Working Quietly

Steve Gale sees an easy target for a more productive workspace – although he does admit that it has taken him a while. 

Getting people to work and giving them tools and space is a huge investment, although less than the cost of employees themselves, and designers and engineers are in the thick of it. 

Rent is only part of the cost, office equipment, IT networks, devices, furniture, maintenance and energy are all real. Business seeks value from expenditure, so I want to look at one aspect of the economic responsibility of designers. How do we know when this money is well spent?

The holy grail of success in the workplace is productivity, which creates happiness and misery depending on its direction of travel. But the units are not simple, so they are rarely measured, and causal links are very elusive. 

Frustratingly, this means our design inputs are acts of faith, driven by belief in things that cannot be proven. We provide food and drink and create interactive space hoping for an uptick in productivity, but we never really know for sure. 

It’s like advertising. Some of it seems to work, but we don’t know which bits.

This absence of scientific evidence means that we rely on opinion to guide us, and countless survey results are available to steer our design efforts. Can we see common themes emerging from all these questions and answers? I can think of one. This is what my own surveys show after exactly 20 years of interrogation.

During this time I have asked what works for people in the workplace, and what does not, and have used the results in design briefs. A quick survey identifies problems and ranks them in a graphic hit-list of issues to resolve. During the Christmas break I reviewed the outputs gathered over two decades from occupiers of open plan offices, which is the environment for most knowledge workers.

“Our design inputs are acts of faith, driven by belief in things that cannot be proven” 

My simple survey asks about fairly mundane activities that people perform as part of their job, and gathers data on what helps or hinders people performing these tasks, without second-guessing what the factors might be. The data is not a record of what people like or want, but a study of how their environment affects their performance. So a survey would include activities like sensitive or confidential discussions with colleagues, unplanned meetings, formal meetings, social interactions, making and receiving phone calls etc.

One activity, which I call ‘quiet working’, has emerged as an exceptionally hot ticket over the decades. It really stands out from the others. Respondents have consistently scored this as a vitally important activity, but rated it near the bottom in terms of environmental support. The overwhelming finding is that the workplace has not been helping people to work quietly, even though it is a key part of their job, with no significant improvement in the past 20 years, despite a raft of well-meant furniture solutions, home working policies and inventive use of meeting rooms.

Digging deeper through interviews and workshops, I find three recurring attributes: 1. The problem is unwanted noise – usually other people’s conversations or phone calls. 2. People say that they struggle to do anything about the disruptive noise, or escape it. 3. Respondents say the damage to their productivity is very high.

‘…the damage to their productivity is very high’. People say that noise disruption is hugely damaging to their output, and their mitigating options are limited. Aside from some well-known work-arounds, they are suffering. We still need to do better.

The findings imply that an open plan workspace clearly reduces productivity. Revenue must be lost through ineffective working. Can we be sure that the business benefit of our modern open plan workplace is greater than this lost revenue? Is it delivering value?

If the pursuit of productivity is a worthwhile mission, we must attack this persistent and visible obstruction to productivity in the modern workplace. Open plan, which has been an economic no-brainer for decades, has an inherent weakness, which deserves a bit more effort in our workplace design.