They were once thought of as ”new” ways of working, cutting-edge office designs that were aimed at making spaces more egalitarian, productive and innovative. But many of them have left workers worse off and are now recognised as duds. Here are seven of the biggest office-design failures.
1. Fully open-plan offices and forced collaboration
Working elbow-to-elbow with your colleagues is not everyone’s idea of fun.
Nor has it reaped the hoped-for benefits of greater collaboration and interaction, says Libby Sander, Bond University lecturer and founder of the Future of Work Project.
The concept was solid – to “get everyone to talk about ideas and to innovate”, Sander says.
But sticking workers “in a big room together” simply made people more withdrawn and more hostile. “They actually collaborate less because they feel like they can’t think and they can’t concentrate,” she says.
The big trend now is employee choice, says the chief executive of architecture firm BVN, James Grose.
“Choice is about enabling people to feel that they have the ability within their working day to decide and determine where they are best suited to work, rather than someone imposing a 1.8-metre long desk and saying ‘you must work there from 9-5′,” he says.
This is leading to a “flat pack” approach where office space can expand and contract and workspaces can be a moveable feast over time.
More recent office designs include multiple breakout rooms, moveable glass pods that variously incorporate doors, single desks, small lounges or even just a chair for private phone calls.
There is also a shift to a more homely feel with a greater use of softer furnishings, lounges scattered throughout and more natural materials.
2. Lack of fresh air and natural light
Commercial environments have tended to be artificial in recent decades – flouro lighting, massive central cooling and heating systems and little thought about bringing more natural elements into the design.
There is now a slow move – mainly in new builds – to introduce cooling and heating systems that depend upon fresh air, and to employ better building design through large open-air atriums, light wells, useable balconies, moveable shading devices and even operable windows.
There is also an emergence of “biophilic design” – or more natural landscape elements within the building itself.
In Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, architectural firm BVN has designed a 25-storey building at 301 Wickham Street to incorporate sky gardens in staggered voids around the building’s high-rise perimeter so workers can access to fresh air and greenery whatever floor they are on.
3. Vastly different companies sharing the same office space
The rise of co-working spaces and shared offices has led to some almost comical pairings of workers trying to survive side by side, says Sander.
You might get a loud and proud sales team shouting out every customer win alongside an engineering or management consultant business, she says.
In one such case Sander witnessed, the only solution was to build a physical wall between the two businesses.
Grose says what can work though is shared facilities such as internal stairs, which provide a chance for casual interaction.
4. Soulless cubicles
Cubicles were always a poor interpretation of an office. While the partitions provided space to tack up personal items, they failed to deliver acoustic privacy.
“You see photos where people had created little caves with plants and bookshelves to try and [make their space more quiet],” says Sander.
Workers often felt vulnerable with people walking up behind them or looking over their shoulder, as well. “It made them uncomfortable and they felt less productive,” says Sander.
Cubicles have pretty much died out now though, says Grose, and were a “step on in a pathway to making offices way more democratic”.
5. Running with the latest interiors trend
Beanbags and uber-bright colours have one thing in common. They are passing interior design trends grabbed by many businesses wanting to be cutting-edge without understanding their employees’ actual needs.
“Bean bags need to be put down as a petty big fail,” says Sander. “There’s not many companies where people actually use a bean bag – although you still see them quite a bit.
“And overly outlandish colours are definitely a fail. The best offices actually have quite calm muted colours not bright orange walls and polka-dot patterns.”
6. Isolated business parks and far-flung locations
Isolating workers away in huge business parks is proving to be somewhat unsuccessful, says Sander.
“The idea of being stuck in a campus in the middle of nowhere away from everything is not really well-received,” she says.
When workers are in more lively locations there’s greater opportunity for ideas generation.
“You might walk out at lunchtime and go to an art gallery or museum, you might sit in a café and overhear people having a conversation that gives you a totally different perspective and pumps your brain in a different way than if you’re just stuck with 3000 or 10,000 other people in a building that you don’t leave for the entire day,” says Sander.
7. Technology-based tracking
In an effort to help staff locate each other some companies have invested significant funds into online systems, says Sander.
“When no one’s got a permanent location you’re supposed to register where you are so that people can find you,” explains Sander.
But not surprisingly, many people opt out.
“If you’re trying to get something done then you probably don’t want to advertise to everyone who might then want to find you and ask you questions and interrupt you,” she says.
“It’s becoming, what’s the new door? “Is it headphones? Is it opting out of the online registration system? How can I escape that?”