May 9, 2011

Thoughts on The Physical Working Environment

In this post I will touch on some aspects of the physical working environment in organizations. I will attempt to answer these questions: How should offices be designed FOR people? What makes a certain work environment successful? What physical-work-environment is likely to encourage productivity and creativity?

Since it is spring, I cannot help but think of the similarities between planting seeds in the ground and placing employees in an office. I know, I know, it sounds cliché, but think about it: we try to ensure that the plant will have all that it needs: light, water, shade/sun, structural support (if it has the potential to grow high), protection from wind, etc. We will surely think about all these things before we plant anything, right?  We will want to research the specific needs that this plant has as we shape its environment to the best of our ability. Should we do any less for people in the context of their working environment?
Prof. Tom Davenport wrote about knowledge workers, how they think, how they accomplish tasks, and what motivates them to excel in his book "Thinking for a Living". One of the chapters in his book deals with physical work environment of the knowledge worker. 
Davenport claims that very little can be said for certain with regards to the effects of the workplace on the performance of the knowledge workers. He recommends to develop a customized and personalized approach towards this issue: Customized- fitting of the physical work environment to the group and its knowledge needs. Personalized: knowledge workers have characteristics that define their tasks and type of work, like autonomy in making decisions, and so. Choice and individual decision should be granted to them with regards to their workplace environment as well.

Frederick Herzberg studied and developed theories regarding the factors that affect human behavior. He identified a range of influences on workers’ motivation. The physical environment was identified as having a unidirectional effect on worker motivation. Hertzberg thought it was important to maintain a comfortable, safe, supportive physical environment to help workers stay motivated (and productive).

Now, enough with theory. What can we DO?
Environmental conditions to think about when designing places for people: Indoor air quality, ventilation system performance, lighting, spatial comfort, density, personalization and furniture, layout and acoustic conditions. There are endless design solutions of internal office space that try to address the environmental conditions I just mentioned. I will provide a few examples of cool designs and then provide a few tips on how to go about designing a work environment for your company.
  Cool designs I liked that show the semi-private work area:
   Skype Headquarters in Palo Alto, by blitz design
   Google Offices in Milan by AMA – Albera Monti & Associati

    Beta workplace system of furniture, designed by Pierandrei Associati
    WPP Detroit - Designed by Gensler

A few tips: How to go about designing a work space for your company

Customize and personalize:
Create think-tanks that includes representatives from different groups in the organization. Also include a person who understands the work habits of the team, and the type of people who work there (an involved HR person would be a great fit for this). Different groups in the organization have different dynamics based on the people who work there and on how they do the job that they do. After think-tanks are formed, together identify work behaviors that are important for a successful performance of that team.

Try to avoid solutions buzz words such as: open space/cubicles, instead talk about the types of communication utilized by  the team that will occupy a space. For example, a support team who works on providing clients with online/on-phone support, might need to consult with each other and share institutional knowledge. The physical configuration could be sensitive to that need and support it with a space where the team could easily see/talk with each other.  This approach of defining behaviors first and only then connecting them to physical solutions might be more time consuming than simply sending a survey to ask what configuration they would like to work at, but it will provide a better fit to the behavioral needs of the team (in the next paragraph I will suggest why you should not JUST ask people what they prefer)

What’s wrong with asking people what they prefer?
Usually I claim that people know what’s good for them. In this case, I feel that people might confuse what’s good for them with standard design solutions that they heard about previously. People might not be able to identify the important elements in the space design that could be required for their optimal work performance. A survey regarding the work environment, in which employees are asked to define what they like/dislike, might yield obvious results (e.g.: people like natural light).

Consider plants in the work environment!
It might sound random and not related but in fact plants not only add a visual pleasure but have an effect on the quality of air in the office (they do produce oxygen, it's real!). Nowadays, many offices include sealed windows. Plants won't replace the air conditioning system but it would help increase the oxygen levels in the air. 

So to conclude, there are no tricks or secret formulas. In order to design a productive, functional, and successful work space, you need to learn and understand the way different groups in your company’s operate, the personalities that will occupy different spaces and what type of activities and behaviors they need to do in that space.

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