Business Today

Giving People Space

The popular 'open office' design has many disadvantages. But some employers are going beyond it to create an empowering environment at the workplace.
By Sonal Khetarpal   Delhi     Print Edition: March 12, 2017
Giving People Space
Abdul Jaleel, Vice President – Employee Experience, Adobe India, says that never in the history of corporate India were employees off ered these many choices at the workplace (Pic: Shekhar Ghosh)

Ira Kumar, 28, joined a fintech company based in Bangalore a couple of months ago as content head. She works among the endless rows of a workstation in a vast hall - her workplace is based on the 'open office' design, with a few cubicles for meetings. "I can see which sites my colleagues are browsing," she says. "I have overheard one arguing with his wife, while another was discussing with financiers on funding a new car. I have no interest in their personal issues. But, in an open office, even lives are opened up."

Open offices are the norm today. They are popular across corporate India for a variety of reasons. They foster egalitarianism across hierarchies, often enabling those sitting close by to discover common interests, collaborate and communicate more freely than they would have had there been physical barriers between them. But there is also the downside. "I can't focus in office because there is always something happening," says a risk analyst at a Gurgaon-based company, who prefers not to be named. "I'm able to get work done only on the days I stay at home. I go to office just to network with colleagues."

Tesco’s architect Ashish Sachdev of ADEelite Design says that people should not be able to see beyond six to eight metres from where they are sitting

Such offices have obvious attractions for employers - it enables them to pack more people into less space. "Adding more desks within the existing space saves on the cost of renting additional real estate and also brings down the per square foot cost per person," says Rami Kaushal, Managing Director, Consulting and Valuations, South Asia, at global real estate services firm CBRE. The digital revolution has also made cramming people close together easier than before, removing the need to allot storage space - filing cabinets, cupboards and lockers have mostly been done away with. "Work space design has run parallel with technology changes," says Ashwini Deshpande, Co-founder, design and brand consultancy Elephant Design. "With the coming of desktops and laptops, the need for table space reduced. Computers have brought bosses out of their cubicles. Laptops and cloud technology have enabled employees to work from anywhere and anytime, which allows companies to even let them work remotely."

But from the employee's viewpoint, the open office is certainly a mixed blessing. Apart from the continuous distraction, it also means loss of privacy and reduced comfort at work. A CBRE study, Space Utilisation: the Next Frontier, says a single office employee needs a minimum space of 5.6 square metres (60 sq. ft), below which her performance and productivity suffer. "Research, from as far back as 1980, showed that reducing privacy at work lowers workplace satisfaction and job fulfilment," says Ravi S. Gajendran, Assistant Professor of Management at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Open offices may facilitate interpersonal communication among employees and increase opportunities of meeting people, but they also reduce formation of deeper and more meaningful connections," says Gajendran. "Sharing of innermost thoughts, experiences and views reduces if people fear they may be overheard."

An extreme version of the open office - and one enabling employers to save even more space and costs - is that of having rows of desks with none assigned to a particular person. Employees log in from whichever desk is vacant when they step into office. "Since many employees are either in the field or on holiday at any given time, the idea is not to block workstations for them on a permanent basis," says Gajendran. This approach gets an even bigger thumbs-down from employees. "It gives me the feeling I don't belong here," says an employee in such an office in Singapore.

Another employee, working in a similar office, sanitises her desk every time before starting work. "I'm not sure of the hygiene maintained by previous users," she says. The employee's emotional attachment to her workplace decreases. "Not having the certainty of a particular desk to go to at work can be annoying," says Sudhir Dhar, Director - Group CHRO, Motilal Oswal Financial Services. "More so for Indians who become emotionally attached to their workspaces, personalising them with photos, plants or printouts of quotes." A manager at an investment company in Noida, which has not assigned fixed desks, notes that employees have informally allotted themselves desks within the shared bays. "It is very irritating otherwise to customise the brightness of the computer screen, the height of the desktop and so forth every morning," he adds.

Enlightened Employer Interest

In the current competitive business environment, when talent is at a premium and innovation the only means of staying ahead, is saving on real estate expenses at the cost of employee morale a wise strategy? Many enlightened employers do not think so and are making vital departures from the standard open office design to better nurture their employees. "In the last three to four years, many companies have been trying to strike a balance between optimising space costs and providing an upbeat environment to employees," says Kaushal of CBRE.

Adobe India, for instance, has adopted the open office concept - but with a difference. The private cabins have been dismantled, and they have been replaced by four-seat modules grouped together, where each seat measures six feet by seven feet, with one employee occupying each corner. There is also a round table at the centre of the module. The employees have their backs to one another giving them a sense of privacy, but at the same time, can simply turn and cluster around the table whenever they need to brainstorm together. "This format works for our teams as each team member knows what the others are doing and creates a sense of unified mission," says Sanjeev Sethi, Director, GWS, Adobe India.

Many offices have also increased the height of desk partitions to curtail visual distraction. "People should not be able to see beyond six to eight metres from where they are seated," says Ashish Sachdev, Managing Director, ADEelite Design Consultants, who has designed the Bangalore office of Tesco. Workforce solutions provider Kronos, for instance, has desk partitions which also double as whiteboards. It also tries to locate team members close to one another. "It is better to co-locate teams working together than spread them out," says Rajiv Burman, Kronos India Head for Human Resources, Asia-Pacific Countries.

