According to a recent Steelcase report, technology is changing our behaviours. More than two billion people now use cellphones, along with an estimated 50 million PDAs, and 3.2 million BlackBerrys. And we send an astounding nine trillion emails a year.
Because technology enables us to do so, professionals are increasingly spending each day working out of several different locations, leaving personal workstations unoccupied for much of the time.
Carole Kassir-Garcia, a senior interior designer at Seattle-based Collins Woerman, says its research shows that people spend between 40 and 60 percent of their time away from their desks. "They’re travelling, in meetings, telecommuting, in collaborative spaces," – not to mention taking the occasional holiday.
As a result, real estate is being reallocated. A recent survey of Fortune 500 real-estate professionals, conducted by the Atlanta-based association of real estate CoreNet Global, found that 65 percent of those surveyed have stopped providing an assigned workspace to at least ten percent of their workforce. And this is expected to grow to 25 percent by the end of the decade.
Whether people work in a dedicated space or at a different ‘hot desk’every day, the performance of that particular workspace is pivotal to organisational success because it’s not just a personal workspace, it’s a place where collaboration takes place – where co-workers can drop by to seek an opinion, bounce ideas around, or simply ask for information. Knowledge work today demands this collaboration. Tasks are more complex than ever before and require the thoughts, opinions and ideas of a variety of disciplines and backgrounds. The work requires the attention of not just one person, but several.
Making all the spaces that comprise the workspace more effective begins with understanding how and where employees are spending the majority of their time.
Steelcase WorkSpace Futures researchers, and other social scientists, divide the interactions between knowledge workers into four categories, distinguished by the number of people involved.
Four ways of working
First, people work alone. Whether a dedicated workstation or just a desk for the day, it’s the individual’s home base, or ‘I’ space. It’s where we focus, think, write and concentrate on specific tasks. The biggest concern for employees in this primary workspace is "having control over the level of privacy", according to the Steelcase Workplace Satisfaction Survey. The key is control – having ways to fine tune privacy and focus on the task at hand.
Second, people work in collaboration with another person. People drop by each other’s workstations and the ‘I’ space becomes ‘you and me’ space where information is shared, ideas are traded, decisions are made, and tasks move a few steps closer to completion. ‘You and me’ work happens outside the workstation, too.
These two ways of working – alone and in pairs – combine to make up nearly 80 percent of our work day. People working in pairs, or dyads, as the social scientists call them, are a powerful force. Research shows that when two people collaborate, they build on each other’s thoughts, help each other learn, and even solve problems better than working alone. There’s an impressive body of evidence that the real entrepreneurial work done within companies springs from pairs of people working together. Since so much of each day is spent working alone or with one other person, the individual workspace, or ‘I’ space, needs to support both individual and pairs work.
There are two other ways we work now that collaboration has become the de facto standard for knowledge work. We work in small groups of three to five people (‘we’), or in larger groups of six or more (‘WE’).
Group dynamics drive important distinctions between small group ‘we’ space and larger group ‘WE’ space. The more people you have in a group, the more ideas are generated and the greater the likelihood of reaching the best decision. However, more ideas mean more information has to be communicated and discussed, making the process more involved and time consuming.
In the worst case scenario, people endure a pointless, meandering discussion and leave with one more reason to hate meetings. Best case, of course, is a close working team that gels and performs at a very high level, or gets "in flow", as Lewis Epstein refers to it.
Epstein works on advanced product concepts for Steelcase. In the subject area of collaborative work, he is firmly of the opinion that six people forms the optimum size for group collaboration.
"For a true team – a group of people working around a common objective – versus a group of people who are simply meeting, studies show that six people, while not a prescription, is usually about the right size. But, there are always exceptions. At some point we have all worked on teams of four, five, or seven people, and it’s proved to be a great experience."
What’s the reasoning behind the less-is-more theory? According to Epstein: "Collaboration isn’t just about communicating and coordinating next steps with the group, it’s a high-level interaction that benefits from small numbers of people."
These four different ways of working –alone, in pairs, and in small and large groups – are how knowledge work gets done. The workplace must effectively support all four to ensure productivity is maximised.
Sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term ‘third place’ to identify public spaces – pubs, cafés, parks, etc – where people gather to meet with others in comfortable, "great places". They are separate from our first place (home) and second place (office). Thanks to Wi-Fi, knowledge workers today can utilise these third places as a temporary workplace, seeking out locations that best suit their individual preferences.
