Over the last 10 years, the evolving nature of work and the demand for more collaboration in the workplace have produced a profound increase in open-space work environments. Working in a shared space allows people to more easily build communities, exchange ideas and increase productivity.
Today, as businesses focus on innovation and work propagated by meeting-intensive days in conference rooms and on conference calls, people need each other like never before in order to generate results. Yet, people at work are suffering. The intense togetherness, numerous distractions and increasing workloads that have resulted from open-space design have dramatically reduced the ability and time to think. As a result, current workplaces are out of balance with the needs people have at work.
Finding the time to think at work is a deeply personal issue, and one way is never the single answer for everyone. But reverting back to closed private offices and assigned spaces is not the best solution to this problem. Resolving this dilemma requires a multifaceted approach that begins by introducing the concept of choice. Only then can companies reduce worker stress, encourage innovation and truly make the most of inherited open workplace designs.
Issues with Open Space Design
Popularized when offices and cubes with high walls better supported individual contributions from workers and when cost efficiencies began the evolution into the one-size-fits-all design philosophy, the open space concept took root in the first decade of the 21st century. With businesses scrambling for better ways to improve worker communication and create stronger communities, designers knocked down walls and eliminated personal offices. Over time the word “community” became synonymous with “open.”
Although collaboration is still a necessity, since that time business focus has shifted to innovation, which brings with it a different set of behaviors. For this reason, hallmarks associated with openspace designs — abundant meetings, distractions and competing directions — are having a negative impact on the modern worker.
Many struggle with overwhelming workloads because managers assume open space is equivalent to unlimited opportunities for employees to work together. Expected to handle many new tasks, initiatives, and side projects, workers have no time to finish their own work during the day and must complete it at home, leaving them exhausted and burned out. At the same time, job complexity is on the rise.
One example of complexity comes from the work done by call center employees. With Internet support and online forms available, the majority of today’s calls are less transactional and more interpersonal. Callers seeking advice, guidance, knowledge and wisdom place additional stress on employees in an already stressful industry. A frustrating interaction with a caller is compounded when, due to the nature of the job, those answering the phones are unable to take a break and process
the situation before the phone rings again.
Company real estate teams are another group impacted by job complexity issues. With the relatively new expertise of workplace strategy becoming a game changer for those creating work environments for people, real estate teams are taking on higher levels of responsibility for business cohesion, planning, outsourcing and the constant reality of change. In addition, they are challenged to balance the production of results with time to learn and think.
Restoring Think Time
In the rush to collaborate, too often businesses have neglected the importance of think time. Others have assumed this type of contemplation is only applicable to creatives. It’s true that originality and inspiration require complexity and divergence. However, regardless of the job or industry, everyone needs time to process information, research and investigate.
This is particularly true today with the continual pressure to work faster, increase production and lower costs. Think time is the path to innovation, which in turn provides solutions to the complex problems all businesses face in remaining relevant. At first glance, solving the open space/employee satisfaction/think-time issue appears complicated. But this is not the case, especially if management keeps the following three basic employee needs in mind:
Desire for a sense of autonomy: “I have value and I have a place.”
Ability to experience self-determination: “I can chose my best place to work.”
Capacity to form essential relationships: “Because I can make choices and I have flexibility in how and where I work, I Can build better relationships.”
Embracing these fundamental psychological needs is essential to moving forward in an ever-changing work environment.
One company that is taking this to heart and succeeding is software giant Microsoft. “We were definitely shifting more to the open environment because of the way software development is changing, like agile development and a growth of more service- and operation-centric teams that definitely put a higher value on real-time collaboration and problem-solving compared to legacy software development processes,” says Brian Collins, workplace advantage operations manager for Microsoft. “To help people avoid disruption and distraction when doing individual work, we are creating spaces that meet various functional needs.”
At Microsoft’s corporate headquarters in Seattle, Washington, USA which has 50,000 employees, teams operate in “neighborhoods” where open workplace designs offer a variety of activity areas. There are phone rooms that provide non-reservable space for up to two people. Typically used for highly concentrated work, these are ideal for one-on-one meetings, confidential conversations or conference calls, says Collins. “With highly treated acoustics, people can have a robust conversation within the space and not disturb those outside, or get quiet time without being disturbed.”
Slightly larger and similarly designed focus rooms accommodate up to four people, provide more audiovisual technology and are available for scheduled or ad-hoc meetings, concentrated work or private conversations. Adjacent to every neighborhood, small team rooms support team cohesiveness. Decal film on the glass acts like transparent wallpaper that partially covers a portion of the glass and creates a sense of privacy. Also available are hubs or lounges that provide food and beverages as well as opportunities for social gatherings, touchdown work or a chance to retreat and relax. Remaining open areas provide not only a vista for people working in the space, but with moveable furniture can be used for informal and impromptu meetings.
According to Collins, activity areas not only meet the needs of Microsoft’s workers but also increase productivity for the company as a whole. “We know people toggle between collaboration, shallow concentration and deep focus depending upon what they are doing. We also know there is definitely a tendency among people to self-interrupt,” says Collins, referring to such distractions as checking emails and social media, which reduce productivity. “This is less likely to happen when
people are in ‘the zone.’ Some people can get into the zone at a Starbucks and other times they just need to be isolated.”
Discovering Personal Think Time
Along with providing a variety of activity areas in an open workplace, encouraging workers to use think time opportunities effectively is equally important. In a noisy world of 24/7 information, smart devices and continuous communication, this can be a struggle for many. Here are four situations that may require individuals to create more think time:
- Experiencing sensory overload. Depending upon the task at hand, too quiet can be just as detrimental for concentration as too much noise.
Solution: Modify the sensory environment.
- Needing a moment. Trying to work when emotions are running high can be as futile as swimming on land.
Solution: Alter the view. A quiet gaze out of a window allows the mind to wander.
- Knowing intuitively. Understanding from experience or having a gut feeling that breaking away to contemplate the moment is necessary.
Solution: Practice sensory redirection. Some people require activity, such as writing, research or intellectual conversations to ignite the inner voice that inspires a
creative outcome. Others find inspiration through emotional expression and or physical exertion, such as writing vigorously on a whiteboard, talking a walk or climbing stairs.
- Confronting a roadblock. A problem, situation or issue arises that requires a change in the thinking process, such as from creative to analytical.
Solution: Change location. Getting a cup of coffee often leads to an unplanned conversation that results in a serendipitous “ah-ha” moment.
Organizations that value personal think time demonstrate respect for their employees as human beings. When employees feel a greater connection to the company they have an increased sense of loyalty and a desire to work harder. As a result, everyone wins.
Making the Most of Every Environment
The increasing complexity of work has made it nearly impossible to predict the outcomes of the future based upon the processes of the past. Additionally, the high cost involved in redesigning workplace environments often makes hesitation seem prudent. Yet, periodic change is essential.
“Like painting a bridge, by the time we get to the end or think we are at the end, we are never actually done,” says Collins, “because the way that work is being done is constantly changing, our business is constantly changing and technology is constantly changing. So the workplace needs to accommodate change all of the time.”
Accomplishing this can be challenging particularly when personal requirements of the people at work come into play. But the results far outweigh the costs in time and money. For whether alone or within a group, being able to think at work, as with every other aspect of life, is vital not just to complete a task, but essential for personal well-being, both physically and mentally. When businesses concentrate on worker behavioral needs by providing consistent improvement in work environments they demonstrate concern for their employees, which can lead to increased innovation today and an advantage over competitors in the future.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of FMJ Magazine. Republished with permission.