Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Office spaces

My employer is looking at re-fitting our office. We have signed a new lease and may have to accommodate more staff in the future. This got me thinking about how best to make use of office space from a knowledge sharing perspective.

Picture from Well Appointed Desk blog 
I have worked in open plan offices for most of my office-based working life. It is good for informal, ad hoc collaboration and team building (to a point) and saves floor space. I think you get to know your co-workers better, discuss work and get input more (share) when you can look over a barrier or swivel your seat around to talk to someone, face to face. Does it encourage chatting? Probably, but that is good in my world, informal conversations over the coffee machine provide me with a glimpse of what is going on in the office.

Open plan poses problems such as lack of privacy, can be noisy and disruptive and provides little personalisable and collaborative space (walls, whiteboards etc). Some of these issues can be solved if good meeting rooms, shared spaces and quiet areas are provided, but often they are not. Open plan often discourages quiet reading and thinking, people judge if they see you gazing out the window or reading printed material. We have a perception that to be effective you have to be looking at your computer, typing madly, on the phone or in meetings non-stop. I think it also discourages creativity. In my last workspace we moved into a new architecturally designed open plan building. Gone were the white boards, cork boards, wall art and other wall space. Hanging pictures and decorations wasn't permitted within our small cubicles or on the walls around us.

I currently have an office, as do many of my colleagues here and this is rare. While we are reluctant to give them up, I don't believe they are ideal either. Great for those times when you need to close the door and concentrate on reading or writing. I love having book shelves, walls, posters, pin boards and white boards too. However with staff beavering away quietly in individual rooms in a rabbit warren building, it is easy to have no idea of what anyone else does or is working on. This encourages silos, isolation and knowledge hoarding. Again shared physical spaces and good online knowledge sharing tools can combat this to some degree but means we still lack the unscheduled, face to face social element. I find I can go days without talking to anyone else and have to make a concerted effort to go for a wander and say hi, get a cup of tea and catch up with people in the tea room. Some people do come into my office, with work queries or just to say hi, but there is a good percentage of staff that I just don't come across at all and this is a SMALL building.

The Australian Government is encouraging telework in a big way. How will this impact on knowledge sharing, teams and the social aspect of work? I don't think we are at the point where this is a viable option at my agency and many other government departments. Trust, infrastructure and security all jump to mind...... I also don't think remote work will suit all employees, some would miss the social interaction, others won't have an effective set up at home, many aren't able to stay motivated or engaged at home or in a coffee shop with distractions. It depends on the job and the individual. The government has a goal of at least 12% of employees working from home by 2020. There is more work to be done around the impact of telework on employee engagement, workplace culture and knowledge sharing.

An increase in the use of laptops, tablets and smart phones in work places, however provide lots of opportunities for a great office environment. It should be possible to have an office that provides personal space and shared areas with collaborative tools such a whiteboard walls, smart boards, blackboards (old school), cafe style spaces and alternative seating styles. Apparently sitting all day is killing us, so encouraging staff to get up, move around, discuss things over a coffee or standing at a white board makes sense. It also means you get to say hi to colleagues you pass as you move around and drop in for chats you may not usually have. Win for HR, win for KM!

NASA, Google and many others provide inspirational, creative, flexible work spaces for their employees. I saw a presentation by Nick Skytland of NASA about a year ago, his presentation doesn't include the photos of the NASA offices which he showed, they were designed with collaboration in mind. There are many examples of photos of the Google offices on the web.



  1. So, how's the new office coming along? And I understand your dilemma. Although there are times when we want to interact with your colleagues, we still yearn for that quiet place where you can think and do your work. Maybe you can incorporate in the design a common room where the employees can convene and meet. This would provide the interaction needed without crossing the space.

  2. You have a great perspective. Office design is very important because it has a huge impact on every employee's productivity and efficiency at work. Open plan does work for some company but not all. With your office re-fitting, I hope your employer found the perfect design for your office. How's the progress by the way? | Clayton @|

  3. You are right that open plan poses a number of problems. However, there are several options and ideas for workspaces that you can choose, which can promote more productivity and can make your office more inviting to potential clients. Try visiting flexible workspace providers, perhaps they can help.