The workplace is evolving into a more human space. Alongside the technological transformation of our office buildings, new approaches to workplace design have emerged that have found the best path to productivity is to focus on the various needs of their diverse group of employees. Our cities, that have developed over decades and centuries, offer an interesting guideline for the modern workplace. Cities also require a multitude of zones to cater to all the activities of their various occupants, and while cities develop those spaces “organically,” workplaces must introduce them by design.
Office Zone - For Focus
The traditional office may not offer the human-focused variety of spaces that this article highlights but the traditional office is popular for a reason — focused work. Human-centric workplaces are a revolution against the traditional office, which could be described as company-centric, where design focused primarily on what decision-makers believed was best for the organization. More often than not, this was employees sitting in the relative isolation of cubicles, getting on with their work. However, employees also demanded that kind of isolation.
A survey by Harvard in 1980 found that 85% of US employees said they needed places to concentrate without distractions, and 52% said they lacked such spaces. In reaction to this growing feeling, high-walled cubicle desks took over the corporate landscape. While cubicles have largely disappeared from the modern workplace, the need for isolation persists to avoid distraction when the type of work itself demands deeper focus. This reality is all the more important as our economies continue to shift from production-based to knowledge-based activities.
“We have a growing amount of research which tells us that if you spend large portions of your day in a state of fragmented attention — where your regular workflow is constantly broken up by taking frequent breaks — that this can permanently reduce your capacity for concentration,” said Cal Newport, professor and author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. “Deep work is what moves the needle. All in all, if you’re excellent at giving things intense concentration, this will act like a superpower in the knowledge economy.”
Cafe Zone - For Collaboration
In cities around the world, cafes or their equivalents serve a fundamental role as a place to sit comfortably and discuss ideas. Cafes have increasingly offered a place for employees to take a break from the traditional office environment with casual meetings, these groups find the relaxed and dynamic cafe environment inspires thoughts and discussions that would be more difficult or even impossible in the office. Today, workplace designers are striving to recreate that cafe environment within the office.
A late 1990s repeat of the Harvard survey found very different worker needs. In the age of cubicles, only 23% of employees wanted places to concentrate without distractions, whereas 50% now said they needed more access to other people and 40% said they wanted more interaction. This understanding then inspired the rise of the open office, symbolized by dot-com-boom firms. Today, the open office faces significant criticism, however, while it does foster collaboration it does so while sacrificing isolation and focus. The workplace is a space for many different activities that demand different environments.
“It’s about having some open, some closed, some café-like environments, some isolation — It’s about giving employees a choice,” says Jacob Morgan, author of The Future of Work. “You can’t have a house with just a kitchen, and you can’t have a work environment where we tell employees to do everything in one room.”
By creating collaboration spaces alongside other spaces in the workplace, employers can provide a natural crossroads for coworkers to meet and share ideas. Like a cafe, these spaces are busy and often encompass with kitchens and comfortable seating, where employees can benefit from the bustle during casual meetings or ad hoc interactions that inspire the ideas that lay the foundation for productivity.
Conference Zone - For Meetings
If the workplace is like a city then the meeting room is like a conference center, receiving visitors from other workplaces/cities for dedicated meetings on defined topics. Meetings demand privacy and isolation from the distractions of the busy office environment so participants can make the most of the limited face-time they have with each other. Limited meeting rooms and spur-of-the-moment meetings do create challenges for this zone, but modern workplaces now face that challenge with the myriad of smart room-booking technology.
“Whether it is due to the nature of a client account, or to hold a sensitive conversation at work, ensuring the office has a private zone – whether access to a meeting room or your own private office – is crucial, especially with the rise of the open-plan office,” says Eugen Miropolski, managing director for Europe and the Pacific at WeWork, a company that built its name around the casual “cafe-style” workplace environment with dedicated meeting rooms to support dedicated discussions.
Park Zone - For Wellness
As part of a wider health shift in society over the last decade or two, workplaces have been taking measures to improve the health of their employees. This is not simply the benevolent act of health-conscious employers but the direct consequence of understanding that healthier employees are more productive workers. Consequently, health and wellbeing zones have emerged in workplaces as a space for sports, yoga/meditation, or just a break from the bustle, much like the role parks play in the urban environment.
“People are the most valuable asset in any organisation, therefore investing in wellness and a health strategy is vital both ethically but also financially,” states Joe Gaunt, founder and chief executive of Hero, a digital wellness company. Gaunt promotes a specific area of the workplace for energizing and relaxing activities that he believes make a direct impact on a company’s bottom line. He suggests that these zones make healthy, happy and highly engaged employees that are, on average, 30-days per year more productive.
In the most basic sense an employee who is healthier; takes less sick days, sleeps better making them more alert at work, is generally in a better mood - improving their teamwork, and has a greater mental capacity to complete assignments. All of these elements bring about greater productivity from a worker to the benefit of the enterprise. Recent research is also highlighting the focus of workplace health initiatives for younger people but like parks, workplaces should serve all age groups.
“While the notion that modern older workers can have just as much to offer than younger workers appears to be well-founded, the needs of older and younger people in the workforce are different,” we discussed in a recent article titled The Future Workplace for an Aging Workforce. “Optimal productivity office temperature and lighting may differ, for example, while health initiatives could focus on the needs of elderly health rather than just trying to make lazy young people more active.”
Town Hall Zone - For Team Building
A town or city hall was traditionally a single large open chamber (or "hall") used for a variety of community events, such as receptions, banquets, balls, civil functions, festivities, and public entertainment. It is where council meetings are held for local governments to engage with their communities and vice versa. While town halls may have lost their central place in the community, especially in bigger cities, the traditional concept of the town hall lives on in modern office design.
“A ‘town hall’ zone gives you the ability to bring together a whole organization, or at least large cross-functional teams, to celebrate successes – both professional and personal – or just for an end-of-the-week pizza,” says Neil McLocklin, head of strategic consulting EMEA at Knight Frank. While Enrico Sanna, chief executive officer of workspace architects Fora says, “work is not just work. It’s a large part of our lives: we’re social creatures and to be happy we need opportunities to build and maintain social relationships at work. The right kind of space needs to support that by providing areas to eat, drink, have fun, as well as areas for entertaining clients.”
Work is not just work, it involves different types of people doing various activities alone or in a range of group-sizes. Therefore, new workplace design approaches have emerged to offer a variety of zones for different types of work and different types of workers. Just like the city, workplaces must focus on the diverse needs of their occupants in order to get the most out of them.