At the 2018 Orgatec fair in Germany, an exhibition dedicated to office furniture, most of the manufacturers introduced acoustic pods, boxes, micro-offices, phone booths, cubicle nouveau, and huddle rooms. There was no single name for all of these products, but they all aimed to fix the most common problem in open-plan offices – noise pollution.
In the 2000s, open offices certainly had a cachet, as a pointed rejection of the ’90s cubicle culture. They were meant to increase collaboration. Prized by start-ups, these build-outs were also less expensive than traditional offices, allowing more people to fit into a smaller space. Open offices were essentially viewed as “sardine cans” that offer a bohemian environment and a casual perception of the employment terms with the employer rather than a legal contract. They seemed cool until more research led to the revelation of their psychological and social costs.
“While togetherness at work is vital for value creation, in excess, it’s a killer,” says Ali Maarrawi, general manager of OFIS, the UAE-based furniture and flooring solutions provider. “The harder people work collaboratively, the more important it is to also have time alone — to be free from distractions. People also need privacy to decompress and recharge.”
A recent study done at the University of California shows that office workers are interrupted as often as every three minutes by digital and human distractions, while it can take as much as 23 minutes to refocus on the task at hand.
The way forward, according to Maarrawi, is “not to stop collaborating face-to-face, but to refine the way we do it.” Instead of providing only open-plan work settings, Maarrawi urges organisations to “create spaces in which people are free to circulate and interact in different settings, and then be able to disappear into private spaces when they need to focus or be alone”.
One of the oldest furniture suppliers in the UAE, OFIS has recently implemented a similar concept in its refurbished showroom and workspace in Dubai’s Oud Metha.
“Investing in acoustic pods or phone booths is far more cost effective rather than building a separate meeting room,” continues Maarrawi. “And these booths or pods seamlessly fit in an existing open plan environment if meetings rooms or private spaces were not created initially.”
According to him, an average worker has a third less space in their office than they did just a decade ago. Booths can turn a particularly wide hallway into a row of short-term private offices. Private offices can bring back the efficiency lost to open floor plans, at least intermittently. Utilising unused square footage to accommodate more employees while also giving them a more efficient workspace is like an office-design double dip.
Changes in work culture
In today’s work environments, it is quite common to have up to four different generations working together, which influences furniture design, catering not only to different ways of working scenarios, but also to different age groups.
The expectations of an “ideal” workplace vary greatly, making it challenging for businesses to find solutions for such a broad range of demands.
“It has become evident by now that many of those new ideas are no short-lived fads, but increase the productivity and with it, the turnover of businesses,” explains Susanne Weber, ergonomics consultant for the European furniture manufacturer, Dauphin HumanDesign Group. “In this process, it is important to find out which tasks are performed by how many people, which tools they use, and what kind of schedules are established and useful for the business,” explains Weber.
“From those data we derive how many workplaces are needed in which area to enable all employees to be productive at all times.”
Some departments are about focused work, others are centered on communication and are comparatively noisy. “It is, of course, not recommended to locate such departments next to each other.” A study by German-based workplace business organisation, Interior Business Association (IBA), echoes this recommendation and stresses the importance of good acoustics as well as of spaces designed for focussed work. Sofas with acoustic screens and electricity connections such as the new, modular system, Dauphin Reefs, make great buffer zones between them. They provide workspaces for mobile employees who do not need their “own” desk and for quiet chats in small groups.
Smart workplace concepts
Room-in-room-solutions like the “Bosse human space cube 4.0” are a great fit for modern workspaces as they can be transformed from creative spaces to team offices and conference rooms in a few minutes.
Inarguably, modern open-space solutions have many advantages, especially when task-oriented work environments are combined with areas that are equipped for specific tasks. Nevertheless, they believe that ergonomics should never be neglected in favour of visual appeal.
With so many brands in the market offering similar solutions, the main features such as ventilation, ease of assembly, the possibility to move them even in mounted state, and quality sound absorption, make a difference in their overall performance and impacts the wellbeing of office workers. “In the long run, the wellbeing of employees is one of the most important success factors in any business,” concludes Maarrawi.