Why You Shouldn't Get Too Comfortable in Your Corporate Office

In the beginning, just about everyone who worked for a corporate company had their own office. Then came open floor plans. Then came the cubicle. Nowadays, most large companies have an entire palette of workspaces. New office designs are on the rise. Modern layouts cater to the huge variety of tasks today's white-collar workers face on a daily basis. In other words, office staff no longer sit and work all day in the same place anymore.

The new design trends are of course a backlash against the corporate penny-pinching and the one-size-fits-all attitudes of days gone by. Open plan was meant to improve co-worker collaboration. Instead, it saw businesses packing more workers into smaller spaces. Rows of desks and bench-style seating proved to be a breeding ground for tedium, rather than productivity.


New office designs are open

Well, sort of. Revised thinking has broken down walls to bring co-workers closer, but team-spaces, comfortable couch groupings and standing tables are now considered to be the way forwards. Privacy remains essential too, especially for tasks which require elevated levels of concentration. No, this hasn't lead back to an abundance of private offices, but it does mean that workers who seek a little solitude can get it when they need it.


The modern office is designed to be tweaked as required

It adapts and develops as the company around it changes. And the phenomenon is not, as you might expect, being spearheaded by brash Silicon Valley start-ups, famous for their football tables, free food and play slides, but by corporate mainstays such as General Electric, IBM, and Microsoft. Of course, these companies can afford to spend heavily, but they also spend wisely. When innovative workspace ideas pop up at Facebook and Google, the more mature stalwarts combine and refine, and make those same ideas better suited to mainstream businesses.


The new designs are not about looks

Instead, they are about adapting 'digital technology in the era of the Internet' into every kind of industry you can imagine. Experts have always claimed that space drives behaviour, and workspaces are now being designed to accelerate the pace of idea-sharing, speed up decision making, and take the creation of new products to unforeseen levels. They're also meant to attract Millennials, many of whom would prefer to bite the bullet and take a job at Starbucks than work in a regular office.


Activity-based workplace design

Is more than just a rallying cry. The new design philosophy eschews common workplace dogma like 'to each his own cubicle' and 'everyone gets his own office' or even 'everybody's invited to the workbench'. A diversity of spaces is far more productive, say the experts, and the new concept sets out to customise the workplace according to work carried out there. Office geography is another factor that can be crucial in leveraging communication and provide nourishment for the exchange of ideas.


Changes forced by business necessity

Microsoft has emerged as one of the most aggressive promoters of the new design makeovers. The computer behemoth is challenged by significant advances in technology as markets change to software that is being delivered and continuously updated via the Internet Cloud, as opposed to the Microsoft-way of loading individual devices, with code stored on CDs and sold every two years. Microsoft is looking to pick up its pace.


More collaboration means more change

Microsoft has for decades housed its software engineers in isolated offices. The privacy would help the workers focus, or so the company thought. But when Microsoft started testing open office designs in 2010, it began to change its mind. Since 2014, Microsoft has opened ten renovated buildings without one single closed office. But it's been a learning curve.


Microsoft's earlier designs with 16 to 24 engineers working in teams were too noisy for some people. Some of them ended up keeping their headphones on all day. Microsoft calls this 'doing the turtle'. Too much 'openness' can make it hard for workers to concentrate, Microsoft learned, with spaces becoming too distracting. And for some co-workers, the resulting 'retreat mentality' meant they were communicating less than before.


Microsoft found the sweet spot

Today, the company provides more private spaces and restricts team areas to between 8 and 12 workers. And it seems to be working. Microsoft's cloud business has surged over the last couple of years, and so has its stock price. To date, the company have refurbished about 20% of its work campus in Redmond and the surrounding Washington vicinity. The goal is to reach 80% refurbishment within the next five years.


But the new layouts can also save companies money

According to studies carried out by CoreNetGlobal, a commercial real estate association, average corporate worker space in 2017 is about 150 square feet per person, a drop from 225 square feet in 2010. And while there is no doubt that bringing workers together can add enormous value to a company's innovation and productivity, there remains the suspicion that the real reason corporations have gone for bench seating is because of dwindling budget allocation. Just as working from home became a massive trend from the 2000s, (a trend that was thrown into reverse when IBM recalled 5,000 of its at-home employees a few years ago) it would seem that money, and not worker comfort is at the forefront of office design.


But the new, hybrid trends, complete with whiteboard walls, sit-or-stand desks, huddle rooms, phone rooms, along with open spaces can provide a cost-effective base from which innovation and productivity can stem at will. Especially when the changes reach up through the higher echelons. More and more senior executives are surrendering their traditional wood-panelled offices for smaller, side-by-side glass offices that don't even have a door.


Offices will probably not disappear entirely

They will remain to be an option reserved for people who require the privacy to hold regular confidential conversations, like top executives and lawyers. So, take a look around your office. Ask yourself what it looked like ten years ago. And then, just for the heck of it, try to imagine what it will look like ten years from now.


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