Paradigm Shifts Happen

Let’s Bring Balance to Workplaces Instead

As an art school dropout, I often find myself with just enough knowledge of art history to get me into trouble. But there’s one aspect that’s present not just in the art realm, but in fashion, design, politics, and - arguably - the respective zeitgeists of generations, that is so pervasive and predictable, it bears remembering. It’s the element of extremes, or paradigm shifts.

In the context of art history, generally speaking, stylistic movements exist as a retort to the dominant movement of the time period. The later half of the 19th century and early 20th century, art styles shifted through extremes. Realism and Impressionism (where art was meant to be a true depiction of life and the observed world) served as the catalyst to Post-Impressionism and eventually Fauvism (where symbolism through depictions of memories, dreams, and thoughts reigned supreme).

For a more recent and relatable example, let’s turn to fashion. This realm is always shifting between extremes. One that’s particularly near and dear to my heart is the fit, specifically the rise, of women’s pants (rise is how high or low the pants sit on your torso). In the early 2000s, the rise of pants was a race to see how low you could go — see Britney Spears in 2001. But today, it’s quite the opposite. Looks that dominate stores now are as high-rise as it gets — see Kourtney Kardashian in 2015.

Which FINALLY brings us to the workplace. When the workplace shifts between extremes, it’s felt in a more personal way than similar shifts in art and fashion. Simply due to the fact that most of us work in an office of some type. Those of us that do work in an office, or at least have a basic knowledge of the workplace, have seen the change before our very eyes over the last few decades.

Seismic Shifts in Our Work Surroundings

In the U.S., the change encompasses the seismic shift away from cubicle-filled offices towards open-plan offices. A workplace without barriers was originally invented in the 1950s in Germany. The idea was to tear down barriers to supercharge creativity and productivity. Ironically, it’s the open-plan popularity that spurred Robert Propst, a chief executive at Herman Miller, to invent the cubicle in 1964.

Make no mistake, these were not the gray abominations we’ve grown to know as cubicles. These were high-quality and included moveable components that allowed employees to sit and stand throughout the day. Pretty forward-thinking, right? Instead of corralling employees, the goal of the cubicle was to provide privacy and autonomy for employees.

Fast-forward to the 1990s and you’ll see the cubicle contempt bred by years of cutting quality and size. The cubicle contempt was so vicious that companies rushed to help hinder the hate. The collective voice of employees was screaming, “Get rid of the cubicles!” And with that clear direction, companies started exploring their options. As the research began, it became evident that cutting out the cubicle could also save costs. More employees can fit in the same square footage when they’re at tables rather than in cubicles.

Cue Peter Gibbons in Office Space…

An opportunity that both cuts costs and satiates uncomfortable employees doesn’t appear often — so companies adapted. By 2016, brand strategists at Haworth, a manufacturer of corporate furniture, estimated that 15–20 percent of offices were using open-plan spaces.

Pontificating on the Problems

Our new workplace-without-boundaries has lead to both academic and anecdotal responses — some equally as visceral as those held towards the cubicles of yesteryear. Research published in 2011 displayed a correlation between open-plan offices and the amount of sick days taken by employees. When compared to closed offices, open offices with 6 or more occupants had 62 percent more days of sickness.

Open offices can also hinder productivity in a company’s most effective employees. A 2017 survey conducted by Rocket Fueled People revealed that 58 percent of high-performance employees (read more about high-performance employees here) need more private working space to facilitate problem solving. Furthermore, 62 percent of high-performance employees find their office environment to be “too distracting.”

The verdict on the open-plan office is proving to be just as polarizing as the cubicle farms it was supposed to replace. Renovations and remodels of office spaces aren’t inexpensive, and the cost is typically made a bit easier to swallow based on the promise of a net-positive impact on collaboration and productivity. Making matters worse, organizations often approach these big decisions based on the trend of the moment instead of considering adaptation and agility.

Flexible Workplaces FTW

Still the question remains, “What’s the best office space for employees?” The answer is surprisingly simple: the best office space for employees is whatever it needs to be. And no, that’s not just a smart-ass answer.

The best office space for employees is whatever it needs to be.

The best physical spaces are ones that foster collaboration and increase productivity. In order to achieve that, the space needs to be able to adapt to the employee’s ever-changing workload. Enter flexible workplace design — where inhabitants of a space dictate and change the functionality based on need.

Make an Immediate Impact with Adaptable Furniture

In the flexible workplace, employees have access to quiet places when they need to focus and shared areas to foster collaboration. Flexible workplace design includes three essential elements: the right architecture, the right adaptable furniture, and the right workplace technology.

Changing the architecture of a space to get it right isn’t always easy, feasible, nor within operating budgets. While the right technology can vary greatly from company to company, even department to department, and role to role. Which leaves the right adaptable furniture as the most feasible first-step into flexible design for many companies.

Quality adaptable furniture isn’t inexpensive (as my mother would say), but its impact on space utilization and maximization can save companies from purchasing more real estate. The popularity of flexible design has lead to a cornucopia of modular-minded manufacturers. These manufacturers approach adaptive office design with aesthetics worthy of their own art movement.

Sliding Walls

For companies that are looking to immerse themselves in adaptable spaces, moveable walls are an impactful solution to flexible privacy. DIRTT, provider of fully custom, prefab, modular interior solutions, offers sliding walls/doors to facilitate on-the-fly adjustments. At the Green Learning Center in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, DIRTT interiors create an adaptive space. A corner room can function as a shared office space, meeting room, or a communal area that serves as a place to make a quick phone call without background noise.

Panel Systems

Panel systems are the perfect solution for open-plan offices in need of adaptable workstations. A manufacturer with a wide range of panel system options is Steelcase. Their Answer Panel System is great because it comes in a wide range of aesthetics so they blend into the environment while still maximizing office space. Plus, these workstations balance collaboration with privacy and support a flexible workspace.

Retreat Spaces

Creating areas where employees can have a moment alone or to more closely collaborate with one or two of their coworkers is critical in open offices. Haworth can help facilitate that with their range of modular booths and retreat spaces. Their retreats allow for individual focus or private interactions, and can be configured to accommodate small groups.

It’s time for workplaces to stop falling victim to the swing of the design pendulum. Flexible workplace design allows companies to have their cake and eat it, too. Architecture, technology, and furniture that supports adaptability allows employees to create the workspace they need as they need it. Because the best workplace for employees is whatever the employee need it to be.

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