Workplace design can effect employee focus (The Gensler Edition)

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I feel that the idea of workplace culture has been a hot topic among many companies in the last 5 years.  As far as I can remember, it was about the mid 2000's when tech giants such as Apple, Google, and Facebook where really solidifying their places in the world.  Apple was completely reinventing the way that people listened to music, Google was setting the new standard for how we find our information (I wonder if they knew that their company name would eventually evolve into a common adjective, "Just go Google it"), and Facebook was overthrowing MySpace as the new king of social connections online.  With the advent of this "new dawn," we started to see a shift in what was currently defined as Corporate America.

We have all seen the 1999 cinematic hit Office Space, if you haven't you should correct this deficiency immediately because you're missing out on life, and this film depicted the archaic ways of what was typically know as Corporate America.  Going into the 2000's, this is what we knew work in the real world was to be; post-it notes, strict policies and guidelines, company statements and values that no employee truly felt were upheld, outdated copy machines that never worked, stale coffee, over packed break rooms, and an overall daily feeling of When is 6PM finally going to arrive?

The arrival of the above mentioned big three changed this perception though, and in a very powerful way. If memory serves me correctly, I'd say it was roughly around 2007 or 2008 when the big three really became what I'll coin as the "Unicorn of Employment."  Meaning, everyone, as in EVERYONE, wanted to somehow acquire a position with these companies, no matter what it was.  The problem was, no one really knew how to, and we all envied the people who had somehow already acquired these coveted positions.  The public was fascinated with their architecturally beautiful offices, the amount of respect one carried when you were to say, "Why yes, I work for Google/Apple/Facebook," and just the overall amount of benefit that came with acquiring employment at one of these crystal palaces.  It was simply astounding to think that employees were encouraged not to follow  some archaic policy book formulated in 1921, but rather, it was preferred that the employees at companies like this took matters into their own hands, and used their own problem solving skills to come up with effective solutions.  The policies like these are what really started to forge innovation and evolution in modern day companies.

Around 2010 - 2011, the focus shifted again, and instead of chasing the unicorn, the startup revolution began, and now companies were beginning to model themselves after the big three, but they did it even better to some respects.  The startup scene put full faith in employees to get the job done, and employees around the world loved this.  Cities like San Francisco, Austin, Berlin, London, Cambridge, and Tokyo started to really take the reigns on industries such as SaaS, digital marketing, mobile apps, software development, and ecommerce.  Companies hired smarter and employees pushed harder.  Everyone seemed to be pretty happy in the equation, but there wasn't really a way to measure this and really find out how we were doing as companies as a whole.

That's when the folks at Gensler step in.  Gensler is a global architectural firm that has worked on, and completed, some seriously breathtaking projects, but that is not what makes them unique.  What makes Gensler really fantastic is that they go the entire distance for their clients when working on their projects, in addition to making the buildings aesthetically  pleasing, they also strive to scale and utilize functionality as well.  They do this by figuring out how to make buildings more efficient and sustainable, and interestingly enough, using hard data to figure out how workplace design can actually effect employee performance.

I've read through their 2013 US Workplace Survey, and it's chock full of great information.  I'd highly recommend going through it when you have a moment if you really want to get into the finer details of how they break down their research.  However, the point of this article is not to regurgitate what they've created, but rather to highlight a couple specific points that really resounded with me, and starting a discussion about those points here.

"Currently, only one in four U.S. workers are in optimal workplace environments. The rest are struggling to work effectively, resulting in lost productivity, innovation, and worker engagement."

-Gensler 2013 US Workplace Survey

There it is folks, point one, the first bolded text you'll find right on page two of the report.  This is the first thing that really struck a cord with me.  It was interesting, because I have worked in a couple pretty interesting companies and I never really felt that I was in a position where I was not in an optimal workplace.  Sure, I ran into common things like maybe annoying coworkers who could not summarize their weekend stories into a 15 second version, or the coffee machine needing maintenance, but optimal work conditions? Until today, I had never really thought about what that could mean for me personally.  It's astonishing to consider though, being that there is over 30 million businesses in the United States, this means that based on this survey's results, only 7.5 million of these companies are operating in an optimized efficiency setup.  Gensler states that they surveyed over 2035 respondents in over 10 various industries, so the sample size is quite decent. Let's take a look at some of the main factors that contribute to this problem as listed in the survey.

The zen between team collaboration, individual work, and focus

Believe it or not, there is a link between the three.  The survey labels companies who excel at all three as being "balanced workplaces."  There are some interesting facts to boot as well:

77% of employees prefer quiet when they need to focus & 69% of employees are not happy with the noise levels at their current workplace.

I had to sit down and think about this for a moment.  Now, I'm not certain if the survey is actually labeling quiet in the literal sense, or quiet in terms of not being able to actually have a way to escape the noise levels in the primary workplace.  For myself, I prefer, and I know, that I personally can get a ton of stuff done when I am in my zone.  My zone typically consists of me, a MacBook Air, a cup of good coffee or tea, and my headphones which are typically blasting some sort of rock/hiphop/classical/house music into my ears.  Currently, I'm listening to a German DJ I've grown quite fond of in the last week as I'm writing this article, I feel I have accomplished my zen at this very moment in time.

