workstation setup Oct 21, 2021

Over the last several years, many organizations have embraced the open concept office design. During the pandemic, there was a sudden shift, and people were suddenly working from home. As organizations prepare their offices to bring their employees back, employers will likely opt to use open concept offices again. Why? According to their proponents, they promote increased collaboration and creativity among employees. Plus, open-plan offices save money on office setup costs. 

The physical office design will play a major role in return to work and the hybrid work models of the future. But is the open concept office design still trendy and workable? Will it support the demand for safe, collaborative workspaces needed under the new normal?

Today's post is the first part of a two-part series about the "new normal" for office work. In the next few sections, I’ll share the top truths about open concept offices and how to leverage this information so that our clients can have a safe environment where they can perform at their best.

The Popularity of Shared Spaces in the Workplace

As the pandemic restrictions ease, workers are gradually allowed to return back to the workplace. Most businesses are starting to re-evaluate their workplace strategies as they prepare to bring employees back to the office, and many are modifying their workspaces to meet the changing employee demands. Employees are expected to demand more flexibility to work remotely (for at least part of the week) and access to office spaces that promote collaboration and increase productivity. And so, companies may need to adjust to a new hybrid model and use the physical office space more flexibly.

Some companies are taking a new look at shared workspaces, including hot-desking—a popular workplace practice among co-working providers that provides employees the ability to choose where they work within the office. There are a number of reasons why an organization may want to go forward with this type of office layout. These may include their cost-saving benefits, giving the organization a modern facelift to attract the younger workforce, and their inherent flexibility in accommodating those who are going to be using a hybrid work model moving forward.

Based on my research and personal experience in these kinds of set-ups, the best staff performance is when organizations are either thoroughly and thoughtfully managing the change with long-standing employees or when the open workspace design has always been integral to an organization so it attracts those who would like to work this way. Considering all the rage about shared workspaces these days, there’s insufficient research about their overall impact on the people who work in them! Below are the top three truths you need to know about shared workspaces.

1. The Upside of an Open Concept Office

Over the past year, employers and employees saw that remote work is not only possible but also highly productive. For this reason, employers need a convincing reason to motivate their employees to return back to the office. One way to do this is to promote collaboration and communication through flexible shared spaces.

Shared spaces (including hot-desks) are a huge trend these days as it provides a lot of obvious benefits, making it an attractive office option to many large companies and startup businesses alike. Here are some of the touted benefits that research has indicated to be associated with this type of work layout:

  • Increased employee satisfaction 
  • Projecting an image of being modern and forward thinking
  • Offer a lot of flexibility with your space
  • Enabling closer working relationships
  • Raises employee productivity
  • More easily exchanged knowledge and skills
  • Increased opportunities to network
  • Saves money on office setup costs

2. Negative Consequences of a Shared Work Environment

Intrusive, distracting, and lacking privacy. These are just some of the consequences of a less than optimal shared workspace system. The benefits that come with a shared work environment can also present some disadvantages. Shared office spaces tend to provide a professional and modern aesthetic, but they lack coziness, comfort, and privacy. While they’re valued for enhancing collaboration, this type of office layout might lower productivity levels for tasks that require quiet concentration.

As work becomes more shared, it increases employees’ cognitive demands. This means that when the workspace lacks privacy, it increases the pressure on them to split their mental attention between completing their tasks and managing the distractions around them. This has a significant impact on an employee’s performance, so it’s important that this issue must be thoroughly addressed. Let’s take a look at some of the negative outcomes related to shared office spaces below:

  • Distraction is the biggest deal-breaker that people who work in shared spaces often cite. It’s significantly worse in all the shared office arrangements when compared to those working at home or on the road.
  • Can create non-productive behaviours such as uncooperativeness, increased distrust, increased negative interpersonal relationships, and higher social liabilities.
  • Supervisor support decreases as work environments become more shared; associated with lower quality supervisor/manager relationships.
  • Shared office spaces are often criticized for being too loud. While some employees may tolerate ambient noise from office equipment, overhearing nearby conversations (inevitable in open plan workspaces) is a serious task distraction and source of irritation.
  • Lack of private space.
  • Can increase employees' use of coping techniques, including withdrawal. 

3. Allowing Workspace Personalization

One of the benefits of having your own office space is that you’re free to decorate it the way you want. Having a personal space gives employees the freedom to put meaningful pictures, children’s drawings, mugs, and knick-knacks. There’s an almost innate interest to do this for some people. Unfortunately, this is not possible with a shared workspace. In another strike against shared spaces, research has found that preventing employees from doing so can potentially hinder performance. Research has also found that banning personalization or implementing a 'clear desk policy' has a little obvious benefit but has potentially negative implications for a company. 

In my experience, clear desk policies are usually the wish of (usually expensive) interior designers for aesthetic purposes for when there’s merely an open workspace. If space is shared such as when hot-desking is involved and staff must vacate their workspace regularly throughout the week, limiting personal items can serve a function. For the hot-deskers, lockers can be added to common areas or lounges to store personal items or equipment. 

The inability to personalize workspace can even reduce positive emotion, increase stress, and lower the sense of control that the employee experiences at work. For some, they find comfort from the personal items with which they decorate their workspace. It can also help them cope with work stress and the distractions and interruptions associated with working in a low privacy environment. So it might be a good idea to do some sort of compromise to allow workspace personalization to those who wish to do so. 

And that’s it for Part 1! I shared about the benefits of shared office spaces, the consequences of a poorly designed system, and the idea of personal items. As Ergonomic Consultants, it’s our responsibility to try to make the best recommendation possible for a productive environment to everyone involved. I hope you really enjoyed these first three things to know about office workstations. For the second part of this episode, I’ll be sharing with you some useful things to implement that will make the environment way better for everyone involved. Interested? It's coming next week.

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