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How productive are you, really, in the modern office?

Let me be frank: the office design concepts most popular today — or at least the ones we are told...

Let me be frank: the office design concepts most popular today — or at least the ones we are told are popular — fail to take into account how technology is changing how we work and how most people want to work. This includes the millennials.

Too much of the emphasis is on real estate cost reduction. The less floor area an employer leases, the lower the occupancy bill. However, real estate costs represent only a fraction, and overall a small fraction, of total business costs.

People are usually an employer’s biggest expense. So, doesn’t it only make sense to focus office design on how best to keep them happy and productive? Without putting too crass a point on it, that’s the key to making sure employees contribute to revenue instead of just consuming it.

It seems like a no-brainer with the rise of the mobile workforce. The white-collar crowd these days can work from just about anywhere — you don’t even need an Internet/Wi-Fi connection if you have a strong cellular signal with which to use your smartphone as a hotspot.

The goal should be to motivate flexible employees to spend more time in the office for the sake of team cohesion.

These sardines have no room to swim

However, many designers, architects and employers have come to view the office of the future as a sardine can instead of considering how best to make it an inviting environment for work and making a profit.

Since people don’t spend as much time in the office, let’s make it smaller.

Employees can share workspaces.

We just need to encourage them to clean up their coffee stains, dirty tissues and pastry crumbs before their colleagues sit down to get some work done. And so what if they now have to haul all their stuff around in a backpack because they can’t leave anything in a desk anymore?

Then let’s get rid of the walls.

Open concept fosters creative interaction and collaboration, we’re told. People cheek by jowl with little chance for privacy. It’s not like anyone has to think and focus without distraction to get real work done.

Is it just me, or is the modern office becoming that crowded coffee shop with free Wi-Fi?

Consider the impact of technology

Then let’s ignore the fact that technology continues to change — nothing new here.

Voice is becoming an increasingly popular interface between user and device.

While the venerable QWERTY keyboard designed in 1873 by Christopher Sholes remains dominant, we need to reflect on the many changes that have taken place in the past 146 years with other options for device interaction. In addition to voice, various types of neural interfaces are being developed — think and it will happen, without resorting to fingers and thumbs. 

We are on the cusp of pretty significant change and to keep profitable, companies need to find out how people will likely be working in the very near future.

Voice remains the big one. Just think of the added noise and confusion of people trying to talk to their devices in this compacted and open concept environment. The rise of voice as an interface increases the need for privacy as well as better acoustical design. Private offices may not always be necessary, but freedom from intrusive sound probably will be.

This may sound like a rant by a grumpy old man comfortable in his hard-walled, private office, but don’t just take my word for it.

“Sad indictment of the design industry”

Facility Executive Magazine published in September 2017 a survey of 250,000 employees. Only 57 per cent of the respondents agreed their workplaces allowed them to work productively.

“The findings show that many employees are having to endure workplaces that fail to support their basic working day, obstructing their ability to positively contribute to business success,” the authors found. The big issues that emerged related to the loss of dividers and space between work stations, and the impact of noise levels on being able to focus.

The verdict? “Some organizations may be investing a disproportionate amount of focus on supporting creativity and collaboration, at the expense of the spaces needed to commit these collaborative thoughts in an individual, concentrative way to paper.”

Meanwhile, only 18 per cent of respondents whose office had been recently relocated or refurbished saw any noticeable benefit for their workday.

“That’s a pretty sad indictment of the design industry to create value and, considering the investment required, most of these projects appear to be a waste of time, money and effort,” state the authors.

And, don’t argue the millennials like it

Some claim millennials are in favour of being treated like nomadic sardines at work, but a recent study by Oxford Economics (a research outfit associated with Oxford University) shows this to be an unfounded stereotype:

“Millennials are more likely to say noise distracts them from work, and in general are more annoyed by ambient noise in the office. In fact, they are more likely to take steps — like listening to music or leaving their desks — to drown out noise, and to say blocking out distractions increases their productivity and improves their mood.”

This study also found “nearly two-thirds of executives say employees are equipped with the tools they need to deal with distractions at work; less than half of employees agree.”

While much of the focus is on the mobile and untethered workforce, there is also a contrarian trend — office cultures that judge people by the many hours they spend tied to their desk.

More time doesn’t mean more done

A study from Maxis Global Benefits Network released earlier this month documented the trend and found that more time at a desk doesn’t mean more gets done in a day — people just spread out their workloads.

“It is important that managers distinguish between employees simply sitting at their desks and working harder. They need to measure real productivity and output,” said one of the study’s authors.

“A strong workplace culture can help motivate employees and deliver improved financial performance, with a measurable increase in revenue. Unhealthy or stressed employees are a cost in terms of decreased productivity, rapid staff turnover, increased healthcare costs and absenteeism.”

Time for a serious head shake

Let’s recap:

* Expecting people to stretch their 9-5 to 9-6;

* Forcing them to share workspace and give up privacy;

* Ignoring how technology use is already changing;

* Thinking real productive work can be done in a noisy and crowded open-concept environment when there is plenty of research to the contrary.

This is not a winning combination for organizations that want to boost their productivity and profitability.

It’s time for employers, designers and architects alike to give their heads a shake and think hard about what kind of environment allows them to be happy and productive in what they do. That includes the managers and executives who still enjoy the benefits of a private office — while expecting their staff to share table space like a Kindergarten class.

To discuss this or any valuation topic in the context of your property, please contact me at I am also interested in your feedback and suggestions for future articles.

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