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Expert: Office layouts changing to boost productivity

When the Great Recession hit in 2007, many companies laid off scores of workers. Others went into a holding pattern, waiting for better times.

In most cases, those businesses didn’t do much to alter their workspaces – even those that had whole rooms of empty desks where former employees once toiled. There was some downsizing, but that only happened if firms’ leases expired.

Now that the economy is beginning to pick up again, many firms are rethinking how to design functional office space so their employees can work more productively, says Robin Stroebel, the founder and president of InteriorLOGIC Facility Planning. Now in its 25th year, Stroebel’s company has five employees and offices in Madison and Cedarburg.

She said most business owners want to be careful about expanding. And while they may be adding staff, many want those people to work in smaller spaces.

Stroebel said companies change at their own pace. When her firm moved three years ago, it switched to a more open office plan.

“Some of it is driven by five-year, seven-year or 10-year leases,” she said. “Some clients really plan out, so we do strategic facility planning, which is helping them analyze their space needs and attributes as they plan down the road two or three years for a new facility."

Though the economy may be improving, she said companies are still “tenuous and testing the waters.”

“People know change is in the future for them,” she said. “The economy is not back completely to where it was, but they are making plans, which is a really good thing. There was a period there where no one wanted to do anything but sit tight and ride the storm. It’s much more optimistic now.

“It’s still a lean economy, not so pinched as it was two, three or four years ago. I see that continuing (into 2014 and 2015) if policies that small businesses and businesses generally rely on for planning for the future remain consistent or appear to be on the upswing.”

During the recession, she said office workers began asking for more informal collaborative space. Stroebel said that might take the shape of a lounge or meeting area, an informal workspace that staffers can configure to suit their needs on a specific day. She said the trend is also toward smaller desk areas, lower panels and more mobile workspaces.

“Not a whole lot happened during the recession,” she said. “Many people were trapped in the space they had. That was pretty demoralizing for those who were left and it wasn’t a very productive environment.”

Stroebel said simply filling cubicles back up isn’t always a good idea.

“In the past few years, the use of technology has increased and many younger workers came into the workforce wanting to collaborate,” she said. “The ability to collaborate has almost become a survival skill. Work stations with taller panels and cubicle-like environments have become relatively unworkable for a lot of companies.”

Now, barriers are coming down, she said, to promote the flow of ideas and create interaction.

Some companies are moving to open “benching solutions,” she said.

“So much of the new product that you see at the Merchandise Mart are benching solutions with groups of people working at a counter-height stool area. It is driven by consumer demand. Employees really want to share this idea space with the laptops that they are using.”

But she said not all areas of an office should be a big, open environment.

“Some people want to work in more of a lounge-type, living room setting or the staff café which now has evolved to be not a place where people go just during lunchtime,” she said. “It’s now used throughout the day. We have a number of clients who have found great value in creating that kind of space in their environments. The diversification of the office environment has really happened.”

She acknowledged that not everyone may be excited about these changes.

“Well, there are some people who were next in line for the private offices who found out that things weren’t going to happen that way,” she said. “But there are trade-offs. If you don’t get a private office, you do get a workstation by the window. You do get access to a lounge grouping with some additional amenities.”

For the times when workers need privacy, she’ll design areas for those needs such as phone enclaves for confidential calls.

“There is a lot more flexibility in the workspaces. So what we try to do is add those benefits to a changing environment,” she said. “We have seen that people really adapt to that. We try to get them to understand what they are getting into when they go to the new space.”

She said the key is for company leaders to engage their employees so they know what’s coming.

“Part of the change in management is keeping people informed and seeking their input, getting their ideas so they know that they have a voice in it and the end result – even though it may be different than their previous environment with private offices – really has many more ideas for creativity,” she said.

While offices are changing, she said many companies remain reluctant to let their employees work from home because they don’t know how to manage them.

“There is some flexibility with the work schedules, but that is really a cultural change that needs to be managed well,” she said. “The HR group is still working on ways to manage people offsite with technology and (figure out) the guidelines.

“And they do like people coming into the office so they can collaborate and work with their peers. Not to say that won’t work if they are off site, but I don’t see much of that – at least in our region.”

-- By Brian E. Clark
For WisBusiness.com


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