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The Impact of Office Layout on Productivity and Engagement

Noise, distractions, lack of personal space and potential impacts on productivity are just a few of the unintended impacts that office layout choices may raise. While open office environments have been popular, a recent Gallup report suggests that most employees prefer to have a place to call their own.

What office space decisions may serve to hinder—or, potentially, help—your company?

The Prevalence of the Open Concept

The open office concept took root in Germany back in the 1950s and was brought to the U.S. more recently. According to the International Facility Management Association, about 70 percent of U.S. organizations now incorporate some type of open office layout, Gallup says. Gallup research, though, indicates that 57 percent of employees surveyed work in a “similar location as their coworkers.” Unfortunately, that layout may not be leading to the positive impacts these organizations are hoping for.

Yes, open concepts can be conducive to conversation and collaboration—but they can also be conducive to disruption and distraction. Having some flexibility to choose the conditions where they work is important to employees according to Gallup:

  • 42 percent would change jobs to have more privacy when they need it
  • 41 percent would change jobs for a personal workspace
  • 38 percent would change jobs for their own office
  • 33 percent would change jobs for a door they could shut

How can you meet your employees’ needs for both privacy and flexibility?

Helping Employees Find Privacy and Flexibility

Maura Thomas is the founder of RegainYourTime.com and the author of Personal Productivity Secrets (Wiley, 2012) and Work Without Walls (Burget Ave Press, 2017). Thomas says that maintaining employee productivity starts with design considerations.

“Certain floor plan components will help you maximize productivity in the office,” she says. “Knowledge work requires quiet thinking space for flow. However, if you have the space, you can build in opportunities for collaboration with some open work space.” In addition, she says, “coffee house” settings can offer an opportunity for employees to do low-focus work in the presence of others. “Game areas also do well as collaborative spaces, because physical activity fosters creativity. You can make collaboration and teamwork a prominent feature of your office space.”

Still, while opportunity for interaction and collaboration is important, “employees still need quiet, undistracted environments that support the flow, creativity, and brainpower that is required for the work you hired your knowledge workers to do,” says Thomas. She recommends that employers consider making the following types of small changes that can positively impact employee performance, productivity and job satisfaction:

  • Offer private storage space for employees’ personal articles and supplies
  • Provide flexibility in office decor, including personal décor like family photographs or “knickknacks”
  • Consider the impact (positive and negative) of “noise,” which might include music or other background sounds
  • Provide flexibility—desks on wheels, for example.

Giving employees some control over the environment they work in, says Thomas, “leads to happiness—and happiness leads to productivity.

Type of Work Drives Layout Considerations

The type of work being done in an organization, or department, obviously also impacts layout decisions, as Jan Bednar, CEO at ShipMonk, in Deerfield Beach, Florida, points out. At ShipMonk, for instance, a fulfillment and shipping company, employees need to work together to meet client needs. A former company layout had employees working in an open workspace, with a “deep partition” between them and the senior leadership team. ShipMonk’s new facility was designed in an effort to remove that barrier, while still providing effective work environments to meet both the collaborative needs of the front-line staff and the privacy requirements of the firm’s leadership team.

“Our new facility features an open workspace, and our management team works behind glass doors and windows,” says Bednar. “This fosters collaboration between our front-line employees while figuratively—and literally—removing walls between them and their supervisors.” Better yet, says, Bednar: “We have noticed 50 percent, plus, improvements in efficiencies, contact resolution time and order fulfillment time across the board—these improvements can be directly attributable to our workspace layout.”

Let There Be Light

Don’t overlook the impact that lighting—especially natural lighting—can have on employee mood and satisfaction, says John Crowley, a blogger who focuses on HR and employee productivity issues. He says that a recurring theme in his work has been the importance of designing office space with natural light in mind.

“Creating an office layout that puts employees close to a source of natural light can really boost productivity and make your employees happier,” he says. “Dim, artificial light can cause strained eyes, dizziness and headaches,” he says. He points to an example from the 1980s when a post office in Nevada renovated their entire lighting rig to move away from dim, artificial light and to increase exposure to more natural sources of light.” These effort, says Crowley, resulted in the firm becoming the most productivity mail sorting center in the western states.

Seek Employee Input  

Innovative and best practice examples of workspaces designed to boost satisfaction and productivity abound. But, rather than making assumptions about your own employees’ preferences and needs when it comes to workspace, ask them! Their insights can help you find the right balance between privacy, camaraderie to build the kind of engagement that boosts both productivity and retention.

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