Why the informal meeting space is an office must have
Informal workspace may once have been painted as all air hockey tables and beanbags when businesses started to experiment during the first dotcom boom.
It has taken time for the spirit typified by Google or Facebook to filter down to banks, global accountancy giants and law firms. But there are few modern offices across the world that remain untouched by the move towards some form of informality in workplace design.
“People are working less conventionally nowadays,” says John Symes, Director of Workplace at JLL in London. “This is why the semi-private spaces, secondary work-settings, work pods – whatever you want to call them – have developed. They facilitate collaboration which if you do that in a conventional environment you are stuck. Because if you collaborate at a desk it disturbs everyone around and if you collaborate in a meeting room then you take that space away from everyone else.”
Such informal spaces have become a way for companies to bring a bit of color and fun into the office from pods ‘designed to reference digital pixels in form and color’ at BBC North at MediaCityUK in Salford to Airbnb’s bedouin tent meeting spaces. However, context is key, says Symes, and companies have to be careful how they sell the idea of the collaborative workplace outside of the creative or start-up sector.
“If you stick a taxi cab in the middle of a financial services break out space, people would just feel uncomfortable. You have to think about who the workforce is and the culture of the organization. People often say ‘oh I want my office to be like Google‘. But when you sit and talk to them they understand that is not going to work,” he adds.
Despite these breakout spaces being informal – whether they are a coffee area, library or sofa space – there are still practicalities that need to be addressed. For example, no one will use the space for long if there is no access to laptop charging, good wifi or space to throw up a flip chart or scribble notes.
Equally, spaces intended for short-term use can easily be commandeered by employees settling in for the day. “You need to make these spaces intuitive, in other words you walk into there and you immediately know how to behave,” he says. Millennials may get the concept right away, but companies can’t afford to alienate workers more used to cubicle-based working.
They also have to address fears about the use of informal spaces for discussing more business sensitive material. “There is a danger with some of the more wacky and badly located spaces that people can look at them suspiciously or can be concerned they are exposed,” says Symes.
Getting employees involved in the design and running of spaces can help to integrate such areas into office life and ensure they’re used in the collaborative way they’re intended to be.
“It’s good to do workshops and agree etiquette with the eventual users where they generate and self-manage the rules for use,” says Symes. “You can monitor its use, perhaps by utilization sensors in the space, to get real understanding of how it is being used and then target things like behavior workshops to increase use.”