Three Top Factors to Consider in Designing Work Space


I’m often asked, “What’s the best solution for our work environment: open office, bullpens, work from home, or what?”

It’s a great question and one that does not have a one-size-fits-all answer.  No one likes to hear, “It depends,” and my answer still is “It depends.”

Specifically, it depends on these three things:

1. Need for intense collaboration.

Imaging employees standing in front of a white board, diagramming software functionality, a marketing campaign or any other function.

Collaboration, right?

Now, what happens next is critical.

Do those same employees need to continue to make sense of their work and collaborate out loud during the creative part and the execution part of those functions?  How do they score on a scale of 1 – 10 (in which 1 is low need and 10 is high) on their need to collaborate out loud throughout the design and execution?

Anything less than an 8 needs quiet space for deep work.

8 and over? Put them in a bullpen or provide them with low-walled cubes, AND make sure to put some noise insulation between those teams and other teams who have different needs. And put some insulated walls between them and other teams who have the same needs, so that they are not distracted by the out loud work of others.

2. Need for Deep Work.

Imagine a financial analyst tasked with projecting the next quarter’s earnings in a wildly fluctuating marketplace, including the launch of a major new product from your organization nearly simultaneously with a similar product from your top competitor.

Now imagine that analyst spinning out various scenarios, calculating profit and loss and shareholder reaction.  All in the midst of dozens and dozens of colleagues whose work demands that they work out loud.

The analyst’s need to perform deep work (a term I’m borrowing from Cal Newport’s book by the same name) demands a space free from distraction.

Our best thinking is accomplished when we disconnect from other conversations and interruptions (including technology).

Take a close look at the output of the job function and ask, as a percentage of full-time work week, how often does this function engage in deep work?  Anything over 40% requires a quiet work environment where noise and interruption are kept to a minimum.

3. Balance between intense collaboration and Deep Work.

Some job functions will require intense collaboration and deep work in relatively equal measure.

Imagine a usability team who is working to make improvements in the design of a product. They come together for intense collaboration, gathering around a whiteboard for the better part of a week, working out loud.  Then, each with their own part of the design to work on (or the usability test plan, etc.), they retreat to research best practices and do the more intense, creative parts of their job, requiring deep work.

In this case, hoteling, where team members have access to different spaces that support both out loud work and quiet independent work, would be a terrific fit. (The trick here is adequate square footage of each and a calendaring system that enables availability – both when scheduled and when needed on an impromptu basis, but that’s a topic for another article).

Yes, it depends.

When you’ve accurately assessed these factors by interviewing your employees, evaluating the needs of their job functions and observing their best work, then and only then, will your specific flavor of “It depends” become crystal clear.


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