The Workplace: Furniture, Fabric and Software Design?!?!

The workplace is changing. Expectations have changed. The role of real estate teams, IT teams, and HR teams have all changed. Now, they have to work cross-functionally to deliver engaging, productive and enabled workspaces that employees want to use. But why is it that you can walk around some beautiful offices, and they still feel like they are dead? Why is it they lack the engaged and productive employees that they were built to serve?

Just like you choose which product to buy, employees today choose where and how they want to work. If the space doesn't do it for them or it doesn't meet their needs, then they simply will not use it unless they are forced to. Even if a company mandates the use of office space, if the workspace is not conducive to work, the company will pay the price via employee dissatisfaction, which has a negative domino effect on productivity and key talent retention. In fact, creating a corporate culture that attracts the best employees is set to be one of the biggest HR challenges in the next few years and workplace environment will play a key role in this.

There are some factors that have led us to this new thinking around workplace experience design:

People are mobile. An employee may move from one space to another, carrying all they need in their single bag; -- laptop or mobile device... check, headset... check, wireless connection available... check. In fact, "telecommuting increased 79.7 percent from 2005 to 2012" so offices today must connect people inside the office with those working elsewhere. No longer is the café just a café, no longer is a conference room just for a conference, and no longer is a waiting room just for waiting. All space exists for whatever the person needs to do at that time.

Companies have existing infrastructure and investments, as well as constraints to their office design. They will have invested in various furnishings, office space and physical infrastructure and will not want to lose these investments when refreshing or redoing their offices. This can sometimes lead to design decisions being taken which are not optimal.

Technology is changing how we work, even how we sit. These days we have to design spaces incorporating technology within the space, such as a screen for presenting on, but with mobility, BYOD and data access, you also need to consider the physical design to support the technology people might bring into the space. This is set to increase over the coming years, as "70 percent of mobile professionals will conduct their work on personal smart devices by 2018". Does the chair you have in the space enable good posture for holding mobile devices? Is the table the right height for a laptop? Is the power outlet close enough for use?

These considerations have thrown a wrench into typical office design, where beautiful spaces can be designed and technology merely slapped on afterwards, or worse, thought of as connectivity and screens alone. A careful balance between flexible and customizable space and purpose built areas which enable productivity is proving tough to strike. As the work world moves towards open environments there is speculation of a decline in the market for more traditional office furniture.

Office space is a costly affair, and companies today face dollars upon dollars lost in unused offices, as wasted commercial real estate becomes "the scourge of chief financial officers everywhere". Without workforce adoption and usage, even after spending money on great looking spaces boasting state of the art technology, it is still just money down the drain. The fact is, previously you would be the most productive at the office. The people were there, the network was there and it was usually better than the home working experience. Now, with great networks at home, earlier starts in the morning and virtual collaboration technology widely available -- the physical office has lost its ace card. Many people state that they are "more productive at home" and that they go to the office "for the people", for that social interaction. If this is the case, then why are so many offices struggling to offer truly productive spaces? If interaction is their new ace card, how can they play this new hand well?

How can workplaces today create spaces that people want to use, are able to use and that are optimized for productivity? 

We have found three things that companies can do that will have a very significant impact on space utilization and employee satisfaction. In fact, the same process that has been used for years to increase satisfaction and usability for users in software design can now be leveraged in workspace design.

1. Utilize experience design as a design process.

Thinking through the full user flow, from how they know of a space, enter the space, use the space and leave the space, will ensure that a user's experience of the space is positive. This positive effect will encourage them to use the space again and also to promote the space to others.

When thinking through each piece at various levels of granularity, you will soon understand how different spaces connect to each other and how the user can go from one to the other, or transform where they currently are, to fit their purpose throughout their day in the office. For example, if you are creating a small room for focus, it is important to think about where it is placed and what spaces it is adjacent to. Users will likely not want it made entirely of glass, but it should have a view to the outside or some natural elements so that they can escape and focus from office distractions, feel a sense of privacy and endure a few productive hours in there.

Using the end-to-end framework will also encourage you to think through how you will deliver a new space to an employee to encourage adoption.

2. Learn about your users, their work, activities, grievances and desires.

Just as we create personas when we are creating a new product or service, you can do this for your office as well. Who are your users and what do the different types need? For example, does someone spend a lot of their day concentrating, or in meetings? Do you receive lots of external guests to your office? More importantly, what types of activities do different users do throughout the day?

While the spaces, if flexible, can transform to what is needed, understanding your user types allows you to get the mix right. Creating personas and studying a day in their lives will give you the deep insight you need to create spaces they want to use.

3. Learn about the mix of variables that correlate to adopted workspaces.

If I asked you what were the 3-5 variables that changed the satisfaction of your space, would you know? The key is to know exactly what affects the experience of a space so that you can optimize design decisions accordingly and roadmap effectively. For example a café space could be affected by lighting, natural elements, comfort and flexibility.

To help you determine this you can observe users in good spaces and bad spaces, conduct research and talk to your end users.

The experience of the workplace environment is a key factor in productivity and satisfaction, as evidenced by the fact that companies with engaged employees outperform up to 202 percent better. The Experience Design process can help you to think through the design of your space and how all the pieces connect. When you truly understand your user, your experience goals, the activities they are trying to conduct, and how the pieces fit together, you will be able to design an experience that people will choose and promote -- giving you the adoption and ROI that you and your business need.