Office design

Partly due to the excellent The Brits Who Built The Modern World TV series, reflections on my own past experiences and changes in my current workplace I have become quite interested in all things ‘office design’ of late.  Part of my reason for this is that, as we consider the future of learning in the workplace, I am increasingly of the mindset that we can not separate this from where that learning may happen.

For example, one of my first experiences of eLearning was training during a brief stint working for B&Q (almost identical to Home Depot for any Americans out there).  To complete this training (mostly health and safety based from what I remember) I was sat, by myself, in a room which was predictably cold and dark (it was night shifts in Sheffield after all).  Now the training might have been fine but my memory is that room and nearly dozing off after a full day at university.  Forward on 10 years or so and many of our knowledge workers will find themselves in open, airy spaces – not locked away in little rooms – but the opposite problem will often happen.  Whilst the B&Q room was overkill in providing a quiet study space we now have call centers where, when you call as a customer, you cannot hear the operator over all the other discussions happening in the surrounding area.  The open plan office debate rages on.

‘Traditional’ eLearning though can realistically happen anywhere, the aspects of listening and reading being easily enough done on a bus (for example) provided it can be deployed to mobile.  My major concern is with virtual classrooms, whilst often deployed from the ‘safe walled garden’ of an LMS/VLE, we expect these platforms to offer a comparative environment to a classroom – engaging, full of discussion and activity.  Therefore, where in office design are we seeing spaces for individual activity?  Well here a couple of examples of what is possible:

I tend to support the idea of home based and flexible working where people can actively participate in an environment where they will naturally ‘open up’ – it also deals with the notorious question of what to feed people on training events!

So, if I come into the office, what do I need?  I would say two major things:

  1. An ability to ‘dock’ into a multiple screen display – much more efficient for multitasking such as video production whilst emailing, etc.
  2. Proximity to people I need to talk to regularly, realistically my direct team to learn from them and discuss current tasks face-to-face.  That proximity may be virtual for team members who are elsewhere – in which case ideally the office will not be so open plan that talking on the phone seems antisocial to other teams around you.

My most productive time in work was probably when I sat in a team of about 4 within a space than held about 8 desks (everyone in that room being part of my extended department).  This was small enough to be intimate but large enough that you still heard about what different teams were up to and not isolated in your particular task.  I’m increasingly thinking that the 8-10 people model may be the best – flexibility is no doubt key, as illustrated in some of the ‘trendy’ offices recently picked up on by BBC Business.

The recent PWC report suggesting traditional offices may start to disappear is something I agree with but I do think we need the better joined up collaboration, learning and workflow tools that I have mentioned in previous posts – only with this can the organization remain efficient in an increasingly distributed ‘office’.  Part of that efficiency will also be to consider how people remain engaged as things change, the impact of office (space) design of engagement should not be underestimated in my opinion, although pieces regularly call up Google for examples of good practice of course.

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