The Changing Workplace: Choice is the New Trend

by Peter Pinkerton, IIDA, NCIDQ

The typical office workplace has been changing for decades, and most rapidly in the last 10 years. Cubical “farms” of the 1980s are disappearing. Workstation panel heights are coming down or vanishing all together. “Free Address Workplace” is the new catchphrase for the modern workplace, and the old way of calculating real estate square footage per employee no longer applies. Choice in the work environment is the new trend, and here’s why.

Studies show that, on average, only 50 percent of work seats in an office environment are occupied at any given time. Space utilization studies indicate the same trend: companies are paying rent on consistently unused space. Clearly, how we work is affecting how much time we spend in the office chair. Increased communication with mobile devices and 24/7 accessibility allow people to work anywhere. Remote working and flex-time hours are common, and in some industries, expected. We have learned that innovation is a team effort that requires collaborative and inspiring workspace, not solitary time at a desk.

Flexible work practices are driving this trend toward choice in the work environment. According to studies conducted by Margaret Gilchrist Serrato, a workplace strategist at Herman Miller, “innovation occurs when you support a variety of work styles and activities and increase informal interactions.” In other words, companies can foster creativity and innovation by providing an office with less “me” space and more “we” space. So what does a flexible, choice-driven work environment look like?

  • Today, your workspace IS the office. The minute you enter your company’s office, you are in your workspace. Come in and find your spot for the day: sit at a desk if you want, or claim a huddle space or lounge chair if you prefer. Companies are creating flexible work environments that support every kind of employee, their job function, and preference for comfort, from “touch down” spaces for remote workers coming into the office a couple of days a week to “co-location” rooms for cross-disciplinary projects. As employees team with each other in new ways, assigned seating may be a hindrance to collaboration. Informal and comfortable spaces are serving the purpose.
  • Open offices provide inherent flexibility and choice – for employees and facility managers. Remove the high-walled workstations and you’ll find a brighter space with natural light and opportunities for people to see each other. Visibility fosters communication and collaboration, and access to daylight has proven wellness benefits. An open office environment with a variety of common spaces should serve different employee work styles; limiting foot traffic in heads-down work areas ensures fewer disruptions. For the facility manager, an open plan office allows an organization to change and grow while retaining its elements of productivity and efficiency.
  • Create impactful moments – and places – of collaboration. Expanded cafés and “town squares” offer spaces for casual meetings and impromptu encounters that foster collaboration. While an office requires a quiet and focused environment for thinking and writing, opportunities for people to interact and socialize are equally important. Companies are going to great lengths to design inspiring office environments that keep employees happy, productive, and more engaged.
  • Dedicated workspace is decreasing per employee. The old assigned 6’x 8’ workstation no longer exists, replaced by smaller low-walled workstations or table-like desks called benches. The formula for calculating square footage per person also varies by organization, with less emphasis on individual work space and more on common collaboration areas. In some cases, even with smaller workstations, the amount of square footage per person remains the same. It is just arranged differently.
  • In a flex office, it’s less important to define what kind of space it is; it’s just unassigned space. This new way of working is changing the workplace, and as an ancillary benefit, reducing the real estate burden for many companies. With employees working from home, taking personal time, or traveling to clients, a percentage of your office may be empty at any given time. Apply a flex ratio to your work space (say a 3:2 ratio of people to seats), and you can accommodate more employees in the same – or smaller – work environment.

For a global financial services company, an office re-design provided an opportunity to examine their real estate footprint and utilization. The company determined that 20 percent of its employees were “resident” and required an assigned seat. The remaining 80 percent of seats were deemed “flex,” allowing a ratio of 1.5 people per seat and accommodating 40 percent more employees in the space. Reducing the number of dedicated private offices in favor of unassigned, flex space is another way of optimizing space utilization.

The bottom line? By giving employees the freedom to work as they choose, companies can increase engagement and commitment to their organizations. Choice in the work environment can go a long way toward workforce recruitment and retention.