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Dynamic Workspace Design

The British firm Ergonomi published a great article on dynamic workplace assignment. They refer to it as “hot-desking” but I suspect this is because they are consultants and want to brand the concept a little, even though the concept is widely implemented (although rarely implemented effectively). Whatever you call it, the idea has a lot of potential and the article has a lot of good ideas. The following combines some of the insights from the article as well as a few additions of my own.

There seems to be a rising trend of hot-desking. An office organization system which involves multiple workers sharing a single physical work station or surface during different time periods as opposed to each staff member having their own personal desk.

For anyone not familiar with the concept, the idea is to unleash employees from any particular workspace by creating a more dynamic work environment that caters to employees’ changing activities. When employees have assigned desks, the workspace tends to be designed for solitary work. But in today’s world this is becoming a smaller and smaller part of their days. With a dynamic workspace assignment, employees check into whatever workspace meets their current need. Sometimes they might need a collaborative teamwork space (think design team coworking). Sometimes they might need a groupwork space (think traditional conference room). Sometimes they might have individual activities that don’t require intense concentration or focus and can be satisfied with an open office or bullpen space. Sometimes they might need serious concentration or privacy and are better off with a closed office.

If each employee starts out with their own individual space, and then space for the other types of activities are added, there is a lot of waste. All of those personal spaces are unused much of the time. Back when 90% of the day was spent working alone at one’s desk, this wasn’t a big deal. But today, that is a lot of waste. Companies can save space, save money on HVAC on the larger space, rent or capital costs on the larger space, and reduce their total carbon footprint.

But it is not just about costs. When employees don’t have an assigned space to begin with, they are more strategic when deciding where and how to perform their various work activities. Instead of an ad hoc design team meeting huddled around an inadequate laptop on a conference table or personal desk, it is much more likely that they will find their way to a space specifically designed to support collaboration, with the appropriate creativity-supporting color scheme, toys, prototyping materials, and so on. When someone really needs to concentrate, there is a standard and common practice for checking out a private space, and these spaces are designed specifically for private use – reducing distractions with better sound proofing, no windows, ringer-less phones, etc. These spaces could support the ability for the employee to block distracting applications from the computer – no email, social media, or news headlines notifications. And no open office neighbors chatting loudly on their phones.

These dynamic assignments also facilitate time shifting and telecommuting. When an employee knows that her desk will be visibly empty when she has to take an afternoon off to take a sick child to the doctor, she might worry that this will hurt her career advancement. And it might actually do so. If an employee feels that she can get more done on a particular activity working at the local coffee shop or in a client’s office, the same thing can cross her mind. Employees are also better able to time shift to earlier or later start and end times without similar fears of seeming absent.

The furniture in each area can be customized for the particular kind of activity. Even choices as subtle as circular or angular arrangement of chairs in a groupwork space can have specific implications. Ergonomi notes that the extra walking to get from space to space as needs change might have some health benefits, although I am not convinced of this one.

    There are many challenges that must be overcome for this strategy to work. Ergonomi worries that:

  • Employees might develop less cohesiveness with their core work team when they don’t have adjacent assigned personal workspaces. Less water cooler conversation. This can also reduce the development of mentoring relationships within teams.
  • Employees are less likely to adjust furniture that we are only using for a few hours, so there could be ergonomic costs.
  • Employees will share germs in addition to ideas when they are sharing chairs, keyboards, and phone handsets.
  • Employees can’t personalize their spaces with the usual photos, toys and plants.
  • Employees might feel less valued by the employer because they don’t have ownership of any particular space. Even though the ownership is only perceived, the endowment effect still can have an impact. And the lack of ownership does the opposite.
  • Employees might not clean up after themselves, forcing this mess on the next user of the space or allowing the mess to build up over time.
  • The misalignment of work schedules that this enables can reduce the ability to schedule teamwork and groupwork activities.
    There are just as many strategies for overcoming these challenges:

  • The first strategy mentioned for any type of workplace change is to get real, tangible, and visible support from the senior executive level. This can overcome many of the fears bound to arise about change and to encourage employees to buy in to the change. Or at least give it a try.
  • IT support is critical if employees are going to check in and out of different spaces many times each day. We take for granted that there is 100% availability of cloud storage and our smart phones in our pockets. But this type of workplace mandates that the 100% is a reality, not a slogan. Problems must be dealt with quickly. This includes authentication and authorization as well as availability.
  • There needs to be a solid UX for the enterprise intranet governing joint schedules, reserving spaces, transferring phone or cloud access, storing collaborative activities through electronic whiteboards, etc.
  • Some organizational behavior training will be needed that helps employees optimize their use of the dynamic aspects of the design. If everyone comes in and tries to check out a private space for the day, the result will not be helpful.
  • Adaptable personalization can be accommodated with digital photo frames and a good toy and snack supply closet.
  • Logistics such as regular cleaning to avoid germ exposure and the buildup of clutter can be maintained.

My Take

I have already integrated many of my own ideas into the idea descriptions, but I want to leave you with one final thought based on some of my own consulting experience. An adjustment that is harder but equally important to the success of a dynamic workspace is to align the performance management metrics used to supervise, evaluate, and give feedback to employees so that the new dynamic workplace does not conflict with their motivation or add new activities or new cognitive loads to their jobs. Work is hard enough already as it is.

Your Turn

Do you work in a flexible workplace? Perhaps not with all of these changes, but with a few? Share your experiences.

Image Credit: tpsdave

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