Gregory Ronczewski is the Director of Product Design at TeamFit platform – view his profile on TeamFit

 

We spend quite a bit of time looking at the best team composition using skills, behaviours and talents to optimize project outcomes. Who works well with who? Which skills complement each other? What about experience? Have any of the team members worked together before and what was the result? A lot of analysis and prediction goes towards the choice of the team. After all, every company knows that their very existence and success depend on how well the work is done.

I would like to consider different factors will that influence the performance of even the best teams. We need to look beyond skills and behaviours. Let’s start with the workspace and the workplace, the location where the work takes place.

Most modern office spaces are based on an open space concept. According to Lucy Kellaway—a UK expert on workspaces—this is not an emerging trend but something much older. It started when the first, large office buildings were erected at the end of the 19th century. She points to three key factors contributing to the popularity of the open space idea. First, there is a symbolic impact – a firm wants to impress their clients with a grand space and an immediate effect of hundreds of people working together. One may see the influence of architecture and design of churches from the medieval times. Many advertising agencies in the 90s opted for the same punch effect. Even now, look at the Google campus, or Apple for that matter. How much of the effort is channelled towards the improvement of the working environment and how much is there purely to impress? Secondly, open spaces are much cheaper to construct. The biggest challenge was (and still is) access to light. Many building codes describe in fine detail the distance of the working space from a source of natural light. In the open space office, this problem is much reduced. And lastly, in the open space environment, the manager can see very well what’s going on. There is no place to hide. The last point, however, contradicts the idea of shared goals and objectives, but this directive came much later. Before that, we started to see the arrival of dreadful cubicles. Designer Robert Propst created the first office cubicle for Herman Miller. It was released in 1967 under the name “Action Office I” followed shortly by “Action Office II.” The idea behind was to address issues related to the open working environment where everyone was distracted. Pretty soon, the cubicle becomes a synonym for the worst possible work setting. People who operate in the cubicle offices needed to acquire many non-work related skills merely to be able to exist not to mention complete their assignments. It is an excellent example of how architecture and design can influence the social landscape and behaviour of people who are placed in it.

To keep the economic benefits of an open space and overcome the cubicle syndrome, many interior designers started to use glass walls to divide the area. It worked well, especially with the concept of being “transparent,” however, the reality shows that often if someone needs to have a private discussion, the best option is to leave the office.

What about the productivity? The effects of working together. When the concept was introduced, the point was that people from different disciplines working together would stimulate each other. According to researchers from the University of Sydney (Richard de Dear and Jungsoo Kim) after experimenting with two groups of people, working in the open office and separate spaces, found that the level of happiness was much higher in the separate office group. Happiness may not be the best indicator, but also, the separate office group was much more efficient in the same tasks. A similar study was done by Professor Eric Sundstrom from the University of Tennessee (1982). He came up with the same results – the lack of privacy at work in the open space concept overpowers the benefits from collaboration. Although these studies clearly show that personal space is a significant factor in the overall performance, I believe that a shared space “owned” by the team combined with some personal space should be considered for the best project outcome. A flexible space that can adapt to the needs of the team. Many new concepts for the office space include movable partitions, furniture that can be re-arranged. A fluid space so to speak. To take advantage of this, the team needs to develop another set of skills. Skills that support a non-biased exchange of ideas, open-mindedness and, of course, a good dose of empathy.

 

 

There is yet another trend that affects the typical working arrangement – working from home. “We don’t care where you are as long as the job is done.” More and more, this option becomes a highlight of how a job is presented to an applicant. On the one hand, this is fantastic. How refreshing it is to be able to work from home. Well, is it? In one of my previous posts, I wrote about the Micro Loft concept and a living space of 291 square feet. Perhaps the occupant is a young professional with no family to share the area with. But even if you look at a one bedroom apartment – the most popular form, I think – the home office usually finds its way to… the bedroom. The place which was meant to be your private refuge. Working from home consists of connecting to the web and have conference calls, so in a way, the work invades your private space on a much deeper level. And of course, there is a need to develop new behaviours, new skills and unique abilities. Working from home not only affects the worker but let’s not forget about the effects on the family. Suddenly, children need to be quiet or leave the room because there is an important call. Dinner plans changes, even the decor of the area facing the laptop camera is often adjusted to project different impression. And of course, the study on the open space vs. private and the efficiency applies to work-from-home as well. It also requires many skills that are not needed in the office environment. One should be very cautious about the benefits of working remotely in the context of a dedicated space—not the bedroom, not the bathroom, but the home office if you can organize one—which offers the right amount of privacy, motivation, concentration, planning and efficiency. Don’t get me wrong. I am writing this post at home. It is way past the office hours into the night and I enjoy this setting. And lastly, being able to spend time with your child is priceless regardless of any inconveniences.

In a way, we are coming back to where we started a few centuries ago. A blacksmith or any other artisan or craft person, for that matter, lived and worked in the same space. People left this schema to separate the work from the place where they live. We saw a rapid development of the business facilities and the factories on one side, and the construction of suburban living spaces. With the increased commute time and the pressure on the effectiveness, the gap between where we work and live closes again. All I am saying is that apart from the skills, behaviours and talents, many factors will affect the outcome of a project and the working environment is one that we should be paying attention to. It can dramatically alter the outcome.