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Designing Offices that Meet Employee Needs

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A brief history of workplace design

Until the 1950s, most offices in the United States were organized in rows of corridor offices. But offices began to shift to the kind of layout you might have seen in “Mad Men”:  windowed offices lining the walls of the room, with a secretarial pool or accountants in the middle.

The “open plan” office layout came along in the late 50s. It did away with personal offices and changed the rows of desks into groupings for different departments to visually break up the space. This plan was designed to facilitate collaboration, and managers liked its flexibility and low cost.

But a decade later, the infamous cubicle came into being. Today, the cubicle is synonymous with workplace drudgery and tedium. “Initially, the cubicle was initially seen as liberating, providing autonomy to workers who had grown weary of the ‘Big Brother is Watching You’ experience of the open office”, says Ana Swanson in an article for The Washington Post. “The inventor of the cubicle, Robert Propst, criticized the open office of the 1960s as a wasteland that ‘saps vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment.’ The cubicle was designed to once again provide privacy and personal space, while also allowing for relatively easy communication.”

Eventually, though, the business world fell out of love with the cubicle, and the walls came tumbling down. Since the 1990s, many offices shifted back toward the more congenial, collaboration-boosting open space designs. But office design is undergoing another, greater shift…

How technology has changed office design

Janet Pogue McLaurin, a principal at architecture and design firm Gensler, points out that “the changing size and shape of technology has had a huge influence on office design. When computers first started to appear in offices, they were big enough that they needed their own rooms. But as computers shrunk down enough to fit onto individual desks, employee work became tied to the desk and the computer.”

“Eventually, technology became more mobile, allowing employees to work from various places in the office, including conference and break rooms”, McLaurin says. “But we were still tethered to the office, because we were on a network.”

And then along came laptops, tablets, smartphones, and the liberation of cloud computing, all of which combined to not only enable but encourage remote working, saving companies untold millions in costs by dramatically reducing the space they were obliged to rent, buy, or build.

Designing the offices today’s workers want

And when we say “workers”, we of course mean… yes, them again! The millennials! Rachel Iannarino, in an article for Continental Office, spoke with university students about to enter the workforce. “They overwhelmingly told us they want a comfortable environment. One that feels like home, is flexible, has natural light, and that allows them be plugged in at all times. While they had a lot more to add to their wish list, like bringing pets into the office and complimentary food, the four attributes below are what we heard on a consistent basis regardless of area of study:

  1. A comfortable environment
  2. Work space that feels like home
  3. A lot of natural light in the workplace
  4. To be plugged in at all times whether at work or home.”

She also found that millennials are seeking workspaces and places that are not only innovative and inspiring, but also joyful, fun, and that promote collaboration and community. This trend may have started with big tech companies like Google, Facebook and Zappos, but other companies are following suit to remain competitive in attracting top talent.

But it’s not all about what millennials want. There’s plenty of data backing up their demands. The Herman Miller office furniture manufacturer reports that “75% of the time, private offices go unused, while 60% of the time, workstations remain unused. For this reason, we are seeing perimeter offices disappearing, floor plans opening up and trendy breakout areas and cafes replacing the traditional work space”.

A post on The EventBoard Blog about what millennials want in office design and culture sums it up. “If you want to provide an environment and culture that motivates your potential millennial employees, here’s what you need to do:

  • Empower collaboration with an open office
  • Embrace technology
  • Value what they value”

Workplace designs may come and go, but employee attraction (and retention) is vital to every company’s profitability. By designing an office space and developing a corporate culture that supports creativity and team collaboration, you’ll find it easier to attract and retain the innovative millennial workforce forward-thinking companies are looking for.

About the author

Sophie Huss is the Global Director of Talent Acquisition & Training at Arkadin HQ in Paris. She has many years of in-depth experience in strategic and operational Marketing & HR in international environments. Fond of new technologies and digital transformation, Sophie uses her strong competences in digital marketing and lead generation to drive Human Resources (HR) to the digital world. In Digital Recruitment, that means employer branding, lead generation techniques applied to talent acquisition, central in-house talent acquisition organization, hiring processes, and deploying new HR Internal Systems, such as an Applicant Tracking System. For Learning & Development, it means developing onboarding and learning paths by job families, and deploying a Learning Management System (LMS) and global training programs. Building the Digital Workplace around the three pillars of Lifestyle, Workspace, and Tech Services is central to her philosophy, in order to transform and streamline Arkadin’s candidate and employee experience and lifecycle.

One Response to “Designing Offices that Meet Employee Needs”

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    Sophie, what a great summary of how the office has evolved over the last 60 years. Loved the Mad Men reference, their offices were complete with an enormous desk, couches, tables, and a mini bar! Finding the right mix of open vs private can be so tricky and I’ve found it can vary not only from company to company but also between departments within a company.

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