Planning Effective Work Environments


It Is Not Just About Space and Cost per Square Foot

There are four intangible but critical factors that should be considered at the outset of a facility planning initiative that will have an impact on workers and their work:

1. Culture: Who Are We?

The design of a facility can certainly enhance the culture of a company and the performance of workers.  But design that attempts on its own to create a new paradigm will likely fail, or be of far less value than anticipated making the facility rather expensive.

The administration of a central Michigan school district sought to design a new high school with spaces intended to enhance collaboration between faculty members.  The teachers thought it to be a good idea, but were not consulted about planning.  The completed school included a 2,000 SF conference center for the teaching staff with work stations and resources. Two years later, the majority continued to use their classrooms for coursework preparation . . . most often alone as they had always done before. 

Take the time to understand the culture of your organization as it exists in the work place, and elements that have been successful for similar organizations before stepping into facility planning.

If you are seeking to make changes in the culture of the organization, involve small groups of staff in discussion about the workplace to allow them a measure of ownership in the places they will work.  If they can be part of the creative planning and design process, they are more likely to embrace the results.



2. Function: Demise of the Corner Office

Initial planning should be based on the responsiveness of work space to the needs of staff in achieving company goals – not in balancing total project size with probable costs.  The initial concept may result in too much space for the budget.  But any necessary compromise will be based on sound reasoning within the context of business goals, not the bank account.

When planning a new corporate headquarters, Max De Pree, founder of the highly successful Herman Miller office furniture company, created a grand office and conference space with which to greet and confer with visitors.  But he also created a windowless office just off the reception area of about six by twelve feet with a wall mounted counter and stool.  While he understood the importance of public perceptions regarding the position of CEO, his priority was his work, not his position.  And he found and used what worked best for him. Sounds extravagant, doesn’t it?  But the highly creative Mr. DePree recognized his inability to concentrate in the larger space would be far more extravagant than to build the “closet” that gave him the privacy he needed.

Plan, design and build based on what the worker needs to do his or her job – not on who he or she is or what they may have accomplished.


3. Flexibility: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

Evolving work habits derived from changes in technology are forcing a different perspective in office planning.  Today’s senior manager may have an assigned office but conduct in-house business among staff – using the mobility of technology to enhance flexibility.  That’s today.  What about tomorrow?

Unless you have a specific and rigid protocol about the design of work spaces, create the environment with a degree of flexibility for varied approaches to work and the ongoing probability of change, not on the basis of a company standard.

The current economy has produced new approaches to space acquisition and use than we other wise would have anticipated.  Class A building space is being offered as an upgrade to Class B tenants at rates competitive to their existing situation.  At the same time, this approach is allowing companies to move into far more flexible, open floor plans requiring minimal remodeling, thus avoiding the more expensive retrofitting of their existing, outdated fixed-in-place hard walled offices.



4. Will: If it’s Not Working . . .?

Most work place planning endeavors are relatively successful. Minor compromises in functionality and /or flexibility are often dealt with by staff with little comment.  Poor responses to culture may certainly create greater concern.  But the key to a long term successful outcome is the willingness to fix it if it doesn’t work.  Obviously cost enters into any such decision. And the early project budget number may need a greater level of contingency if there are concerns going into the process.  .  .  particularly if you are planning a new approach to the work place.  But retaining a new work environment that is clearly falling short of expected worker performance may be far more costly in the long run than making needed changes.

In his new corporate headquarters, Steve Jobs sought to create a place that encouraged collaboration.  The design included a large open atrium space in the middle of the facility intended to be a gathering place for staff working at opposite sides of the building.  But he found that the restrooms and coffee areas located at opposite ends of the building for the convenience of staff, became as much a place to gather and converse as the atrium, resulting in somewhat separate “communities”.  He ordered the removal of the existing restrooms at the ends of the building and the construction of new facilities in the atrium space. Staff rumbled a bit, but were forced to cross paths and converse with more people than they had before.

If you respond objectively and decisively to function, flexibility and culture during the design process, there should be little need for change.  But it can happen and as a business man or woman, it is important to evaluate the merit and cost of potential change against the totality of your business success.

Space costs money.  But the bottom line is that it’s not just space.  It is a primary vehicle in which your staff carries out the mission and vision of your business.

When done well, space planning, design and implementation can make a positive difference; not because of the designer you engage, but because of the decisions you are willing to make.

Decide well.  Spend smart.  Work effectively.  Profit more.