There is a strong connection between employees’ satisfaction with the work environment and their level of engagement. One can say it is like building bridges between people and places, senses and spaces. The impact of place on the employee can be physical (light; view outside; portable and wearable technology), perceptual (attitude; wellbeing), financial (absence; turnover; retention; medical costs) and psychological (cleanliness; old buildings are not very spacious or ecological).
While productivity and psychological perceptions are often dependent variables, we can influence independent indicators such as furniture, lightning, temperature, noise and some spatial variables.
Since the dawn of the white-collar age, office designs have overcome changing attitudes: openness versus privacy, interaction versus autonomy, the team versus individuality. And the demands have changed over the years, as Wired magazine describes in an article from 23rd March 2009:
1. Taylorism (1904) – American engineer F. Taylor crowded workers together in a completely open environment while bosses looked on from private offices, much like on a factory floor. While Taylor stands behind the birth of industrial engineering and the efficiency movement, no man is a machine and no employee wants to work in a lined up row of clerical workers in a large room. And if he has to, let’s make it as pleasant as we can.
2. Bürolandschaft (1950) – The German office landscape brought socialist values to workplaces. The layout stayed undivided, but bosses were no longer in executive suites, to make chatting easier. It was intended to provide a more collaborative and humane work environment, often decorated with plants and carpet. Also, the allocation of space per employee compared to other models was not quite ample, but generous. The hope was to encourage disclosure and debate.
3. Action Office (1968) – The American furniture company Herman Miller created the first modular business furniture system, with low dividers and flexible work surfaces. If you know the award-winning TV show Mad Men, you know what we are talking about. Still in production today and widely used, you probably know the “Action Office” by its generic, more sinister name: the cubicle. Even designer Robert Propst called it “monolithic insanity.” Today, many companies are going back to the pre-cubicle rows of desks.
4. Cube Farm (1980) – It’s the cubicle concept taken to the extreme and known as the “sea of cubicles”. Sounds humorous… And you probably read Dilbert comics, right? Cube farms were popular even later, in 2000, because of the so-called dotcom boom in the US. And too many still work in a sea of cubicles, despite the clear signs of how ineffective they are. When you put “effective cubicle” into a Google search, among the first five results you can find sentences such as: “The saddest office cubicle we could find,” “Workers hate their cubicles,” or “Death of the cubicle.”
5. Virtual Office (1994) – Ad agency TBWA\Chiat\Day’s LA headquarters was a Frank Gehry masterpiece. But the interior, dreamed up by the company’s CEO, was a fiasco. It introduced the idea of “hot-desking,” which meant that employees had no designated desk; you grabbed a laptop in the morning and raced to claim a seat. People were new to this and the company gave up on this experiment after 4 years. Yes, Jay Chiat was ahead of his time, but we can see it only now, when everyone is working on their iPad, in company relax zones and everyone is crazy about Google’s offices full of color, slides, scooters and foosball tables. A great example of changing from old ways to new and getting used to it (or not), is another American TV show, Happyish. If the workspace does not fit you, you end up being “happyish” and somewhat productive.
6. Networking (present) – During the past decade, furniture designers have tried to part the sea of cubicles and encourage sociability : for example, systems with movable, semi-enclosed pods and connected desks whose shape separates work areas. We are moving to our homes (home office), virtual reality (virtual offices), startups are using business incubators and some professionals are skipping it all and freelancing.
The role of the workplace is evolving and becoming more crucial. Some people imagine 40 years from now as an era where the typical 09:00 to 17:00 is a thing of the past, as is the traditional office space.
For example, according to OECD stats, in the year 2000 the average annual hours per worker in Korea was 2 512 and in the year 2014 it was 2 124 hours. And we can see the same declines of more than 200 hours in Latvia, Iceland, Hungary, Austria…
The imagined workplace of 2040 will be radically different and redefined by several factors, Marie Puybaraud, expert in the field of Workplace Innovation, states in her article published at hr.com. For example:
1. No set hours as long as the work is done.
2. Networks are fundamental – cloud, crowdsourced or interactive.
3. Location change – working from home, incubators or alternative venues.
4. Well-being – health and avoiding burnout will be critical.