Over the last few decades, fueled in great part by advancing technologies and the recession, American workers have been forced to become more productive and versatile than ever before. And with those demands came more flexible tools (laptops/tablets instead of desktops) and schedules (the remote work trend). So that must mean that the modern American workspace has likewise transformed, right? Well, not really. Unlike laptops and remote, which caught on like wildfire, the typical workspace has mostly remained a constant in an otherwise-shifted landscape.
There are, of course, certain markets and industries that have changed their workspaces to see how they impact productivity. (Many of them branding or tech houses in cities like Portland, Denver, and Austin.) And I’m here to tell you that, if you're not in that minority, your office needs to change. I’ve been employed by such a place and it works. Here’s how. (Click here to go on a virtual tour of the space.)
The publication I was working for had rented out space for about a decade. There was very little they could do to change that space, they were bursting at the seams because of added employees, and they were sick of paying rent, so the owner decided to buy a building.
The new building was roughly five times the square footage of the previous space, so the owner first decided to add a retail store and a multi-use events space (art gallery, concert venue, etc.) on the main floor. That still left more than double the previous space for the rest of the office. So do we leave that open to account for growth? Do we rent it out for a bit until we expand? Or do we do something with it?
These are questions the owner posed to us (the staff), accompanied by floorplans and several visits to the gutted space. But everyone responded with, “Well, where will I be sitting?” To which the boss responded, “That depends. Do you want a closed-door office or an open-air desk?” Each of the employees took it in turn to respond with their preferences given the nature of their job, but my answer was a simple “No.” I did not want an either/or scenario; I wanted both.
You might be thinking: “What do you mean you want both, you greedy bastard?” Well, for me and many of the workers there, our work had become an eclectic mix between independent creative projects, rote tasks or busywork, and major collaborations. So my thinking was purely environmental: for independent projects many of us prefer undisturbed silence, for mundane ones we like music, and for collaboration we like brainstorm-friendly areas where we can be comfortable and conversational.
We needed all of those distinct environments, so that’s precisely what they did. The flexible workspace had all of them, and employees were welcome to use them as their tasks shifted or they felt they needed silence/music/brainstorming.
The receptionist had the desk at the retail store on the first floor and controlled the music (always upbeat, always local, and she took requests). The sales people went with half-walled cubicles in one corner of the second floor to accommodate both privacy (when on the phone with clients) and constant communication. The creative departments wound up smack dab in the middle of the second floor, their wall-less desks arranged in pod formations (this was fondly referred to as “the pit” or “the bullpen”). It’s a lot like the newsrooms of yore, where it’s constantly noisy and talkative, but with the extra bonus of music.
Surrounding them on the second floor are empty offices with desks, bookshelves, and at least one phone. They can be used by anyone, at any time, should they prefer to work in silent solitude. There’s also a large meeting room, the boss’ office (basically a meeting room), and the entire basement to utilize for collaboration. The basement is of particular note because it would become a public coworking space, so the people most often down there were creatives looking for feedback/help from other creatives. And if someone needed ambiance or outside stimulants to get their work juices flowing, they also added a coffee nook, entry solarium, and I’m told they’re in the process of adding a rooftop garden. (Click here to go on a virtual tour of the space.)
Obviously a workspace isn’t everything – proper tools, management, and employees are major factors, too – but the point is it does play a role. It can have a great deal of importance in fostering an environment and culture that maximizes productivity and morale. And if you don’t believe me, just ask business owners that have done it. (Like this one.) Or Google. Or Pixar. Or Zappos. (You get the idea.)