New is no guarantee

Don’t be mistaken. Just because ‘workplace’ is being rethought around the world and teams are strategising what their own workplace ecosystem involves now and, in the future, it does not mean that any space that is newly designed, or newly adopted, will automatically create an outstanding experience for employees. A first and necessary step on the road to a great workplace is understanding what employees need from it, and what are the key issues that demand an upgrade.

The time when the average knowledge worker would get up in the morning, have a shower and breakfast, and then head to the office by default, is long gone. Going forward, the average knowledge worker will be looking for a reason to make the effort to commute to the office on that particular day. This means that offices need to be places that employees actually want to go to.

If you’ve decided to go ahead and redesign your office workplaces to make them more attractive and suitable for your organisation’s hybrid way of working, we have one main message: don’t assume that the new (or refurbished) office will automatically provide a great experience.

On certain aspects, like employee pride of their workplace, you are quite likely to get a higher rate of employee approval, but if the office has not been designed to meet the employees’ needs, the workplace may fall short in doing what it’s actually meant to be doing.

We’ve looked at the workplaces with a minimum of 50 responses that we’ve measured post-occupancy, i.e., where the data has been collected after a workplace change programme has been completed. Out of the 447 workplaces, an encouraging 45% have succeeded in offering the employees an outstanding experience, resulting in an Lmi score of 70 or above – which we call ‘catalyst’ workplaces.

However, that leaves 55% offering something less than an outstanding experience (Lmi <70), which is disappointing considering the resources that would have gone into a workplace change. This is true especially for the 17% that recorded an Lmi experience score below 60, placing them into what we would call the ‘obstructor’ category.

A comparison between the catalyst and obstructor workplaces give us an indication of what the main pitfalls may be, when designing a new workplace. The biggest difference between new workplaces that succeed in providing the users an outstanding experience, and those that fail, is in support for activities that we know are generally well supported at home, e.g. thinking, having private or business confidential conversations. In other words, activities that rely on good acoustic privacy.

With that in mind, it may sound like a tempting proposition to concede to that those activities are best done at home, or elsewhere, while the office will be there to support collaboration and interaction. But what about those employees who don’t have a good experience working elsewhere, and who really do all their work in the office? And what about those employees who need some focused time in between the meetings that they came to the office for?

This is why we believe that an outstanding office will need to support different types of activities, also in the future. You just need to keep in mind that this doesn’t happen automatically, only because you’ve invested in a new fitout. You will need infrastructure that is designed based on your employees’ needs, because otherwise the investment will not be worth it.

The real magic bullet?
One of the things that is a common struggle in new workplaces, is noise levels. If there is only one problem you could action and repair right now in preparation for your employees’ return to the workplace, it’s acoustic privacy. It is one of the biggest challenges in contemporary workplaces and has detrimental effects on productivity for both individual and collaborative dimensions of work.

An X-ray of all the workplaces we have surveyed to date reveals one of the biggest challenges they have historically faced: acoustic privacy, or lack thereof.

Noise levels are important to 71% of the employees, yet only 33% find them satisfactory in their workplace.

We have compared the experiences of employees satisfied with the noise levels in their workplace, and those dissatisfied, and found that one of the major differences is whether the environment enables one to work productively (Figure 1). Interestingly, although noise levels seem to be most strongly linked to individual work (thinking or creative thinking, reading), it’s also linked to people’s ability to work collaboratively.

There are some specific features that are most in need of urgent improvement. Employees who were dissatisfied with the noise levels in their workplace reported record low satisfaction levels with the movement of people around their workstation (12% satisfaction), the quality of quiet rooms (18%), dividers (20%) and space between work settings (26%).

Acoustic privacy may be inherently easier to achieve in some work settings rather than others. Private offices assigned to a single occupant include the largest share of employees satisfied with noise levels (56%), while designated workstations in open plan areas, the lowest (28%), and non-allocated workstations, the second lowest (29%) (see below).

However, a private, assigned, office is somewhat of a rarity in the contemporary workplace (just 7% of the employees for whom noise is important used one as their primary work setting) and we’re not suggesting that your new workplace design should take you back to designated offices for your employees. We know that a private office solution does not necessarily foster a sense of community nor support knowledge sharing in the way successfully designed open concepts can do. And with employees now asking for more flexibility to also partially work remotely, providing assigned rooms become even less attractive from a financial perspective than before, as the rooms are likely to be empty most of the week while employees are working elsewhere.

It is important to know that, despite the low satisfaction with noise levels in the average open workplace, the best workplaces in our database are predominantly some sort of open concepts, either with dedicated workstations, or not.

What these workplaces typically do well is provide a variety of settings, which can include quiet rooms for flexible use, phone booths, quiet areas, more buzzy open environments, etc. Combine this with good acoustic design and you’re on to something.

There really is no way around it. One of the reasons why home working has been a success for many is the good levels of acoustics it typically delivers. Now is the time to do the same in the office workplace, so that the hybrid employee has a great experience no matter in which location they are working in.

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