Sometimes building a new headquarters is especially difficult. When my company, a global 1,000-person professional learning platform called GLG, was in the middle of our pivot, we felt our new office could help define our future, but we had two unexciting options.
One option was traditional private offices and cubicles, which are unimaginative and restrictive. The other was an open office plan–the shiny new toy in office design 15 years ago–but a growing body of evidence suggests it decreases productivity and weakens job performance.
Instead we designed our new corporate headquarters across the street from Grand Central Terminal–65,000 square feet over two floors for nearly 300 New York employees–around a new paradigm, neither open nor full of private offices.
Our architect, Clive Wilkinson, introduced us to an idea called activity-based working (ABW). The thesis is that people should work in the type of space that supports the work they’re actually doing, and that might change many times throughout a day.
ABW suits my firm particularly well. We bring together top professionals to learn from each other and in the process make it easier to share the knowledge they need to stay innovative. There are four reasons ABW is just the right layout for our workplace and could be for yours, too.
No one has an assigned desk or office, including me. The idea, again, is that one kind of workspace–more specifically one desk in one location–does not suit all types of work equally.
We have a menu of options that people can use for different projects throughout the day. We have large open space surrounded by private meeting rooms of different sizes. We have “neighborhoods” where people can work with their teams. Each contains team tables with individual workstations, enclosed glass meeting pods, chairs of different shapes and sizes, and adjustable standing desks.
Some people excel in energetic environments filled with interactions. Some work best alone. Others only need a computer, and some spread out with papers.
Everyone here has the freedom to decide how and where to work. Each morning we pick up our stuff from private lockers and choose a spot. We move around depending on the work that arises. There’s plenty of private space for confidential calls or reflection. At the end of the day, stuff goes back into our lockers. Yes, we give up our personal desks, but we gain the whole office.
Trust and empowerment informed our design process. Early on we formed a design committee with representatives from each business unit and different areas of expertise. They worked closely with our designers. Their input made for a better office and their buy-in made for a smoother transition.
Before the move, we surveyed our employees to understand their current work habits and expectations. After the move, we surveyed them again. The survey validated the benefits of our approach: two-thirds of our employees report using multiple workspaces, and 91% say they’re excited about the flexibility ABW affords.
No one at GLG has a landline or desktop computer. Everyone uses laptops that dock at screens wherever we work. The physical telephone has been replaced with software phones that run on laptops with headsets. Our technology allows us to be flexible and mobile throughout the office.
We didn’t get all the technology right at first. Our employee survey showed meeting room technology needed to be seamless and wasn’t. Armed with that feedback, we fashioned solutions to improve the user experience dramatically. Our growing pains underscore both the importance and the challenge of integrating good technology in the modern office from the beginning.
Businesses benefit when folks from different departments, backgrounds, and roles share their ideas. Office design should encourage circulation and interaction, but also support individual focus when it is needed.
No assigned desks is a start, and we still have a number of tables in a designated “quiet area.” Our café has long tables for meals and other gatherings, as well as smaller tables for groups of different sizes to collaborate. It is a communal space. Overall, we have more seats than people, preparing us for considerable growth.
In our survey, 98% of employees observe extensive support for collaboration in the new office. And since the move, dissatisfaction with the level of cooperation between teams fell from 25% to 13%. The survey also showed near unanimous enthusiasm for the way the new office facilitates diverse experiences and interactions: one-on-one or group meetings, catch-ups, private conversations, and creative brainstorming.
We’ve been in our new space for six months. Already 80% of employees say the new style of working here makes them feel better about their jobs; 92% say it’s even fun. And having happier people translates into better work for our clients.
So today the choice should not be between open offices and private spaces. A better alternative exists. What matters is that each worker has the kind of varied space for their personal working style and the work at hand. That office can be realized by embracing these elements: flexibility and variety, trust and empowerment, integrated technology, and collaboration and cross-pollination.
This model of working can help businesses of all kinds become more creative, collaborative, and effective.
—Alexander Saint-Amand is CEO of GLG, the world’s leading platform for professional learning and expertise.