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How Should the 21st Century Workplace be Designed?

LongIsland.com

It's no secret that some of the most successful businesses of the 20th century were born in garages. Henry Ford, Walt Disney, and Apple Computer's Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak are but a few of ...

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It's no secret that some of the most successful businesses of the 20th century were born in garages. Henry Ford, Walt Disney, and Apple Computer's Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak are but a few of the legendary entrepreneurs who have used garages as incubators. So it is understandable that some in corporate America can be downright capricious about tailoring office space to the needs of their workers.

Still, there are limits. Many office workers today report a severe lack of work-related storage and desk space, coinciding with an explosion in the amount of technological hardware and wiring. Workers draw extremely negative conclusions about a company that places them in poor surroundings. This is hardly surprising, when you consider that 73% of them are "in the office most of the time." The physical environment forms one of the first impressions of a company, and communicates many powerful messages, including how successful the company is, whether or not management values workers, and whether they will get the tools and equipment they will need to be successful on the job.

Corporate America will have to invest substantial time in addressing the problems-and the opportunities-presented by the arrival of the cerebral, self-directed and team-oriented workforce. Early experiences of forward-thinking companies in the new economy suggest that team spaces, cafes, lounges, training rooms, and the like will be as important to business as traditional facilitates, which will surely persist into the 21st century. Private offices seem destined to remain, since tasks requiring quiet concentration won't disappear, even in the most gregarious team settings. Status symbols such as plush spaces for VIPs can be expected to survive as well.

Meanwhile, the business world could incorporate office design elements that would benefit workers immediately. Knoll questioned 350 office workers on the impact of a wide range of workspace characteristics on worker productivity and satisfaction. The responses show that the greatest boost to productivity-cited by 50-60%) to an ergonomic chair, a visually appealing workspace, lighting control, privacy and an exterior window. Least important appears to be size-less than 40% of the workers attributed having a large workspace, personal space for small meetings and space for personal items as having an impact on productivity.

Business leaders will observe that none of these requests for better work environment has anything to do with enhancing personal status, which should calm fears about self-indulgent workers. On the other hand, the survey did uncover what is called the "privacy paradox." Privacy is seen as crucial to productivity by 58% of workers; but those currently in private offices are much more likely to say so (74%) than those in cubicles (59%) or open areas (43%). Two theories advanced by Knoll's research are 1) self selections, which hypothesizes that workers who need private offices, and 2) successful adaptation, which suggests that those working in open spaces have learned how to be productive with less privacy. The issue remains open to debate.

Office workers responded similarly when asked which workspace characteristics had the greatest impact on satisfaction. They stressed technology, climate control, storage space, quiet space and space that can be personalized and added a " visually appealing workspace." These results demonstrate the close link between worker satisfaction and worker productivity; should current business conditions prevail, worker satisfaction will be paramount consideration for the companies that create the new workplace.

Where do these findings leave the business world at the dawn of the 21st century? The research by DYG and Knoll concludes that companies must reinvent the office for the Information Age. If indeed office work is becoming more cerebral, self directed and multidisciplinary in order to give organizations there resources they need to prosper in the new economy, then the office environment must be redesigned. Office planners should develop an environment that enhances creativity, communication and learning. In other words, paying close attention to what office workers are required to do in the 21st -century workplace should pay as many dividends now as it did for Henry Ford at his factory in Highland Park, Michigan, nearly a century ago.

This article is adapted from an article by Christine Barber, Director of Workplace Research for Knoll Inc., one of the world's leading designers and manufacturers of office furniture.