This two-part blog series shares strategies for driving workforce cultural change and innovation through workspace design, from Unispace workplace design expert Simon Pole. Unispace is a global design firm that seamlessly unites strategy, design, project management and delivery to achieve real, measurable results for clients.

What does workplace productivity mean today?

Companies have always wanted workers to be productive, yet the meaning of the term has evolved over the years. How has the definition of workplace productivity changed, and what does it look like today?

In years past, workers were judged based on quantity of output: how many widgets they could produce. Workplace productivity and efficiency were all about increasing speed and decreasing cost. If a company could produce more widgets in less time at a lower cost, they could be successful.

Today’s workplace productivity is about the quality of output. How much value does the work bring to the organization? The change is all about a shift in the organization’s processes and goals. Processes have changed due to the evolution of technology. Today, much of the high-quantity, low value work is being done by robots and machines.

In the increasingly competitive business landscape, it’s no longer enough to produce more at a lower cost. Companies need to differentiate themselves with better ideas. As a result, the value of workplace productivity now comes from innovation.


Workplace productivity lessons learned from the open plan concept

The trend toward open plan office spaces grew during the 90’s and early 2000’s, when making as many widgets as possible was still the goal of most companies. Efficiency was the name of the game, and the open plan workplace was a way to squeeze as many workers as possible into an office space.

According to workplace design expert Simon Pole of Unispace, that created a workplace productivity problem. Companies failed to address the different working modes that people need to accomplish their work tasks: including focus, social, learning, and collaboration modes. Employees were forced to do everything from focused work to team work in a single space that was not well suited to the task.

“If I’m trying to draft a document and I’ve got three people talking in my ear, it’s hard to concentrate,” explains Pole. “There’s also visual distraction. Every time someone walks past my desk, I lift my eyes. It takes about 20 minutes to get into deep thought and focus. With every distraction, I lose my focus. So I don’t feel productive. I’m frustrated. I’m working longer hours. It all just breaks down from there.”

On the other hand, the open office does work well for collaboration and sharing of knowledge.

“People in open offices love the teamwork,” says Pole. “They love that knowledge-sharing. Because they’ve just overheard three conversations, they are better informed, and can go to another meeting and share that information.”

In an open environment, there’s a natural increase in what Pole calls “fast collaboration:” those quick, ad-hoc conversations at your desk where you ask someone for input or offer information to a colleague.

The problem is providing for the next step (what Pole terms “slow collaboration”) that’s more planned. In an open plan office, there is nowhere to take those longer conversations where there’s a need for privacy or to avoid disturbing others.

“Today we’re getting the balance right again through research and strategic workplace design,” says Pole.

From open plan to ABW: transforming workplaces & mindsets to support innovation

Now that workplace productivity is more about innovation, companies are looking to create workplaces that support the type of collaboration that spawns ideas.

That’s led to the growth of Activity Based Working (ABW), where companies provide different types of spaces designed for the tasks employees need to do each day. That means an employee doing focused work can choose to work in a quiet, enclosed cubicle, while a team having a brainstorming session can work in a comfortable, open lounge.

Related article: Why ABW Is a Better Alternative to Open Office Design

So how do you go about creating an ABW environment that supports workplace productivity and enhances workplace innovation?

Read on to learn about 3 important elements that can make or break the success of your new space.

1. Research and strategic planning

“Companies are looking for organizational change, and exploring how the workplace can support and ignite that change,” says Pole.

Accomplishing that with workplace design requires a good understanding of what the business is trying to achieve. There’s no “formula” for ABW that can be applied to any business. Copying the latest design trend just creates a cookie cutter space that might look great, but won’t help the business reach its goals.

“We believe in putting the science before the art,” says Pole. A beautiful new space won’t do the job of driving innovation and workplace productivity if it doesn’t have research and solid strategy behind it.

Developing the right design strategy means taking the time to understand what the building should be doing for the organization: spending time with management and lines of business, asking questions and observing how people work.

“True design from the inside out is figuring out how to get those spaces to make a difference so organizations look different, feel different and act different,” says Pole.

Only then can the property become an extension of the brand, and truly support the cultural change the company is after.


2. Technology provides the data to drive design

It’s no secret that an ABW workplace design needs the right technology to enable workplace productivity in a mobile environment. They need laptops with docking stations, the right network infrastructure, and wayfinding tools, just to name a few.

However, technology can also be an important tool in your research and strategic planning arsenal. Utilization tracking technology is a great example.

Designing a successful ABW work environment depends on your ability to track the right space utilization metrics. Technologies such as badge readers, lighting sensors and Low Energy Bluetooth enable you to see who is using which types of space and with what frequency. Armed with this data, you can create the right mix of different space types and the right ratios of seats to people for each neighborhood or business unit.

Take a look at this useful resource to learn more about utilization tracking technologies: Managing Workplace Utilization.

3. Breaking the cycle of group think

Pole points out an issue that’s often overlooked in all the discussions about designing space to support innovation and workplace productivity. It’s not all about the space.

“The strategy and design act as an enabler, but collaboration is also about people and their mentality,” says Pole. “In some organizations, people have been working together for so long that everyone finishes each other’s sentences.”

That’s one of the benefits of bringing people from different sectors or business units together in an ABW workspace. You encourage a cross-pollination that breaks up the cycle of group think and breathes new life into the organization.

Next week we’ll continue our discussion about designing the workplace of the future with a look at some specific strategies you can use to encourage workplace collaboration. Don’t miss it!

Download a guide to creating an activity based working strategy today.