From rows of cubicles to a totally open concept, offices have gone through tremendous design changes in recent years. However, after years of one way or the other, many businesses are finding the most value in blending the two design elements together.
While it is good to have open spaces for collaboration, it is just as beneficial to have private spaces where workers can retreat when trying to buckle down. Research shows that the move away from a completely open layout can be attributed to employees feeling too distracted in that type of environment. The study revealed that more than 60 percent of high-performing employees found their work environment too distracting, while 58 percent said they craved more private spaces for problem-solving.
As the Fortune 100 global sales and marketing executive, general manager, and senior cross-functional leader for Staples, Chris DeMeo has excellent insight into the current state of office designs.
We spoke with DeMeo about how office designs have changed recently, the key aspects that should be incorporated in all office configurations and what he sees for the future of office layouts. We also asked him some rapid-fire questions about technology, his career and advice he has received over the years.
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Q: What are the benefits of having both collaborative and private workspaces for employees?
A: A collaborative or open work environment stokes creativity and improves efficiency and speed of communication. Moreover, it allows for significantly better access to and interaction with colleagues and peers. However, for all the benefits, we have observed some pull-back from truly open workspaces. What we are hearing from customers is that people need their private workspaces, too, to tackle assignments that require higher degrees of focus.
The most important advice we offer customers is that creating an ideal work environment is not a perfect science. A balanced work environment matters, and companies that utilize both open and private spaces have had the most success.
Q: If you already have a built-out office that doesn’t offer both types of spaces, are there some easy steps you can take to convert spaces in your office? Or do you need to clear everything out and start from scratch?
A: We often find ourselves reassuring customers and reminding them that there’s always a solution. You do not need to start from scratch when converting an office space. If your office consists of primarily private workspaces, you can remove an area dedicated to cubes and build ‘harvest-style’ or gathering tables to create a collaborative space.
If you’re operating in a predominately open space, there are modular panels and fixtures on wheels that you can use to reorganize and reallocate your space as often as you’d like. This creates an adaptable space that allows for both open collaboration and privacy, enabling employees to select the work environment that best suits their needs.
Q: Does the rise in remote work options change how employers should think about their office design?
A: Absolutely. When designing an office with a remote workforce in mind, companies should consider docking stations, which are a great alternative to the traditional cube. Installing docking stations and modular workspaces in your office where employees can come and go as needed with their technology allows them to be both mobile and in-office.
You can also consider creating an established bullpen area as a check-in point for your remote workforce when they are in the office.
Lastly, there is incredible technology now in the form of telepresence programs that allow the virtual to become reality. To support the remote workforce, companies should embrace video-based conferencing and meeting room technology, as well as the collaboration software that is typically associated with these platforms.
Q: When it comes to design elements, what roles should light, greenery and wall colors play?
A: Studies have shown that people thrive in well-lit, natural light-driven work environments with organic elements. Many employees attribute unhappiness at work to the physical environment that they’re in, day in and day out, not to the actual company or their job. It is difficult to be inspired when you’re constantly surrounded by gray or off-white walls and rows and rows of cubicles, but this is how most companies are designed.
The changes companies can make to create a more appealing office design can be pretty simple and inexpensive. They include throwing some color on the walls. It doesn’t even need to be every wall – just something to break things up. I’d recommend companies take advantage of as much natural light as possible and make sure that each employee can see a window from their desk. Lastly, bring some plants into the common areas (and make sure they’re real!).
Nowadays, companies design offices with an eye toward improving overall workforce wellbeing and to get the inspiration juices flowing. You’d be amazed at the impact that certain design changes, including a visually appealing and creativity-inspiring office, can have on employee morale.
Q: Besides having both collaborative and private work areas, what other elements should “offices of the future” incorporate?
A: I see the ability to connect virtually as a key tenet of any modern workplace. Successful companies will need to support work wherever it happens, and that means providing the right technology to facilitate work outside of the office walls. Technology is only going to become more advanced and integrated into our workspaces, and the ability to access your office from any location is going to be imperative.
When I think about the office of the future, I do not see it as limited to physical elements, such as desks and chairs. Rather, I see wellness becoming an increasingly important feature. For example, offices should consider creating meditation rooms and fitness facilities, or providing employees with easy access to these kinds of amenities as part of a benefits program. This can also mean offering health-oriented workshops for employees in the form of classes around a variety of topics – from how to effectively handle the flu season to the importance of a healthy diet.
Companies need to be thinking about the whole employee, not just the part of the employee that they see at work.
Q: How important is it to gather input from employees when making office design changes?
A: Experts in workplace dynamics have proven that transparency is critical when it comes to office design changes. We believe that companies should involve employees at nearly every stage of the process, beginning with an open discussion about whether the office even needs changes.
Once established, we advise getting buy-in on the kinds of changes that should be made and nominating employees as representatives for the different functional groups. These ‘task forces’ can help drive the direction of the change, the vendor selection and the design. This helps ensure that the entire process is collaborative and that all voices and opinions are heard and considered.
Transparency is ultimately the best currency to spend when making these changes.
Q: What piece of technology could you not live without?
A: My smartphone is everything. Just a few years ago I would have said my computer, but now technology is so durable and so advanced that the loss of my phone would be catastrophic.
Q: What is the best piece of career advice you have ever been given?
A: Fortunately, I’ve been given a lot of great advice over the course of my career. However, what really stands out to me is a piece of advice that I received at a pivotal point early in my career: It is as important to be known for what you have accomplished as it is to be known for how you accomplished it.
Q: What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken professionally? Did it pay off?
A: When I graduated from college, I took a job in consulting. A year into it, there was an opportunity to run a retail outlet for Gap. Leaving a successful job in consulting was a serious risk – and one that definitely confused my colleagues. However, I saw great value in getting frontline management and business operations experience and ultimately took the job.
Running a retail outlet was only intended to be a yearlong stint and an investment in myself. I was young and wanted to learn how a business ran from the ground up. And it paid off – a lot of the lessons I learned that year (e.g., to think holistically, manage execution) helped to make me to be a better leader, and my positive experience has encouraged me to take more risks throughout the 20 years I’ve been working.
Q: As a leader, what’s the biggest challenge you face?
A: My biggest challenge is my greatest responsibility. It is ensuring that my teams understand that their work matters and contributes to the higher company purpose, and providing them with the autonomy, trust, flexibility and compassion that they need to do the things in their personal lives that are important and fulfilling to them. This work-life balance is critically important.
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