The Modern Workplace – One Size Fits All?

Stephen Minnett

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Over the past 20 years there has been a trend towards a conventional modern workplace with a “one size fits all” open plan collaborative environment. The established thought behind much of workplace design for knowledge workers has been that increased ability to collaborate would deliver greater productivity through knowledge sharing. 

The results of this approach have been generic workplaces that typically include: 

  • offices (if they are still provided) internally rather than on perimeter windows
  • all offices the same size
  • one size of workstation with low screens 
  • conventional meeting rooms
  • a brightly coloured breakout space or “café” to encourage staff interaction
  • an internal stair for connectivity 

This standard approach is overly simplistic and can neglect other important workplace attributes; open plan environments also generate noise, maintain a loss of privacy and degrade the ability to undertake individual focussed work.

Australia is now leading the world in large scale adoption of activity based work (ABW) which is a workplace strategy that provides people with much greater choice in the physical settings available to them. In an ABW environment desks are not “owned” by individuals but are used by people when needed. The primary driver for many of the early adopters of this strategy has initially been in the long term cost savings and greater flexibility ABW offers. For large space users eg: some major Australian banks it has allowed them to significantly reduce their real estate footprint. 

Historically such organisations have found through studies of their traditional workplaces that utilisation rates (or the number of workstations occupied at any point in time) have averaged around 50% with peak occupancies of around 60 – 70%. In the past they haven’t been able to take advantage of this because their technology hasn't supported peoples’ mobility. Now however technological advances in the workplace have meant that mobility can be supported – thus unlocking the opportunity to reduce real estate footprints. This is done by creating new ways to custom design workplace where technology is aligned with an organisations’ patterns of behaviour.

While a workplaces that support ABW may look different and have some different workplace settings (or furniture configurations) fundamentally ABW is a behaviour rather than a physical solution. To support ABW three fundamentals have to come together – the physical environment, technology to support mobility and the human behaviours of people in the space. Of the three it can be the human side that can be the hardest to get right.

It is entirely possible to take an ABW environment and use it in a conventional way if there are enough desks. The key to transitioning to a successful ABW environment is the human behaviour or protocols for using the space. There have always been issues with people’s behaviour that need to be addressed in the workplace – e.g. in a conventional workplace what are the protocols for using a speakerphone in the open plan environment? However in an ABW environment there is much greater complexity in the behaviours that have to be developed for people to work successfully together.

Now that we are seeing technology that truly supports mobility ‘work’ in many organisations can be done anywhere. But just because it can be done doesn’t mean necessarily mean it should be done anywhere.  There has been a lot of discussion on this issue over the last few years – particularly after Yahoo’s CEO Melissa Mayer banned working from home in 2014. There is no right answer to this practice; it is up to individual organisations to determine what is right for their people and culture.

To develop an appropriate ABW environment is a more complex and time-consuming process than a conventional workplace design. There is a very real risk that as ABW becomes more prevalent that organisations may shortcut this process and apply a “one size fits all” ABW solution. Through our work with many different organisations Futurespace has developed a proven process of engagement and procurement for workplace environments that ensures that the right solution is developed to suit an individual organisation’s desired workplace behaviours