22 Squared. Image © Michael Moran and Gensler
In our recently released 2013 Workplace Survey (WPS), we found that workplace effectiveness has dropped since 2008. As we release these findings, we’ve noticed that many people hear that and make an immediate and intuitive leap—they assume we mean open plan offices don’t work. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Our research shows that effective work can happen in both open and enclosed environments. Unfortunately, in the aggregate, our workplace data shows that doesn’t appear to be happening for many companies.
The result is an overall decline in the ability of U.S. workers to get their jobs done. Effectiveness has dropped in all four work modes—focus, collaborate, learn, and socialize—and it has dropped in all key workspace types: open plan workstations, meeting spaces, training rooms, common areas, and private offices.
I found that last finding fascinating. Even private offices are not as effective as they were in 2008. Why is that? Certainly the world has changed in the last five years, shifting the way we work. We have more distractions and interruptions, including 24-hour technology demands. Most of us have more on our plates and have to multi-task to get everything done. Collaborating with virtual colleagues takes tremendous concentration and effort. And if effectiveness is declining across the board, open plan offices aren't at fault—there must be something deeper going on. And there is. Our findings come with a silver lining: By analyzing those who can work effectively, we’re uncovering the factors that truly drive success in the workplace. It turns out there are much more important questions to be asking than open versus enclosed workspaces.
The first question—can your employees focus? The ability to focus is a primary driver of individual performance and success. We also dug in to help understand the design factors that best support focus. Turns out, people who can focus are three times as satisfied with the noise levels at their primary spaces and almost two times as satisfied with the overall functionality and design of their spaces. They also have better access to alternate work spaces that can support individual or group work. These are solutions that can be addressed directly. Focus can be achieved in any space type.
While the ability to focus is critical, we know focus by itself is not enough. It takes collaboration to quickly move ideas in a competitive knowledge economy. Fluidly shifting between focus and collaboration is how work flows today. So we analyzed our data to find the employees whose companies prioritize the ability to focus and prioritize the ability to collaborate—what we’re calling a “balanced workplace.” These workers outperform the rest of our sample, particularly on measures around how creative or innovative they see their companies, and their workplaces are more effective overall as measured by Gensler’s Workplace Performance Index (WPI). More importantly, our data shows that this type of balance is possible in any environment, whether it is open or enclosed.
Employees who say their workplaces are balanced occupy a wide range of work settings: 44 percent are in private offices, 11 percent are in shared offices, 44 are percent in open plan, and the remainders have an unassigned seat.
So if balance is possible in any environment, why has effectiveness declined? While balance is possible, most offices in the U.S. don’t appear to have achieved it—the need for balance is quite astounding. Only one in four WPS respondents reported working in a balanced workplace.
Achieving balance in a workplace is a delicate process. The first priority is to optimize the functionality of primary workspaces. Design elements must mitigate noise and provide access to colleagues while minimizing distractions. It's also important to design a pleasing space where people actually want to be. A balanced workplace also provides a healthy dose of alternative workspaces where groups of one to four people can seamlessly transition from individual work to group work or a person can simply go into an enclosed room and shut the door to concentrate or take a call.
The availability of secondary workspaces is particularly important for creating a balanced workplace. Many clients tell us that their employees embrace secondary workspaces, and observational data from Gensler's Activity Analysis tool confirms this. Environments that support meetings of two to four people consistently show as the most in demand, and the number of participants that are virtual in an average meeting is on the rise—approximately one in four meeting participants was virtual among observed companies in our dataset. The proximity and availability of secondary work environments can bring balance to a workspace and help occupants work more effectively, both by providing the spaces they need to perform a variety of activities and moving noise and distraction-creating activities away from desks and into more appropriate spaces.
To achieve that, it’s time to move the debate beyond should we provide private offices or not. That discussion is too narrow. To really drive performance, companies must create work environments where workers can shift between various work modes and feel comfortable working privately or collaborating with colleagues. The ability to make the choices that optimize individual productivity within the framework of the office makes all the difference.
Janet Pogue is a Principal in Gensler’s Washington, D.C. office. She co-leads the firm’s Workplace Practice and is a frequent writer and speaker on the critical issues affecting the design of high performing work environments. Contact her at email@example.com.