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The art and science of humanising the office

The current moment offers great opportunities for rethinking the workplace, as well as rethinking how we work overall. If offices are to be part of the mix, what can be done to make them work better for everyone who works there?

The focus on “hybrid” workplaces has led to a tendency to focus excessively on the amount of time people spend at home or in the office. But what we need to have is a sharp focus on what can make work and the work experience better, wherever people are working. And that involves creating more human-friendly work environments in offices.

This is what organisational psychologist Nigel Oseland sets out to do in his new book Beyond the Workplace Zoo: Humanising the Office*. And at our January 2022 meeting Nigel gave members and guests of the Smart Work Network insights into the art and science of doing this. (Members can download Nigel’s presentation here. Login required.)

Nigel OselandAccording to Nigel, the typical pre-pandemic workplace just wasn’t working. A major reason is an emphasis on reducing costs, focusing on the input side of the productivity equation. People often say it’s because the costs of space are easily measurable, and the output side – productivity, wellness and wellbeing – are complex or impossible to measure.

“Most organisations do in fact measure performance,” said Nigel. “But the difficult part is linking that to the office environment because there are so many variables – but it can be done.”

Working with the Institute of Workplace and Facilities Management (IWFM), he has reviewed more than 200 studies that attempt to do this. From this he has been able to calculate some default values for the impact on performance of factors such as air quality, lighting and daylight, acoustics, temperature, workplace design and more.

For people writing business plans and calculating the return on investment of workplace change programmes, these figures should be invaluable.

The urgent need to de-densify

“There’s been a trend towards densification in offices over the past 20 years,” said Nigel. “We can see from various British Council for Offices reports that office density has been increased by 40%. How has this happened? It’s been done by reducing desk sizes, squeezing desks closer together, and taking away some of the facilities and amenities. But we need to look at how to de-densify as density is our worst enemy when it comes to noise distraction, comfort and impinging on personal space. And it’s not great for cross-infection.”

De-densification is one of his main recommendations, and perhaps it sits uneasily with executives looking to seize the opportunity to reduce real estate overheads, given the rise in employees’ aspirations to spend more time working remotely.

Savings can be made by reducing the number of desks. These savings, however, need to be made available for de-densifying the desks and providing plenty of alternative spaces.

Designing workplaces for our natural selves

Workplace designers also need to draw on evolutionary psychology. Just as our physiology evolved over millennia to roam the African savanna, so our brains have evolved to survive there too.  “We’ve only been in the modern office, air-conditioned boxes, for 100 years or so. The brain just hasn’t caught up.”

This should impact our approach to acoustics and the sensory environment, recognising our natural affinity with a more natural environment.

And we need a range of spaces in the office that provide room for both socialising and for refuge or shelter. We generally don’t do well with noise distractions, but neither is deathly silence comfortable for our psychological comfort.

Designing for the range, not the average

Nigel is passionate about the need to recognise diversity. “We are all one species, but very different animals,” said Nigel. Most of us are not average when it comes to our personalities and preferences.

It’s not only one-size-fits-all workplace design that fails to cater for that. Also industry standards (e.g. for lighting) set narrow standards when peoples preferences are much wider than the standard recognises. The answer to this is to have more choice of physical settings and more controllability of wherever you are working, e.g. task lighting.

The Agile Landscaped Office

So what makes for a human-centric office? Nigel advocates a solution based on a combination of activity-based work settings and a revival of the Bürolandschaft (landscaped office) concept of the 1950s, with its more irregular and organic shapes.

Part of the key is to think of the office primarily as an enabler, contributing to productivity and a range of other benefits, and not a cost burden.

———– 20% discount on Nigel’s book- ———–

*Nigel Oseland, Beyond the Workplace Zoo: Humanising the Office, is published by Routledge.
Use this discount code for a 20% discount on the Routledge website: FLR40

The book is also available on Amazon and other outlets.

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