kitchen anyway. By putting tables and chairs (and enough outlets for laptops) in the kitchen space, you can support informal collaboration. She suggests that you think about “the ability to support multiple postures”–particularly standing height tables–so that “people can walk by easily, walk up and join that meeting.” People may be reticent to join a seated table (a leftover hang-up from the middle school cafeteria perhaps) but bar height is perfectly inviting.
Steelcase’s operating phrase is “palette of place” and “When we talk about palette of place, a key part of that palette is the quiet zone,” says Bradley. You might designate one conference room as the library. Establish a protocol–no conversations, and take your phone calls elsewhere–but people can know that if they need a quiet spot to crank things out, they can always go there.
“Some activities need to have privacy,” Bradley says. Difficult phone conversations are a big one. So are phone calls with loved ones–which actually make employees more energized than caffeine. A few small, enclosed spots for calls can spare the whole office the details of a dog’s intestinal disorder. Among other things.
If you’re on the eighth floor of a high rise with no balconies, this isn’t going to work. But sunlight and fresh air tend to make people happier. “We started seeing this from a lot of customers on the West Coast, this trend of how do you leverage the outdoor space?” Bradley says. By creating a “respite zone” with porch furniture and tables, you give people who don’t smoke an excuse to get outside during the day. Obviously, “you need things like climate to cooperate,” Bradley says, and in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she’s located, climate often doesn’t cooperate. Still, when Steelcase shut down some outdoor spaces in late October “people were complaining,” Bradley says. “That tells you how much people do go out there.” Add shade in the summer and heat lamps in the fall and people might go out there even more.
Some people do their best work with loud music and the television on. Others need to not have another person within sight. Since there’s no way one office can accommodate everyone’s quirks, the best bet is a liberal work-from-home policy. If people spend two to three days per week brainstorming with each other at work and another two to three days in their home offices executing on these brainstorms, you can get the best of both worlds.