But that is just for me, the above description is my form of "quiet," if the survey is obtaining information in the literal sense, it raises even more intrigue.  I've worked in locations that adopt the open office layout, meaning many desks in large open foyers, side by side with your neighbors, no closed doors, and no cubicles.  This promotes a tremendous feeling of unity and transparency within the company, but at the same time, it actually did vex me quite often.  Given that the nature of the work required almost everyone to exclusively conduct business over the phone, this often lead to the noise levels in the room steadily increasing throughout the day as more people came into work, and as we all slowly started to talk over each other.  This lead to many a days of sore throats, complaints from our clients on the other side of the line, and should have you have any work to actually do that didn't require being a call, the chances of you finding a quiet spot for that in the primary work area were slim to none. 

Granted, you could go book a conference room somewhere, but sometimes you just run into spur of the moment issues you just have to deal with then and there and can't be bothered.  

In this specific example, I can absolutely understand how the recorded information from the survey can directly attribute to employee productivity and focus.  After all, if employees are running around simply trying to fight for a place where they can find some silence, that is just causing undue stress, which could possibly be reflected in their work output.

There is no "I" in TEAM

But there is a ME, and there is also an EAT, as in you're going to eat poor results if you don't combine the two! Ok, you can feel free to remove that horrible attempt of a joke from your memory banks if at all possible.  Now you all know why I work in marketing and technology, and never became a comedian.  Anyways, some interesting concepts brought to light in the survey in this capacity as well.  In a nutshell, the other two parts of the balanced company equation involve employee focus, discussed above, individual work, and team collaboration.  The interesting part though, is that employees who worked in companies where both individual & team collaborations were highly prioritized reported overall higher job satisfaction.  Let's look at the science and numbers:

  • 24% of respondents stated that their workplaces were balanced (prioritized both individual and team collaborations).
  • Of this 24% segment, 22% of them reported that their workplaces were 22% more effective for focus*
  • 17% of this segment stated that these workplaces were more effective for collaboration*
  • This balance was attainable in all office settings, private offices, shared offices, & open seating setups

*When compared to companies who do no prioritize team collaboration and individual efforts collectively.

It doesn't end there either, respondents in the balanced category also stated that they:

  • View their companies as more innovative
  • Feel higher overall job satisfaction & workplace environment satisfaction
  • Truly believe their companies are very effective at what they do

These are all interesting statistics to look at, I think traditionally, most companies will favor one or the other.  Reflecting on this, I feel my experiences also support this.  Looking back, most companies I have worked for favored individual work contributions, in order to get the highest ROI on their employees.  Many companies touted teamwork and collaboration, but more often than not, it was usually just a barrage of team meetings to supplement the idea that we were fostering innovation, but in hindsight, I now feel that we were just going through the motions.  It will be interesting to see, with how much momentum the startup scene has gained, how this dynamic changes in the workplace moving forward.

9-5 at the office is dead, but you knew that already

9 to 5 is dead

This one should come at no surprise, but the survey also states that, "Employers that provide a spectrum for where and when to work are seen as more innovating and have higher performing employees."  This idea of it's not about where and how long you work, but rather the results you deliver has been becoming more and more mainstream.  Let's be honest with ourselves, with the advent of modern technology, it is completely feasible that on Monday I could be working from my desk at the office, and by Wednesday I could be working from a cabana on the shores of the Mediterranean.  Now, here's the catch, technology makes this possible, but it does NOT make it ideal and/or preferred.

16 percent of employees surveyed felt they could focus most effectively at home, whereas 73 percent believed they could focus best in an office setting


A Cornell University study of 320 small businesses revealed that employers who allowed a choice in how employees do work grew at 4 times the rate, and had 1/3 the turnover, of more controlling firms.

My interpretation of these two statistics is simple, employees appreciate the ability to be able to work when, where, and how they want to, but just because they have the option doesn't mean they will necessarily use it often.  The extra sense of trust and responsibility that is given to employees is a very rewarding feeling, and it makes it feel like your work and your place on any given team is truly valued.  Alternatively, the idea of now you can work from anywhere and at hours you choose is extremely beneficial when you're in a jam.  We've all been there before, an unexpected event comes up that requires our presence on the other side of the country, but due to work circumstances, we were not able to attend to that event.  Having a work model like this can be extremely comforting to employees long term.  Personally, I would fall in the majority statistic as well, I find working remotely to be difficult just due to the amount of distractions present in any given location.  At times, it can be difficult for the mind to truly switch modes from non-work to work unless you physically enter the office environment that you can associate with working.  

Final Thoughts

So to sum it all up, we've talked about a couple key factors here that can really sway your workplace demeanor for better or worse.  In general, based on the survey, employees want:

  • The ability to become, and stay focused in the office
  • Be recognized for, and have significant individual contributions
  • Alternatively, they also want equal amounts of group collaboration
  • They want the flexibility to be able to work how, where, and when they want

Now, if you're office has been around for a while, of course it will be a little harder to facilitate some of these changes versus a company who is commissioning Gensler to build their facility from the ground up.  That being said, there are small changes you can make to your policies and existing spaces to help move in the right direction.  If you're in a position that can make change in your company, then by all means, make changes!  There's nothing in your job description that says you must adhere to archaic and outdated policies no matter the cost, tweak things, update protocols, see what modifications you can make to help make sure your company is doing all it can to keep up with current trends.  Regarding space, make due with what you can.  If certain rooms need to be designated as "quiet rooms" that's a small start to give employees a place of refuge when they need to focus.  Just insure that it is easy for employees to find and utilize these resources.

The workplace is shifting rapidly, and it's our duty to make sure we're keeping up with it.  Identify the discrepancies in your environment, ask your employees for feedback, and make changes based on it.  There's nothing worse than employee feedback falling on deaf ears.  Now get out there, change the way you do business!