building

The definition of what constitutes a “workspace” is changing quickly. Assigned offices and cubicles were long the norm, but today’s workers have a lot more choice in how they use their office spaces.

These rapid shifts in workplace design have also provoked a lot of discussion about the pros and cons of moving away from traditional workplace arrangements. There’s one thing we know for sure: Our work environments have major impacts on productivity, company culture, and employee health. Our mental functions can be boosted or blocked by the physical spaces in which we do our work.

Architecture and design firm Gensler has been researching this topic for years. In a 2016 study, the company surveyed workers on the effectiveness of a wide variety of space types, from individual offices to totally open spaces. The study found that how open or enclosed a space was didn’t matter much for employee performance. Instead, the key factor was whether or not the space was designed with employees’ needs in mind. To quote Gensler Principal Janet Pogue McLaurin, “If the space was designed to function well, all individual space types were rated [by survey participants] as equally effective.”

While it is true that open offices can be just as effective as more traditional spaces, this style of layout can pose a real challenge for workers and company leaders alike. Are there options for privacy? Are the acoustics appropriate? Are there enough “heads-down” spaces? What about usable collaborative spaces? In the end, organizations wonder if nontraditional office designs will negatively impact the company culture and employee productivity.

Interior designers and facilities managers have quickly discovered that a one-size-fits-all workspace does not cut it. It is from this realization that the idea of workplace choice developed as a design approach. In a workplace choice, or “free address,” environment, employees can choose to work wherever they want within the office.

Factors like the work a person has to complete, their mood, and their energy level can influence an employee’s chosen workplace from day to day. A functional free-address office takes this into account by providing a variety of spaces, including more traditional workspaces, large gathering spaces, private rooms, and informal spaces. There are often central locations for physical assets like books, catalogues, and other reference materials.

According to research from Herman Miller, a provider of office furnishings, choice-based work environments are on the rise and likely to continue growing in popularity. Commercial real estate services firm CBRE Group found in a recent survey that 52 percent of corporate real estate executives believe they will implement some kind of unassigned seating policy in the next three years.

It’s easy to see why free address is catching on. By offering a choice-based work environment, organizations can leverage all the benefits of open-concept workspaces while giving employees the choice they desire.

Interested in bringing free address to your office space? Here’s some advice on how to make it work for just about any company:

Workplace Design Through Data

In previous decades, workspace design was all about usable square feet. Designers and facilities managers would determine how many people they had and how many workstations and private offices were needed, and presto! Workspace design happened.

Today, workspace planning is rooted in a different kind of data. It’s less about measuring the square feet of a building and more about analyzing how the space is used and whether the current workspace is meeting employees’ needs.

Before implementing a free-address office design, consider how your employees currently interact with the office space. Are there employees who work remotely? Are there a lot of employees who travel or spend time away from the office? Are there frequent in-person meetings? The best way to optimize your real estate is to first understand what your particular employees need from their space.

Offer a Variety of Choice

One of the key benefits of free address is the literal breaking down of walls. Free address is all about choice, and the flexibility of the space encourages spontaneous connections and collaborations between employees.

When employees ditch the rows of cubes for an environment in which they can work anywhere and everywhere, they are no longer tethered to their high-walled workstations. In an ideal design, the office would include open and informal areas where employees can mingle to strengthen relationships, improve the culture, and facilitate more teamwork.

That said, more enclosed and formal spaces should also be offered, so that employees can utilize them when it’s time to keep their heads down and focus on a task. A free-address space should also offer places to huddle around a screen with coworkers, hidden corners where looming deadlines can be dealt with in peace, places to make those necessary personal calls, and even comfortable spots to grab a hot tea and connect with colleagues.

Address Employees’ Stuff

“But what about my stuff?” That’s the most frequently heard objection from employees when it comes to free address. They want to know what will become of their family photos, personal files, and favorite pens when there are no assigned seats.

Free address still allows employees to personalize their spaces, but in a different way. Employees will need to adjust to sharing family photos on their screensavers, storing their supplies in bags and briefcases, and filing documents electronically or in a shared file cabinet. It might take some getting used to, but with consistent communication from leadership about the change, employees will adapt.

Communicate Clearly and Regularly

Speaking of communicating the changes: Company messaging about free address should go beyond logistical matters. It also needs to highlight how free address aligns with the company’s values, vision, and principles. Clearly articulate the workplace vision and the business case for the change. This will help employees understand why the office design revamp is necessary, and it will encourage them to operate responsibly within that space in a way that works for them personally.

In a way, “communicate the change” is the moral of the free address story. Start early and be consistent. Design a plan to surface any employee concerns about the proposed workplace environment. You want to identify and resolve controversies sooner rather than later.

Free address is on the rise. As organizations adapt to new economic realities by changing the ways in which they operate, their spaces need to change as well. In the end, it is about supporting company culture and increasing employee happiness. By providing a well-designed, choice-based workspace, every organization can advance toward its goals, increase productivity, and support employee wellness. Simply said, good design is good for business.

Candace Nelson is the chief sales officer and principal at Intereum.

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