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The Unintended Consequences of Reorganizing Your Workspace

Oct 10, 2018
photo of Jane Cooper  Jane Cooper
Research Associate
Human Resources Transformation

If you look at the latest trends in office design, you would be forgiven for thinking that sofas play an outsize role. There is a lot more to reorganizing the workspace than just putting in soft seating. Many organizations are increasingly concerned about helping employees collaborate on the job. This includes creating comfortable spaces where people can gather to relax, share ideas, and generate new insights. The outcome, they hope, is a more innovative organization.

But are there costs?

The jury is out on the role of sofas in driving innovation, but it is clear that the drive to increase collaborative spaces in the office can have unintended consequences. The Conference Board of Canada’s new research series Transforming the Way Canadians Work looks at changes to the nature of work, where work takes place, workplace culture, and how the success of these changes is measured. Our research has raised some practical questions that organizations may want to consider before they tear down any walls:

Will shrinking the office footprint have the same effect on quiet work as it does on collaboration?

With high downtown rents, both public- and private-sector organizations want to reduce the number of square feet per employee in their offices. Our research suggests that when offices shrink, the space for quiet, focused work is more likely to be cut than the space for collaboration. Workers still need access to space both for working together and for quiet individual work. But as offices become smaller, trade-offs are being made, and space for quiet work is losing out.

Will your new workspace help employees fight distraction?

While organizations are making great efforts to help their workers collaborate, the same consideration is not being given to helping them focus. There is no doubt that our world is increasingly distracting, and smaller workstations are placing workers closer to chit-chatting colleagues. However, organizations seem much more excited about the potential of open-plan offices to improve teamwork than they are concerned about the potential negative impact on the individual’s ability to concentrate.

What are the implications of not having a space to call your own?

One buzzword in office flexibility these days is “activity-based working” or ABW (also called hoteling). It’s another way of saying that workers don’t get personal desks. Moving from personal workstations to shared space is one way organizations are reducing their overall office footprint. ABW may help workers avoid the downsides of open-plan spaces, because they can choose where they want to sit to get their work done, including off-site. But what if their preference is for a permanent desk?

How does the home office factor in?

It is increasingly common for organizations to agree that if their employees need a quiet place to focus for the whole day, they can work from home. Certainly, a lot of employees appreciate that: Flexible work arrangements are a very popular employee benefit. But we found that few employers are ready to formally recognize that they now rely on home offices to provide extra space for quiet work. And what happens to the employee who doesn’t have a quiet place at home?

Can you build teams if team members don’t sit together every day?

Teams must find different ways to connect and build cohesion in a mobile environment. Many organizations are centralizing satellite offices into one downtown building, looking for the synergies when more employees see each other more often. At the same time, they are moving to ABW and providing good support for remote work. So there is a conundrum: The workforce is now together in one building, but the team members may be scattered throughout the building, or working off-site.

Leaders may want to sit down on their new sofas with some colleagues for a collaborative discussion about how to address questions such as these. Reorganizing the workspace can be a great way to address some organizational problems, but the potential for unintended consequences demands a balanced approach.


Related Research

Reorganizing the Workspace: Transforming the Way Canadians Work


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