Creatures of habitat: four ways to create a more human workplace

There is no silver bullet for the success of workplace design, but Natalie Slessor of Lendlease says there are four basic principles to underpin a people-centred office

We spend more than 100,000 hours at work in a lifetime, so it makes sense to make the spaces where we work somewhere we want to be. Advances in technology may mean we can work remotely, but in reality most of our time is spent somewhere in an office, sat at a desk, pushing things around on a screen.

It seems odd then that workplace design is not at the top of the agenda in the constant organisational struggle to squeeze out more productivity and performance.

The evolution of workspace

In The Office: a hardworking history, Gideon Haigh relates archaeological evidence of ‘office work’ in 2000BC Egypt. It took modern communications like the telephone to convert offices from places of work to places of power. Mobile technology has made it possible to do pretty much anything anywhere but our workspaces still hold the place of power.

Variations of different workplace configurations have become a la mode over the years. Cubicles, a child of 1960s Herman Miller post-industrial design, were intended to inject an element of privacy and wellbeing in the workplace. But in a predictable fashion, the concept was leaped on by organisations as a way to save money and create a battery farm-type environment for their workers.

We now know that cubicle working is not the most productive or healthy way of working, just as we now know that sitting down all day staring at a screen is extremely bad for you.

More recently we have hit an era of Activity Based Working (ABW), designed to get people out of stuffy offices and away from sedentary working. The desire was to provide workers with more freedom and opportunities to collaborate and channel creativity. But if you’ve been around the block a few times, you’ll notice that ABW seems suspiciously like open plan and hot-desking only with quirky sofas and loud colours.

While ABW spaces might look more aesthetically pleasing, they can also be depersonalising. Workers go ‘free range’ as they are stripped of individual workstations and forced to lug their stuff from banks of lockers each day.

As humans, we are creatures of habit and we crave connection. This form of working can alienate us into mere knowledge slaves – homeless, aimless and increasingly anxious.

Workplace design has been built into a complex phenomenon that seems almost impossible to solve, and now there is a call to bring things back to basics and start with a fresh design sheet.

A home away from home

Natalie Slessor of Lendlease says we now have a clearer picture of what best practice looks like when it comes to workplace design. People do not want a workplace that feels like a workplace – they want a work environment that feels authentic and even homely, not clinical and manufactured.

‘The workplace has a deep connection to how people feel about the business and performance people offer…’ – Natalie Slessor

When Lendlease reinvented its workspace for around 2000 staff, it got rid of ‘free range’ working – ensuring that staff had a home but also had the flexibility to shift as tasks required. Health and wellbeing became an extension of the company’s safety culture.

Lendlease put a ‘kitchen table’ at the centre of the workplace. Just as in the home, people gravitate to the kitchen area and it is where everything happens. Lockers were placed next to them and quieter zones for concentration further away.

The company did a pilot of this new office design in the layout of its Sydney offices in Barangaroo. It has now rolled out these changes throughout the business. The success of this design came down to four basic principles according to Slessor:

Nature rules – people do their best when they can see outside, are close to plants and can breathe fresh air while also being protected from the natural element. Biophilic design brings the outdoors inside using natural materials.

Autonomy – give people a sense of control and choice whenever possible. Simple things like colour, art and choice of when and where to work can make a difference

Cohesion – create spaces that are low stress and easy for people to come together. There needs to be a careful balance between autonomy and cohesion. Too much autonomy and you start to lose cohesion.

Chaos – allow a little chaos to get creative and ideas circulating. Invite clients and family into the office, hold meetings somewhere different.

These principles are validated by a global study of workplace design which asked 7,000 workers in 16 countries about their experiences. The results showed the top five elements most wanted in the office: natural light, real plants, quiet working space, view of the sea (if only!), and bright colours.

While not every organisation has the budget to completely transform their workplace, these principles do not need to be costly. Good human design does not need to blow the budget and it can even help save money and boost the bottom line over time.

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