How to Create a Productive Office Space

If you want to improve productivity in the office, start by considering the way you're using the available space.

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By Laura Entis • Jan 9, 2014

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Think about the way you and your employees work. Does the job require focus or collaboration? Most likely, it's a mixture of both.

Focus, for most, means quiet. It's hard to concentrate amid conversations about last night's football game or what happened at the office Christmas party. Collaboration, on the other hand, requires a very different environment: a space where employees can freely brainstorm, bounce ideas off one another, and go on conference calls without worrying about disturbing those around them.

This seems self-evident. So why are so many employees expected to focus in a loud room, or collaborate without the resources to do so effectively?

Unsurprisingly, they're not as productive as they could be. Gensler, a global design and architecture firm, found that three out of four knowledge workers surveyed were struggling to effectively balance focus and collaboration in their office environment.

Related: How to Transform Your Workspace With Color

Tricked-out, amenity-saturated offices like Google and Facebook may get all the attention when it comes to office design, but companies with a smaller budget can easily improve productivity by keeping these central points in mind.

Balance: Janet Pogue, a principal in Gensler's Washington, D.C., office, where she co-leads the firm's workplace practice is (unsurprisingly) not a fan of the cubicle model. "Having seated privacy is not a bad thing, but there are ways that you can do that without being boxed in from every side," she says. "I think the Dilbert world is gone."

She is a proponent of spaces that feel intuitive, "which enable you to seamlessly keep working." This doesn't have to mean an expensive re-design, but instead, outfitting available rooms with the right tools: pens and notepads and whiteboards in conference rooms, outlets throughout the office space so people take their laptops and break free of the desk. Fluidity is important. "That word, to me means, functionality," she says.

Related: 6 Inexpensive Ways to Help Employees Escape Cubicle Crush

Focus: Some elements of your employees' jobs inevitably require unadulterated focus. To be truly productive, they need to maintain a level of unbroken attention. That means every time a colleague stops by for a friendly chat, or a nearby conversation becomes a distraction, concentration is broken and valuable time and energy is lost. That's why Pogue recommends setting up a quiet space in your office where employees can go to avoid all distractions and disruptions. The typical cubicle, she notes, is anything but a quiet space - the cubicle design invites interruption (no doors) without blocking nearby sound.

In addition, designating a quiet focus room often means avoiding another common pitfall: an office where silence is enforced. Pogue sees this all the time. "People make the space too quiet. If you can hear a pin drop, it's not natural," she says. "You need to have a certain amount of buzz and energy in an office that cancels out that noise."

Choice: Pogue recommends empowering employees with as many options regarding where and how they do their work as possible. "Having the ability to pick up and move, or having the ability to signal to others 'don't interrupt me' by putting on headphones is really important."

Employers often think one solution will work for everyone. "If you look at the evolution of offices, we try to make things very universal...that assumes that we all work in the same way," Pogue says. In reality, individuals work differently, based on personality type (introverts versus extroverts) and job title. More senior positions, for example, "typically spend more time engaging in face-to-face collaboration or virtual collaboration, while somebody more junior may be spending more time in focus mode." Workspaces should reflect this reality, and provide different environments so each person can personalize the way they spend their day.

Interaction: One of the most important elements of designing any office space, says Pogue, is working to increase serendipitous mingling between employees who normally wouldn't interact.

Interacting with different kinds of people simulates conversations that can often lead to new ways of approaching a task or solving a problem. "We think about that a lot," she says. "How do we draw people together who wouldn't normally be drawn together?"

Like Steve Jobs (who was so insistent that employees bump into one another that he placed Pixar's single bathroom at the center of the building), Pogue recommends motivating people to leave their normal workspaces by making life a little less convenient. If a redesign is impossible, there are less costly ways to achieve the same effect. For example, at Gensler's own office, the "good" espresso machine is installed in a central location, so employees from different departments naturally congregate around the caffeine.

Related: What's the Top Benefit of Co-Working Spaces

And interaction goes beyond possible creative outcomes. "At the end of the day," Pogue says, "we want to feel like we are a part of a bigger whole." Studies have shown that even though most employees believe they focus better at home, most still want to come into the office every day. "Deep down, we're all social people," she says. "We all intuitively know it, but some organizations let real-estate cost get in the way of instead of realizing that people are the most important asset of any company." Ultimately, every worker should be a part of his or her workspace design.

Laura Entis
Laura Entis is a reporter for Fortune.com's Venture section.

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