7 Things To Know About Shared Workspaces

Shared workspaces (including hot-desking) is a hot topic, pun intended. Now, there are a number of reasons why an organization may choose to go-forward with something like this. These may include their cost-savings benefits, giving their organization a modern face-lift to attract a younger workforce, or even their inherent flexibility in accommodating a fluctuating workforce (aka telecommuters). Based on my own research and experience in these types of set-ups, the best staff performance is when organizations either thoroughly and thoughtfully manage the change (for the ‘face-lift’ analogy) with long-standing employees or when the open workspace concept has always been integral to an organization so it attracts those who would like to work this way. Considering how popular and commonplace shared workspaces are today their overall impact on the people who work in them is under researched! Read below to see our 7 Things you need to know about the shared office environment…

7 Things To Know About Shared Workspaces

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1. Let’s First Start Off With Their Benefits.

Shared spaces, including hot-desks can be very alluring to many organizations since they seem to be all the rage today with the cool start-up culture (hey, doesn’t Facebook work this way?). Note: I am aware that I am dating myself by saying this phrase… The benefits of an impeccably managed shared office environment can definitely make these types of workspaces seem extremely desirable. For your interest, here are some of the general benefits that research has indicated to be associated with this type of work layout:

  • Greater employee satisfaction
  • Projecting an image of being modern and forward thinking
  • Improving flexibility in the use of the physical space
  • Enabling closer working relationships
  • Higher productivity
  • More easily exchanged knowledge and skills
  • Increased networking opportunities
  • Cost-savings (office space can be high cost)

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2. But, Not Everyone Will Benefit.

While they may look futuristic, they lack coziness, comfort, and privacy. The collaboration is working, but at the expense of productivity for tasks that require quiet concentration.

These are just some of the consequences of a less-than-optimal shared workspace system. As work becomes more shared for some it can increase cognitive demands without any increase in their benefits. This has BIG implications on a person’s performance and this issue must be throughly addressed (see point 6 for more information)Research has shown the following negative outcomes associated with shared workspaces:

  • Distraction being significantly worse in all the shared office arrangements when compared to those working at home or on the road
  • Non-productive behaviours including uncooperative, increased distrust, increased negative interpersonal relationships, higher social liabilities
  • Supervisor support decreases as work environments become more shared; associated with lower quality supervisor/manager relationships.
  • While some employees may tolerate ambient noise from office equipment, overhearing the conversations of others (inevitable in open plan workspaces) is a significant task distraction and source of irritation
  • Reduced privacy  
  • Can increase employees’ use of coping strategies such as withdrawal  

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3. Seriously Reconsider Lifting The Ban On Personal Items. Seriously. 

Personal space allows staff to store meaningful pictures and/or other belongings. There is an almost innate desire to do this for some. So much so that research has found that not allowing staff to do so can potentially inhibit performance. Research has found that banning the personalization of work or implementing a ‘clear desk policy’ has little obvious benefit yet has potentially negative consequences to an organization. In my experience, clear desk policies are usually the wish of (usually expensive) interior designers for aesthetic purposes for when there is merely an open workspace. If space is truly shared such as when hot-desking is involved and staff must vacate their workspace regularly throughout the week, limiting personal items can serve a function. For the hot-deskers lockers can be added to common areas or lounges to store personal items, equipment and hard copies. It should be noted that there is a threat to an employee’s identity if a shift from a traditional to a more open concept layout eliminates that personal space; no longer can they personalize their workspace with photos of loved ones or hobbies that they enjoy. It can even reduce positive emotion, increase stress and lower the sense of control that the employee experiences at work. Ideally, there should be some sort of compromise to allow some sort of personalization to those who have a strong desire to do so. 

4. Limit Visual and Auditory Distractions Whenever Possible.

Noise can be incredibly distracting. Visual and auditory distractions are some of the most common grievances I hear about open concept systems. If the shared workspace has cement floors instead of carpet and is a large open space then there is obviously very little that can be done to affect the noise level of the system. On this note, I have consulted to modern offices where the loudest area (the kitchen) was placed in the direct centre of the working space with almost no sound barriers. So, if someone was having a boisterous conversation in the kitchen trust me, the entire office would hear about it. 

There is some practical advise that you can incorporate to reduce visual and auditory distractions. Many of these solutions are relatively low cost and flexible to improve worker well-being. Visual distractions can be limited by using panels, bookshelves, or ‘green’ walls of plants (aka living wall systems). Auditory distractions can be limited by using noise cancelling headphones, providing dedicated quiet and loud spaces, masking sound by using white noise, and by retrofitting sound absorbing materials such as partitions and carpets.

5. A Variety Of Collaboration Areas Are KEY.

Research has found that bookable and break-out (aka lounges) are a must in any open concept workspace. They also serve as a benefit to improve both the visual and auditory distractions, as mentioned above. Break-out rooms must be inviting, cozy, and comfortable. Why? Well they are integral to the function of an organization. They allow staff to freely associate and be creative, for starters. On top of that, business processes can be enhanced as staff don’t have to worry about disrupting their colleagues when they are on conference calls or are engaging in some sort of group work or other collaborations. 

6. Trial And Ask For Feedback Before Making It Permanent.

A thoroughly and thoughtfully managed shared office system is extremely important for staff performance. This is where ergonomics comes into the picture of testing and evaluating a variety of set-ups with staff. A participatory approach with staff will give the best results at the same time as getting key employee buy-in and feedback. I’ve used this approach countless times in a variety of industries. Engaging with staff will add time to the process and this time requirement should be taken into account by management when considering the shift from a traditional to an open concept set-up. The benefits outweigh the costs, in my opinion. 

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7. Dedicated Time For Supervisor Or Team Meetings.

One of the drawbacks of using an open concept design is the perception of disconnectedness with supervisors or management, even though everyone shares a common workspace. 

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This article is based off the research of Morrison, R. & Macky, K. (2017). The demands and resources arising from shared office spaces. Applied Ergonomics. 60, 103-115.

Through the administration of countless assessments in both private and public sectors, Darcie has gained a wealth of knowledge and built a successful practice in the field of ergonomics. She has extensive expertise in conducting office ergonomics assessments in large scale workplaces for all different types of scenarios, from simple adjustments to incredibly complex cases. Darcie also has vast experience in delivering training presentations on the various aspects of ergonomics “best practices” in the workplace. Darcie is a Certified Professional Ergonomist through the Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics, as recognized by the International Ergonomics Association. She also has a Masters of Science, specializing in ergonomics. A little known fact about Darcie is that she once scored from half, off a free kick, in a university varsity soccer (football) match!

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