What type of office design is best for productivity and engagement? Today, this common question tends to have two distinct answers. On the one hand are the tech start-ups, who advocate for open office plans that emphasize chance encounters. Google’s new campus is designed to maximize chance encounters, and Facebook’s new headquarters features the largest open office in the world. Samsung is also exploring the use of more outdoor space to encourage employee conversation. As Scott Birnbaum, vice president of Samsung, told HBR, “The most creative ideas aren’t going to come while sitting in front of your monitor.” Their new building “is really designed to spark not just collaboration but that innovation you see when people collide.”
On the other hand is research about people’s preferences, like this 2013 study in the Journal of Environmental Psychologythat, according to its authors, “categorically contradict[s] the industry-accepted wisdom that open-plan layout enhances communication between colleagues and improves occupants.” Another study demonstrated that the noise resulting from open office designs is a huge drain on employee morale.
So which is it? Or, more practically, how can companies identify the right amount of connectedness required for peak employee performance? At Microsoft, we went about answering this question in a couple of ways. Our experience could be helpful as your company considers similar questions.
Beginning in the Spring of 2016, our workplace analytics group worked with commercial real estate company CBRE to calculate the cost savings associated with relocating a 1,200-person Microsoft engineering organization from five buildings into four other buildings. This resulted in more employees per building – and fewer buildings to travel between — and we hypothesized that this move could increase collaboration.
We came to this hypothesis in part due to early research by Gina Venolia, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research, who conducted a 2008 study that examined the special problems faced by remote teammates at Microsoft. Her work revealed challenges in four key areas: communication in planned meetings, ad-hoc conversations, awareness of teammates and their work, and building trust relationships between teammates.
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