When you put together a design program or brief for a workplace transformation project, you will inevitably deal with one of the key challenges to open office planning. No matter how focused you are on the work of the organization so that you can develop a space to support and nurture it, you will encounter the workstation size challenge. People will present the case that their work is composed of activities that require a larger space, a more enclosed space, a private space.
One of the components of that case-making has to do with the module of space that represents the planning "standard" for most of the people in the organization. Inherent in the way that the proposed space is represented – module dimensions, net allocated area, the term “workstation” – is its challenge to “the way that things are done around here.” The module is almost always a change, and the change is almost always a reduction in personal space assignment, and the current space assignment is always inadequate to the job that has to be done.
Our current project came about as many of them are – an organization's leader's desire to have a physical space that is more authentic to the ways that things will be done around here, more authentic to the ever evolving challenges the organization faces as it tries to perform its mission in an increasingly competitive marketplace.
The executive leadership of this company is concerned about its market performance and its demand for a higher technology component in their products. The leaders have come to recognize that the current workplace is a barrier to productive workflow, a probable impediment to innovation, and a certain barrier to attracting the next generation talent they need now.
After we spent a considerable amount of time interviewing individuals, observing days of work in the office, researching the industry, holding workshops and testing concepts, we generated a concept that we've called “the new engineering workplace.” The executive leadership has endorsed the concept and their Board has approved and funded the project. It is now time to develop and build it.
In this stage of our project, our client is represented by a number of people chosen as a cross-section of the organization. Their work is the development of new products and the engineering of applications of legacy projects. People in the current workspace work in high-walled cubicles that are the size of offices and in a workplace where nothing of the activities or products of their work is visible.
As word of the project has come their way, and the transformational term of “collaboration” is heard in conversations, they respond with the expected resistance. All of the work we’ve done to understand the business and prepare a workplace concept to support it disappears and now comes down to a question of the size of the individual workstation. Instead of considering how the workplace can support product innovation, application development speed, corporate culture, or the experiences of work, the question of a 7x7 or 8x8 module dominates.
We have seen little evidence in the current workspace that there is a supported demand for an 8x8 module, yet this is the selection that the company’s representatives have made.
The 8x8 module is 30% larger than the perfectly adequate 7x7 module (64 sf versus 49 sf). This increases the cost of space, of course, as well as the energy required to sustain it. More significantly, it reduces the potential benefits that the 30% of “extra” space could bring to the organization.
Inside of that 30% of a workstation's space times the population of the building is space that the company would otherwise buy that could support –
Activity centers where the occasional need for a larger surface that has been claimed as a universal requirement could satisfy the occasional activity that actually occurs...and in the future is reallocated when the analog work mode goes digital and the demand for large surface area moves from the paper-based, individually-used, horizontal reference function to the digitally-based, vertically-displayed, interactive reference (shared, appropriately resourced, highly utilized activity-based work settings)
The interaction spaces where many of the activities of work that are now slow and formal, waiting for the weekly meeting in the over-scheduled conference room, could become informal and fast, ad-hoc problem-solving resources claimed and used in the daily course of a project’s workflow (socialization, in the sense of the expression and testing of ideas)
The resources like 3D printing, in-process work, product displays, and others that support the people in the activities to make the products that people want (innovation play space)
Eventually, as you look around at all of the good stuff coming into the workplace that you’ve never had before, you might get around to asking: Why not 5x5 rather than 7x7?
At that point, I am not going to suggest jamming more people into smaller and smaller space. Instead, I am going to ask why people have an assigned workstation at all. Haven’t we, through this process, given everybody the tools that they need to do great stuff?
In an environment where people want to do great stuff, there will be surprisingly little demand for “I” space. There may be a highly variable demand for solitude, but this is not the same thing as “I” space and may not be satisfied in “I” space in any case.
So the questions to ask in programming the office are not, “Should it be 7x7 or 8x8?” but “What are the tools and settings we need to attract people who want to do great stuff?”
Or, better, "What products should we make that are so compellingly clever and valuable that they attract loyal customers and great talent to our company?”
When you do that nobody measures the size of the workstation anymore.