Back in 1960, the typical office layout was like a traditional schoolhouse where desks were lined up in a big open room all facing the same way. In an effort to modernize the workplace, Herman Miller launched an intensive study by bringing in all sorts of experts to discover the optimal office configuration. One of the key problems they found was that the open environment impeded communication and that workers required both privacy and interaction. Their solution to this problem was the invention of the cubicle that was designed to give employees the freedom to personalize their workspaces and have privacy when needed, while still being close to their colleagues.
The introduction of the cubicle made a huge impact on office design and they are still commonly used today. More than 50 years later, however, the wisdom of Herman Miller is being challenged as companies like Google and Facebook have created university campus like environments. One of the pioneers of this new movement is Clive Wilkinson, who designed Google’s Mountain View headquarters and also the Midtown Manhattan office of advertising firm, Gerson Lehrman Group (GLG). At GLG, all 250 employees are given office issued laptops and headsets and can choose to work at a wide variety of different workstations depending on their mood. All personal gear is stored in lockers and a coffee bar with a smiling barista is free for all to use and enjoy.
The departure from cubicles to an open, free flowing one is referred to as “activity based working” and is now popping up all over the world. Spencer Ogden is a recruitment firm in Singapore that looks more like a game room than a real business. Restaurant style booths sit at one side of the office while a ping-pong table, foosball table, and video games can be seen in the middle of their open workspace. While some may see forms of entertainment to be distractions, Spencer Ogden claims it is vital to recruiting and retaining top young talent and it has boosted their staff productivity by 30%.
It also needs to be noted that a big part of activity-based working is related to cloud computing and more capable laptops, where moving from one workspace to the next is now seamless. Another nice outcome is the breakdown of the traditional, hierarchical workplace where offices with a view surround a bullpen of cubicles. Still, I am not sure I am ready to work at a desk where a ping-pong ball can go bouncing across my desk at any given moment. While I am all for activity based workplaces, I think companies are still better off keeping their boardrooms and not changing them into game rooms.
For more information on Activity Based Working, please refer to the following articles:
Cozy in Your Cubicle? An Office Design Alternative May Improve Efficiency, Bloomberg, Belinda Lanks, September 18, 2014, (http://www.bloomberg.com/bw/articles/2014-09-18/activity-based-working-office-design-for-better-efficiency)
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