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Hip office designs look cool. But they may not be good for your work

Modern workspaces look great but are too often noisy "battery chicken farms" for humans.

A WeWork office at Jalan Besar in Singapore. The rapid rise of WeWork has fed into wider trends in contemporary office design: Desk-sharing, open-plan, higher density and a blending of work with relaxation.

A WeWork office at Jalan Besar in Singapore. The rapid rise of WeWork has fed into wider trends in contemporary office design: Desk-sharing, open-plan, higher density and a blending of work with relaxation.

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When Christopher Walsh, senior researcher at the New Zealand personal finance start-up MoneyHub, checked in as a hot-desker to a London WeWork office last summer, he was surprised by what he found. 

“There were so many distractions dangled in front of you. The barista was in the middle of all the hot desks and the lines were just constant,” he says. 

“On Fridays people would bring in their kids, so you would be sitting at a hot desk and beside you would be a toddler with a video game.”

The taps to the unlimited cider, prosecco and beer would be turned on at 3pm, “so it would turn into a pub across the entire floor,” he adds. “It’s supposed to be the future of work, but for me it was the anti-work . . . I had to shut myself up in the phone room to get work done.”

The rapid rise of WeWork — which was followed by an even more rapid descent into chaos as plans for an initial public offering were cancelled — has fed into wider trends in contemporary office design: Desk-sharing, open-plan, higher density and a blending of work with relaxation.

But as Mr Walsh experienced, there can be a fine line between a workplace with buzz and one with oppressive cacophony. He says other branches of WeWork he used were different, but this one combined chaos with anonymity. “It’s very impersonal . . . in some ways, I felt it was trying to be something it’s not.”

When it comes to offices more broadly, Mr Walsh’s experience is backed up by research. Across the world, office space per person is shrinking, partitions are being torn down and desks shared as organisations seek to combine cost efficiency with creative energy. But these trends can in some cases create the opposite result.

A study backed by Harvard Business School in 2018 tracked employees in two companies before and after their offices were redesigned to remove walls, doors and “other spatial boundaries” — and found that workers reacted by ignoring each other.

Face-to-face interactions declined by 70 per cent in favour of digital communication, they found.

“Rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and instant messaging,” the researchers said.

Separate research last year found that open-plan offices, with shared desks, were more likely than old-fashioned “cellular” arrangements to lead to a feeling of “dehumanisation”.

Researchers at the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium surveyed more than 500 white-collar workers in insurance, building materials and mining firms. They found those in open-plan offices and with shared desks more likely to agree with statements such as “my organisation treats me as if I were a robot”. 

Property developers and architects say bad design is to blame. Sir Stuart Lipton, the developer, compares office spaces crammed with tightly packed desks, cubicles or small partitioned offices to “battery chicken farms”.

“Factory farming is when [design is] driven by cost and companies don’t think about the engagement of their employees,” he says.

“There is a lack of awareness of humanity.” Where desks are packed in tightly, employees need additional workspaces to compensate. “People need to be free range.”

Excessive density appears to be part of the problem.

Tim Oldman, chief executive of workplace research firm Leesman, says: “The worrying factor is that more and more organisations think of productivity gain in terms of ‘can we get more people in less space?’”

While office density has increased across the board — typical space per person in the United States shrank 8.3 per cent to about 18 square metres between 2009 and 2018, according to Cushman & Wakefield, a property consultancy — some cram in far more workers.

WeWork, for example, accounts for just over five square metres per person across its global portfolio, according to financial documents issued last summer.

Density is not the only issue that affects workers’ wellbeing. Another is agile working, in which companies require workers to share desks, removing the potential to have a work “home”.

The push to desk-sharing is unlikely to abate, given that, according to research by the consultancy Advanced Workplace Associates, desks are typically in use for only 48 per cent of each working day. But it is often unpopular.

“You say the words ‘hot desk’ and everyone’s hackles go up,” says Amelia Saberwal, a workplace coach.

“You can’t give away without giving back . . . To densify without it feeling like you are taking desks away, you need to give other spaces back, and you need to think about strategies of giving different teams their own zones.”

Mr Oldman says contemporary office designs can create auditory echo chambers: “Designers and architects love taking ceilings out to create more volume in the space, and that exposes concrete soffits, which are like a mirror for noise. They also like hard floor finishes.”

Hot-desking or poor placement of teams can turn background noise into a clamour, he adds.

“If you are sitting next to a financial controller and you’re someone who is trying to sell some ad space, the tone of your call is going to be very different . . . [also] there’s almost a primeval tribal element to being able to hang out with colleagues.”

Companies need to consult with staff and think through space innovations fully, says Rosie Haslem, a director at the design and architecture practice Spacelab.

Classic mistakes include creating an area for people to work with laptops that lacks enough power points, or a workstation in the middle of a circulation route, she says.

Designers should consider using acoustic panelling or soft furnishings to absorb noise. They should also cater for introverts among the workforce, who “want to feel a bit more tucked away and not sucked into all the buzz”, says Ms Haslem. This may be especially important for those with mental health problems or neurodiverse conditions. 

A former United Kingdom employee of Npower with autism won an indirect discrimination claim earlier this year after arguing that the company failed to adapt its open-plan environment to his needs. He eventually took long-term sick leave and was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

Laurent Taskin, an author of the Belgian study, paints a bleak picture of modern office spaces: he says they can drive people to work from home to avoid noise and “the fight for finding a comfortable place [or] the coldness of open spaces”.

WeWork itself is adjusting its spaces. It says it uses feedback from each building to inform the designs of its new sites. Some of those include designated “quiet spaces” for hot deskers, along with other spaces offering the trademark buzz.

While WeWork has been the recent face of contemporary office design, Leesman’s research has found positive examples in less glamorous sectors.

It singles out Johnson & Johnson’s new office in Bogotá, Colombia, which divided its spaces into “open collaborative” and “open focus”, along with “privacy areas” and “team dens” for different types of work.

Employers and designers also face the challenge of distinguishing between workers’ natural resistance to change, and identifying genuine problems.

“People won’t like being told ‘this is what you are doing’ unless they’ve been asked,” says Ms Saberwal. “There is a change management process that has to happen for people to get comfortable.”

She adds that making changes to an existing office can be especially challenging. “Changing the routine is a big shock to the system. People will hate it for a bit. You just have to be prepared to be the most hated person on campus.” FINANCIAL TIMES



Judith Evans is the property correspondent for the Financial Times, covering residential and commercial real estate. She has previously covered investment and alternative finance for FT Money and written for newswires from Hong Kong and the Maldives.

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