The social vitality of third places is both comforting and energising, causing forward-thinking organisations to take note. However, the challenge for these same organisations is to find new ways to extend this third place vitality not just to individuals and pairs, but also to other spots where groups gather.
Kassir-Garcia sees more and more companies going for "environments that are flexible and user-friendly – neighbourhood cafés, lounge areas, smaller ‘cave’ spaces, smaller conference rooms for two to three people, and some rooms for four to six people. There’s movable furniture because people like to rearrange things. Some have walls, or curtains, or screens, you can move to accommodate different sizes of groups". She says that these spaces offer a third-place ambiance, while supporting a full range of user needs.
For a biotech company in St Louis, Kerry Schuette, senior designer at Forum Studio, is planning an average of four collaborative ‘huddle spaces’ for every ten individual workstations. "These spaces are very relaxed and casual. Some have upholstered seating, some have standing height tables, some will have conference tables, some are just places to meet, spread out your work on top of a group of filing cabinets." They’re also adding enclosed enclave spaces where workers in open workstations can retreat for a quiet phone call or a small meeting. In essence these biotech workers will have a wide choice of workspaces to support the range from ‘I’ to ‘WE’.
Collaborative spaces work in any department or discipline. "They joke about the accounting department at this company being the loudest group," says Schuette. "The reason is they have huddle spaces in their workspace already, so people communicate more and work together more."
The shrinking workstation
Just as organisations are building more collaboration spaces, personal workspaces are shrinking. According to a recent HOK study of its corporate clients, median square footage for open workstations now ranges between 48ft², for the smallest workstations, and 64ft² for the largest.
Kassir-Garcia says the individual workstations she sees are typically 64ft² in size. Forum Studio’s Schuette agrees. "We used to start out planning in 8×8. Now it’s definitely getting smaller – 64ft² is the norm, but we’re also seeing 6×8 and even 6×6."
Workstations are shrinking for several reasons. As more businesses move workers out of private offices and into the open plan, the workstation requires less space than a walled office. Also, real-estate costs are rising so companies are looking for ways to cut space requirements; smaller ‘I’ spaces are one way. And since work is more collaborative, organisations ask for more space for pairs and group work, and that real estate often comes from those increasingly unoccupied individual workspaces.
One trend has mitigated the shrinking workstation footprint. Technology takes up less space. Gone are the heavy, ottoman-size video computer monitors that used to commandeer a corner worksurface. Laptops and flatter, lighter-weight monitors and innovative new articulating monitor arms free up worksurface, so spaces don’t necessarily feel smaller.
Smaller workstations demand new strategies for acoustic and visual privacy. For example, for the biotech firm Schuette is planning workspaces for 120 workers. Many of them, including the entire management team, are moving from private offices into 8×8 workstations. To help them maintain their privacy, the layout lets workers "face out on to the aisle: their monitors are in front of them, facing in, so they have more control, more of a sense of privacy. People can’t just walk up from behind and read over their shoulder".
The biotech firm’s CEO set the tone, moving from a 400ft² private office to one of those 8×8 workstations. "He was comfortable with it in part because he’s spent a lot of his life in Europe, where they have more experience with open offices," says Schuette.
European Workstations are generally smaller than in the US, but even those are getting squeezed, says Steelcase WorkSpace Futures studio leader, Catherine Gall. She says: "The overall trend to smaller workstations is the same in both countries, as well as the increase in more collaborative work styles."
The individual workstation is where ‘you and me’ work often begins. When a colleague comes calling, the workstation should have space for a side-by-side conversation and a place for the guest to sit – even a nesting mobile pedestal with a padded top can work.
When pairs meet, they often need to view content on a monitor. Configuring the workstation so both can easily view the screen, such as with an articulating monitor arm and a worksurface that allows colleagues to sit side by side and view on-screen material, greatly enhances the sharing of information.
Next, the pair may need more shared space, other tools or materials. A nearby stand of files for a stand-up conversation, a low table and a couple of lounge chairs for a brainstorming session, or a meeting space with display and writing surfaces at hand –these are all convenient islands of ‘we’ space that support pairs in democratic fashion. This equal footing is important: Research shows that people working at the same level in fact learn more, work faster, and innovate more.
A person’s workstation location, and their proximity to others they need to interact with, are frequently two more factors that influence collaboration. The organisational chart only begins to help in planning these adjacencies. Innovators in an organisation usually don’t have the authority to form teams and assign work to others. They succeed by leveraging their personal networks and influencing others through collaborating, teaching and inspiring. Flexible workstations and nearby ‘we’ and ‘WE’ spaces support the collaboration of these valuable workers.
