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Striking the balance between collaboration and concentration through office design

By Jake Third, Client services director



The Drum Network article

This content is produced by The Drum Network, a paid-for membership club for CEOs and their agencies who want to share their expertise and grow their business.

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October 15, 2019 | 10 min read

According to research, UK employees have the longest working week in the EU, averaging at 42.3 hours.

office picture

Hallam on how an office's layout and design can affect a business' productivity.

Whilst we don’t advocate this at Hallam, we do believe that the number of hours we spend at work highlights the importance of nurturing an office environment that promotes a balance of collaboration and concentration.

45% of all working days in the UK are lost due to stress-related illnesses, yet 74% of workers believe their workplaces don’t have spaces where they are able to relax.

That same survey found that 54% of workers don’t have private spaces they can go to at work, and 45% of people think their business actively fails to promote collaborative work - which isn’t good news at all.

Having recently taken over the third floor at our offices, the extra space we’ve gained has enabled us to redesign our layout, to incorporate collaboration spaces, and areas that employees can go when they need to concentrate.

If you’re looking to redesign your office, to strike a balance of concentration and collaboration, then these are the things you need to consider.

Is open-plan really the best solution?

Over the years, offices around the world have seen the shift from private cubicles to open-plan layouts, to encourage collaboration between employees. Yet, this hasn’t always happened in practice - and this is sparking another change.

In fact, workplaces have claimed that an open plan space has reduced face-to-face communication, with employees switching to instant messaging software and emails instead. One of the main reasons for this is the fact that 56% of employees regularly wear headphones in the office. When asked why, the two most popular responses were to avoid talking to coworkers, and to cancel outside noise.

If you need to ask someone a question and you notice they’re wearing headphones, you can understand why you’d want to drop them an email instead.

It’s time to rethink your office layout

We aren’t saying for one second that it’s time to bring back the cubicles. Indeed, our offices are open plan, because they do to an extent, encourage communication and collaboration amongst others.

However, we would be wrong not to take into account stats from reports such as this one, which shows that out of 10,000 workers surveyed, 85% were unhappy with their open-plan workplace.

Therefore, in addition to our open-plan style desks, we created breakaway areas on all three of our floors where teams can get together for content ideation sessions and other meetings where they can collaborate together, and get their creative juices flowing.

We’ve increased the number of meeting rooms we have as well, to avoid the risk of meeting rooms being double-booked; and we’ve introduced a war room exclusively for our creative team, which they can jump in if there is a specific project they all need to work on together ASAP.

We’re also looking at turning one of the meeting rooms into a quiet space, that employees can go to, to get some headspace when they need it. Plus, with numerous beanbags and tables situated around the office, we wanted to enable employees to get away from their desks and avoid distractions whenever they need to.

It’s all about the acoustics

One of the main issues with open-plan offices is the levels of noise, which leads to the average employee losing 86 minutes a day due to distractions.

However, an office that’s silent is just as bad. Playing background music on a low volume means employees don’t feel too self-conscious to talk, yet it doesn’t break concentration levels.

Carpeted floors can also help to reduce noise, and you could even consider freestanding screens at the edge of every desk to stop noise from travelling.

At Hallam, we host several breakfast briefings and talks at our offices throughout the year; and by increasing our office size, we’re now able to host these in a dedicated space away from desks, so that employees can continue to work without being distracted.

Encourage wellbeing through office dogs

Reed found that 8% of UK offices let workers bring their dogs into work, and we’re proud to say we’re one of them!

It’s no surprise that petting animals can help to reduce stress levels, but office dogs can also encourage employees to get some fresh air on their lunch breaks so they can take the dogs for a walk - enabling them to more productive in the afternoon, and improve their wellbeing.

We introduced our bring your dog to work policy last year, and have a calendar where employees can book in days for bringing their dog in - we just request that we only have one dog per floor!

We’ve found that when there is a dog in the office, employees’ moods are lifted, as they are encouraged to take a step back from potential stresses.

Interestingly, there’s been reports in Japan that some companies now have rescue cats in their office; and they curl up on employees’ laps and desks. Despite having a number of cat lovers in our office, we’ve yet to introduce that policy… we can only imagine the chaos that would be caused by having cats and dogs in the office at the same time!

Bring the outdoors indoors

The term biophilia refers to the uncontrollable desire that humans have to be connected with nature, and we believe this should extend to your office space - as statistics show.

The University of Technology in Sydney found that for people who worked in offices with plants, their feelings of anxiety decreased by 37%, fatigue by 38%, hostility by 44% and depression by 58%.

Research from The University of Exeter went one step further, and found that employees working in offices with plants were 15% more productive, helping to reduce stress levels.

We’ve had plants in our offices for years, because they brighten the space up, and subconsciously help us to improve our mindfulness. If you’ve yet to introduce plants into your office, then we’d recommend doing so ASAP!

Flexible working is expected

We live in a world where flexible working is considered the norm, and isn’t just a perk anymore. In fact, by 2030, it’s predicted that flexible working will contribute to £148 billion of the UK’s economy.

Breakaway spaces in the office encourage collaboration, but enabling employees to work from home - or work around the standard 9am-5pm when needed - can really help with wellbeing.

By 2020, it’s predicted that half of the UK’s workforce will work remotely, and it’s something we’ve offered to our employees for years. In fact, we recently updated our policy so that everyone at Hallam has an unlimited number of working from home days - we just ask that they get sign off from their manager, and add it to their calendar so that colleagues know they aren’t in the office.

Working remotely can help to increase concentration levels, if employees want to stay at home and work towards a deadline without the distractions of an open-plan office; increasing productivity levels by up to 16%.

Promoting the culture of collaboration and mindfulness

While office design may lay out the foundations for striking a balance between collaboration and mindfulness; to truly embrace it, you must build this into your culture.

One way we are doing this at Hallam, is through a range of wellbeing initiatives. Our wellbeing committee actively meet up to discuss the implementation of new policies and ideas. As a result, we will soon be rolling out pilates classes, creative art classes and “grub club”, where employees take it in turn to cook for one another.

Several of our employees have trained to be mental health first aiders, where they have learnt about the signs and symptoms of a broad range of mental health issues, and how to support and have non-judgmental conversations with other colleagues who may be showing signs, or just need someone to talk to.

With the Samaritans our chosen charity for 2019, mindfulness and wellbeing is extremely important to us as a company; having raised over £15,000 for them so far this year.

Ultimately, for a workplace to thrive, you need to provide employees with areas they can collaborate within, and spaces they can escape to, when then they need to concentrate. While we’ve started to introduce both types of areas into our office layout, we hope that the new initiatives we introduce over the next few months and into 2020 will help to continue achieving this balance, whilst ensuring we are mindful of each and every one of our employees’ wellbeing.

Jake Third, client services director at Hallam.


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