Google provides a large assortment of spaces to its employees for a healthy work environment (Pic: VIVAN MEHRA)

Some have also understood that the one-size-fits-all approach to office space is short-sighted - the kind of workplace an employee needs varies according to the functions she performs. For many employees, office work embraces a gamut of tasks - some requiring peace and quiet, others needing close interaction with colleagues or an entire team. Business services provider Concentrix, for one, has separated workstations on the basis of voice or non-voice processes. "Those required to speak a great deal have been given high sound-proof partitions, in areas where the ceilings too have been acoustically treated to have greater noise cancellation quotient," says Ravinder Rana, Country General Manager, Concentrix.

Microsoft India has followed the same principle. "People engaged in R&D have been given dedicated spaces, while groups such as sales, whose members have to keep moving around, have shared spaces," says Marianne Rathje, Director, Real Estate and Facilities, Microsoft.

LinkedIn India sought to keep working spaces uniform across functions and hierarchies in its office, but after carrying out space utilisation studies reached the same conclusion Microsoft had. Engineers, for instance, preferred work areas where they could concentrate without distractions, while customer care and sales executives wanted open spaces without partitions. They then came up with a unique solution. "We developed height-adjustable workstations where employees can increase or reduce the partition walls of their cubicles," says Vivek Malhotra, Head - Facilities, LinkedIn India. This ties in well with their "one workplace" philosophy where there is one kind of workstation for all employees. The company has filed a design patent for this product.

Microsoft has developed its offi ces around the ‘neighbourhood concept’ that off ers employees the fl exibility to choose where they want to work from (Pic: Vivan Mehra)

Privacy is hard to find in open offices, but for some functions it is essential. There is much that cannot be discussed when colleagues are within earshot. Directors usually manage very large teams. At Kronos India, their 800 people report to 25 directors. "If a team director wants to have a private conversation with a member, he/she cannot be expected to go hunting for a private corner," says Burman of Kronos. The company accordingly has provided private cubicles to its directors in all offices across the globe.

Assortment of spaces

Far from confining their employees to standardised open offices, some companies have gone the extra mile to make them comfortable at work. Adobe studied its employee behaviour and realised on average they spend only 30 per cent of their time at the desk. "The key to empowering employees is to give them options from where they can work, just as they have at home," says Sethi of Adobe. "At our office, employees can choose whether they want to hold their meeting in the huddle room or in the terrace garden. Though we have brought down the earlier walls in our office, we have trebled the number of meeting rooms."

Microsoft India, too, has a similar format, which it calls Neighbourhood concept. They have focus rooms, quiet zones, phone booths, technology assistance rooms and meeting rooms - all of them designed around the seating clusters. An employee has the flexibility to choose where she wants to work from - to make a long phone call, for instance, she can step into a phone booth, where she will remain uninterrupted and unheard by colleagues.

LinkedIn has developed height-adjustable workstations. The employees can increase or reduce the walls of their cubicles at the click of a button

It is employer attitude that matters more than costs - taking pains over designing office space for employee benefit is not necessarily expensive. "It may not always reduce the cost per seat, but the cost per person may come down because the utilisation of space is being optimised," says Kaushal of CBRE. The CBRE report Workplaces: Winning the War for Talent found that, compared to traditional office, doing away with fixed work stations, which employees resent, reduces cost by only 10-20 per cent, while designing the workplace according to activity brings down overall expense by 20-30 per cent.

Companies like Adobe and Microsoft have also sought to improve the environmental quality of the workplace, ensuring employees get enough sunlight and ventilation and providing natural landscaping within the premises. Adobe's Sethi says the idea is to break the corner-office paradigm, where only the senior and the favoured get the gift of sunlight. Now, work stations are near the glass facades and the meeting rooms and private spaces in the centre. There are also terrace gardens on the sixth and eighth floors. It even has a full time ergonomist to check employees' postures as they sit, and correct the chairs of those having problems.

To keep the environment healthy, Concentrix has used paints with low volatile organic content (VOC) on its walls and installed air-conditioners which manage indoor air quality. At LinkedIn India, even the installations and decorative appurtenances have a purpose. There are walls, for instance, with pencils and clipboards on them, encouraging employees to set down their random thoughts on them.

Hand-holding Employees

Concentrix has sound-proof panels doubling up as partitions between workstations (Pic: Vivan Mehra)

It is also a good idea to prepare employees before introducing major changes in office design. When Adobe India's new office was built, the global workplace team kept Indian employees informed about what to expect, posting pictures, providing live streaming of the construction site and seeking feedback. "At the time, I felt it was being overdone," says Abdul Jaleel,Vice President - Employee Experience, Adobe India. "But in hindsight I think it was a very good strategy." Microsoft India carried out a pilot project removing the walls around a few cubicles to get employees used to the forthcoming work environment. While making similar changes at its Korea office, it had a team from Korea work out of the India office to understand the value proposition of the new workplace. "A good workplace should support the way employees need to work to enable them to be productive," says Rathje of Microsoft.

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