Unified communications (UC) and real-time communications are transforming modern workers’ capabilities and ways of getting their jobs done. And in many cases, this is a boon when it comes to productivity, collaboration and innovation, and general employee satisfaction. But it’s also affecting office space design, and the jury is out on the effect on company morale.
Traditional workplace designs—cubicle rows, corner offices—have started to morph in the last couple of years. Once upon a time, an employee was assigned a specific desk phone, with a specific extension, and was given his or her own workstation that had a hard drive and plenty of compute power—which would end up being tightly wedded to the individual worker’s preferences for interface, most-used software and the like.
Now, with the advent of cloud services, laptops, tablets and more mobile integration, this kind of personal real estate is no longer needed—much to the pleasure of IT staff (adds, moves and changes used to be a bear—plus all that personalization led to a lack of control over company policy enforcement).
Nowadays, more employers are turning to practices known as “hoteling,” “hot desking” and “free address” approaches where employees sign into any free screen. The layouts are more akin to hotel lounges, coffee shops or living rooms—and are designed to foster employee collaboration while making workspaces (i.e., cubes) feel less like holding cells.
“A decade ago, it was everybody in cubicles, then there was a movement toward the all-open office space that fosters collaboration,” said Noa Santos, the chief executive and co-founder of design firm Homepolish, in a recent interview.
This has a lot of upsides—an aesthetically more pleasant environment, for one, and less-obvious employee totem-pole signifiers for another. No more gossiping about why Jane got the desk next to the window or John the double-wide cube, for instance. And it’s taken off: A survey of companies by the International Facility Management Association found that 58 percent of companies have increased the number of people working in “unassigned” or “collective use” spaces.
That said, there are concerns as well. Namely, distraction, and that uncomfortable feeling of being on display. Not everyone wants their entire office listening to their phone calls. This latter is particularly a concern when it comes to UC, where messages and conversations—which often need to be somewhat confidential—essentially follow a person around, wherever they are.
“When you study people more, you find out that not everyone is an extrovert, and that’s a good thing,” Santos said. “The reality is, some people like to work in quieter areas, and, regardless of who you are, it’s important to have balance.”
Recently, there’s been a rise in choice-based environments, where employees can choose from a range of environments that might suit t hem at any given point during the day. These could include dining room table-style areas with hookups for laptops, a good old-fashioned cube, or anything in-between. And, the survey showed that about half of companies reported increases over the past two years in the number of employees working off-site, whether in a co-working space, a satellite office or from home.
Ultimately, the shift away from a more structured work environment to one where workers can choose how to be most productive will have a positive effect on their happiness, according to Jenn Lim, the chief executive and co-founder of Delivering Happiness.
“At the end of the day, people want freedom and a sense of options,” she said. “That could be choice of hours, choice of what they do on a day-to-day basis, how they do it, and ultimately, the space in which they want to do it.”