Some companies are planning stairways to support collaboration. Kassir-Garcia says Collins Woerman has a project under construction with "a three-storey opening with a large glass stair with a water feature, and a Zen-like garden application at the bottom. Also at the bottom, and on the landings, we have docking stations and lounge furniture around the stairs".
She adds "The stairs are like halls and corridors: so many times you meet people, have those chance encounters with others. Boom: ‘I’ve been trying to reach you…’ and it’s a great way for people to interface. Stairs are an interactive zone, connecting people in a building vertically as well as horizontally."
Space to work
Project rooms are what most people think of when planning ‘we’ space for small groups of three to five people, and especially ‘WE’ spaces for larger groups of six or more. Unfortunately, many project rooms are woefully lacking. According to Mark Greiner, senior VP and leader of Steelcase’s WorkSpace Futures team: "Most project rooms I’ve seen, in companies big and small, are ok for simple, single-thread presentations, but terrible for true team collaboration: comparing information, contrasting ideas, cross-sharing, etc."
Too often, he says, "companies settle for a generic project room, a simple, low-cost box that ‘generic’ users can configure for their ‘generic’ group meetings. Then they wonder why they get ‘generic’ results".
There are more small group collaborations than larger ones during the course of the day, so there should be plenty of small ‘we’ spaces available. These are not rooms to be scheduled; they’re ‘as needed’ spaces that any group of three to five people can quickly settle into. Spaces that facilitate this ‘we’ collaboration allow the team to focus on the task at hand so they can quickly complete their work.
These ‘we’ spaces include small team tables and semi-private enclaves in the open plan, and small private rooms near workstation clusters. Small groups also like to meet in cafés, where booths are preferred seating. It’s a semi-private space that’s also open to others who may pass by and have something to add to the team. The most effective ‘we’ spaces include mobile tables and chairs, wireless access and plenty of power outlets.
Larger ‘WE’ spaces are typically scheduled spaces: conference rooms, project spaces, multipurpose rooms. Sometimes workers are colocated in "war rooms" with individual workstations and a team area located in a single room for a period of weeks or months. A study by CoreNet, supported by Steelcase, showed that such rooms doubled teams’ productivity by, among other things, providing the team members with easy access to each other for coordinating work, problem solving, and learning, and keeping the team’s work visible to everyone in the space.
However, these lessons can be applied to ‘WE’ spaces without co-locating workers. Larger group spaces require easy technology access, presentation equipment, plenty of worksurface and some storage, but one key element is often overlooked: the large blocks of vertical display space that large groups always need.
"Our research clearly shows the importance of information persistence in the group innovation process – wall space to display information, ideas, and opinions that everyone can see, react to, add to and then share with others. Groups need space to display their thinking and show work in progress," says Greiner.
As a rule of thumb, he suggests 1ft² of wall display space for every 4ft² of floor space, with 25 to 40 percent of wall display devoted to digital means. "I personally love the tactility of paper and other analogue media for sketches, photos, sticky notes. But digital media gives you the ability to capture and alter content and retrieve it later."
Even outside the ‘WE’ space, the group’s work continues. Groups break into smaller groups, team members work individually and with others, and sometimes join other informal teams and collaborate further. Increasing the number of smaller ‘we’ spaces increases quality collaborations, which spreads insights and ideas deeper into the organisation and in turn helps boost organisational innovation.
While a more culturally diverse workforce uses group spaces in different ways, the benefits of ‘WE’ spaces remain the same, says Gall. "In Germany, school starts very early. People live close to work, they drop off their kids at school and then come to the office and have breakfast with their co-workers.
"We had a kitchen on the ground floor, and we were very comfortable using it. When workers would come over from England and join us, they were used to having breakfast at home and starting work later, and at first they didn’t understand the whole breakfast-with-your-co-workers idea. Before long they realised the benefits. The morning ritual, conversation and exchanging ideas, all combined to help us start each day as an energised team."
Collaboration is the name of the game today. The challenge is to create not only more varied and better equipped collaborative spaces for small and large groups, but also to plan individual workstations to support both ‘I’ and ‘We’ work. Mobile workers can do more than move outside to a coffee shop – they can move on. "Managers understand that to retain employees, you have to give them more than just a desk," says Kassir-Garcia. Providing workspaces that can support how people work alone and in collaboration helps retain the best and brightest.