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Focus on Focus

Gensler office

January 2013 update: Read our research report on this topic.

The places where we work have dramatically changed over the last thirty years. At the extreme, we have gone from private offices in the 60’s to open work benches that are not dissimilar to workspaces from the Industrial Revolution, a time of wrenching change, challenges and opportunities much like today. So much of this change has been driven by the need to facilitate communication, enhance collaboration and break down the silos that have paralyzed many organizations.

Research has substantiated that open plan workplaces have indeed helped organizations and individuals achieve these goals. However, it now seems that we are at a tipping point in the open plan workplace trend, with concerns and important questions about these environments beginning to emerge. As a leading designer of workplaces, Gensler is at the center of this exploration as we seek to invent groundbreaking approaches and solutions to meet these challenges.

It’s in the News

Gensler is not alone in recognizing this new shift. The January 13 New York Times article “The Rise of the New Groupthink” challenged the current open workplace trend and pointed to the lost benefits of concentration and focus in the workplace because of open plan environments. Along the same lines, The Atlantic’s “Collaborative Workspaces: Not All They're Cracked Up To Be” touched on individual workstyles and the need for spaces that meet the needs of the individual worker, whether an introvert, extrovert or somewhere in between.

These articles and the comments they have spurred point to the currency of this issue and a compelling line of questions: has the move away from individual space gone too far? Have we succeeded in enhancing collaboration but at the cost of concentration? Have we underestimated the importance of concentration in an organization’s competitive competency?

Gensler’s Workplace Research

Gensler’s own research reinforces a change has begun. Over the past five years, Gensler has surveyed 70,000 individuals from 130 of the world’s top companies to understand their work patterns and work environments. With a basic hypothesis that knowledge work is composed largely of four components—focus, collaboration, learning and socializing—our research team sought to understand the connection between workplace design and the effectiveness of work in these four work modes.

Our Expectations…and the Surprise

In carrying out our workplace research, we expected to uncover evidence that collaboration was an important hallmark of the modern workplace. We expected to find evidence of the key role that socializing plays in the workplace and its connection to building relationships and knowledge sharing. We expected to substantiate that learning is a vital part of work today. Indeed, we found conclusive statistical evidence and data to support these trends and add nuance to our understanding of them. Check, check and check.

What we didn’t expect to see, and are only just beginning to grapple with, was a host of issues and disconnects around the work mode we call focus. Not only is the focus mode not functioning optimally in most office environments, we found statistical evidence that the effectiveness of collaboration, learning and socializing suffers if the ability to focus is diminished.

In deeper analysis of the data, we have seen that the work modes are not four independent variables in knowledge work. Instead, the work modes are highly interconnected, with focus as the primary component. The implications for workplace design are profound.

It seems clear that appropriate design solutions for the focus mode are the foundation of an effective workplace, with solutions for the other modes developed as important additional layers of the workplace system. I don’t think it would be going too far out on a limb to say we are at the beginning of a new era in workplace design.

It’s About Individuals

At the heart of this new era is the individual. Does supporting the individual mean that everyone needs a private office to optimize the ability to focus? Probably not. Gensler has launched new research that is exploring how different people focus in different ways. The optimum work setting for individuals differs based on many factors including personality type. Extroverts may work well in a coffee shop setting; conversely, an introvert may do best in a more private space for their focus work.

When I was at MIT studying architecture, our design studio was an example of how people shape workspaces differently to suit their needs. The studio was a double-high space on the top floors of an original early-1900s building at 77 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge. Once you entered the space you were overwhelmed with the two story self-built “town” constructed within the space by students over the years. Desks were on built up levels of pipes and wood surrounded by DIY walls and partitions. It looked like a small village…no two spaces were alike and each reflected its occupant’s different level of need for privacy or openness. It was a great place to be and those of us who experienced that work setting really miss the creativity of the experience.

Given its eccentricities and randomness, I’m not suggesting this is the answer to what the modern workplace should be. However, the nature and range of individual optimization that emerged in this real life experiment proves the point of what happens when people have a choice. The challenge for workplace designers is how to address the spectrum of individual work setting requirements with scalable, efficient solutions that organizations can manage from a cost and operational standpoint. We are beginning to see examples of this kind of solution from some of the cutting edge technology companies who are offering unprecedented levels of freedom for their staff to modify their workspaces according to their own desires.

Asking the Right Questions

Can organizations thrive on a collaboration strategy that lacks a concentration and focus strategy? In a competitive global business environment, this is a critical question, and it’s clear that the design of the workplace is where the answer to this question is playing out in real time.

If businesses and organizations want to maximize human capability for invention and innovation, the next trend may be away from one-size-fits-all solutions. Concentration requires a more individualized set of options than today’s standard playbook. To enhance both collaboration and concentration we are seeking to invent a workplace that provides a spectrum of individual choices of primary workspaces, supported by places to collaborate, socialize and learn. This new hybrid could unlock untapped value through a more equitable balance of concentration and collaboration in the workplace. This new approach could mean a fresh level of success for organizations.

And that’s what I’ll talk about in my next blog -- workplace hybrid models that continue the discussion of these emerging breakthroughs in workplace design thinking.

Diane Hoskins
Diane Hoskins. As one of Gensler’s Executive Directors, Diane has guided the firm in developing an industry leading research program as well as metrics that quantify the productivity, sustainability and economic impact of Gensler’s architecture and design work. Learn more about Diane’s vision for the intersection of design and performance by contacting her at diane_hoskins@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (5)

I am dumber for having read this article.
01.25.2012 | Unregistered CommenterHenrietta
This is the most refreshing insight I've seen from a design firm in a very long time (though it does seem a bit odd with the rather facile post exclaiming everything is about collaboration on this blog not too long ago...). The almost myopic pursuit of collaboration in office design over the last decade has resulted in workplaces that just don't work. Understanding the balance that needs to occur in an office to support all types of work and, as you point out, all types of people is a great start to righting the wrong. I truly hope you're correct in the onset of a new era, one that embraces diversity rather than lumping people into one big, never-ending group work session.

In addition to the New York Times article on the subject, the New Yorker has a fantastic article on the myth of brainstorming you should check out.
01.25.2012 | Unregistered CommenterAllan T.
I find this research to be true especially when I need to be an extrovert (marketing) and then focused (graphics production) at different times during the week. It makes sense that we have team areas for when we need collaboration and conversely focus time when on deadline. It is difficult to find a quiet place to work in our small office, and conference rooms are too temporary. More often than not I find it easier to focus by working at home on those deadline days.
03.3.2012 | Unregistered CommenterEstrella S.
Indeed a powerful discussion to pros and cons of open office vs private office. Unfortunately, employers tend to focus on business and top rank executives and they leave out the other hard working employees. I believe as designers we are in a good position to educate them on what would be a balance work life. It is certainly difficult to give up private offices but what one would gain from such planning could be helpful to the companies and their employees' communication and moral.
10.4.2012 | Unregistered CommenterBill chan
A prairie or a forest?
10.17.2012 | Unregistered CommenterMCV

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