Through technology and new demands, working life has been radically altered while offices look much the same as they always have. Why do we still have our own desks when we more or less have abandoned them?
Microsoft's office in Amsterdam is an instance of how it is not always easy to change a deeply rooted office culture. When the company some years ago was about to introduce an activity based environment, where work duties rather than the number of employees decided how to design the office, there was major resistance among staff. Perhaps people were worried that this change would be somewhat like musical chairs with more participants than chairs and where those playing the game would get knocked out one after the other?
When the new office, despite employee uncertainty, was ready for use in 2010, none of the staff had their own desk or chair. Not even top management. An evaluation conducted after six months showed that no-one at Microsoft wanted to return to the old way of working.
"It is a journey, and it's incredibly important to have everyone on board. Engaging everyone in the process. Even sceptics can be ambassadors for change," says Heléne Lidström, Corporate Communication Manager at Microsoft.
Henrik Axell, Concept Developer of Kinnarps' Activity Based Working Environment, sees the transformation to a future activity based working environment as a change project rather than an interior design project and where three elements must be included:
• The physical environment
• The digital environment
• The organisation/management
"The reason for going through this change is to give employees greater freedom, but also to create flexible, functional and stimulating working environments," says Henrik Axell.
This is a logical development as the structures defining our working days have been eroded and the tendency is to select the working environment based on activity. One day it can be a library, another a café or the kitchen table at home.
Work duties in the new thought economy are also becoming more complicated. A number of challenges must be dealt with, of which many are based on collaboration: physical and virtual meetings, internal conferences, external customer meetings.
"The highest performing spaces that we’ve seen are those where the client has not necessarily invested more money in the design or the construction of the workplace, but has invested more time, consideration and conversation in understanding exactly what their employees need to be happy and productive. That for me is the difference in the future, that companies dare tell staff to make haste slowly and offer them different, customised environments that are more tailored to the work duties and the individuals," says Tim Oldman, CEO at Leesman Index which analyses workplaces.
Designing the office environments of the future is in other words not just about whether colleagues have to be open to the idea of releasing their desks, but also that company management has to release its grip on staff. Office structures were historically a reflection of company hierarchies: CEOs always had the largest room at the top. Middle management were able to look out over their staff. If staff were not at their desks, an overbearing manager would think something was amiss.
Today the logical consequence of being online all the time, always reachable - where the line between work and leisure is fading - is that offices are being customised in line with these new criteria. The question is, however, if we are ready to move into the offices of the future.
"We currently have a number of queries about this and I have noticed that many are very curious about the activity based concept, although not all organisations are ready to take the plunge yet," says Henrik Axell.
Maybe the process of maturity can be speeded up by the fact that activity based offices not only make colleagues more creative and productive but also cut costs. Using "The New Way of Working", Microsoft succeeded in reducing their property costs by 30 per cent. Numerous studies show that the occupancy rate of a conventionally built office is never greater than 50 per cent, and is actually closer to 40 per cent and even lower than this in many cases.
"How effectively are our buildings used? How often is a desk or a meeting room occupied? Property is a major business cost that is potentially being under-utilised using traditional design solutions. More flexible interior design solutions are in demand in line with an increase in property rents," says Ian Weddell, Commercial Manager, Kinnarps UK.
Did you know that…
…about half of the total number of employees in Sweden work from home or other places outside of the office on average one and a half days a month, according to Manpower's WorkLife survey.
…four per cent of those working outside of the office perform their work duties from bed according to the same survey.
…the occupancy rate of an office is never greater that 50 per cent, according to studies for instance carried out by Flexibility.co.uk, a website that writes articles on smart working, and the British architect Frank Duffy.
…62 per cent experience that a flexible workplace (in other words where it is not a requirement to carry out work duties in the actual office) boosts their personal productivity, according to a survey conducted by the American software company Citrix.
…55 per cent experience a flexible workplace as one that provides a better balance between work and leisure according to the same survey.