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Collaboration & Team Management

How to get the most out of a small office layout

Physical work space is one of the most important elements of a work environment. It’s so important that in one study, 79% of employees linked their environment to their job satisfaction. But the small office layout is more challenging than a more generous office space. The reduced space makes it even harder to organize the layout in an efficient way, in a way where team members are empowered to do the best job that they can possibly do.

So what can employers do to make sure that their team members have the best possible place to work in?

To answer this question, let’s first see what’s important to workers. In a 2001 research paper called Disproving widespread myths about workplace design, Michael Brill and his colleagues identified ten of the most important office space qualities. Here they are in order of importance:    

  1. Ability to do distraction-free solo work
  2. Support for impromptu interactions
  3. Support for meetings and undistracted group work
  4. Workspace comfort, ergonomics and enough space for work tools
  5. Workspace side-by-side work and “dropping in to chat”
  6. Located near or can easily find co-workers
  7. Workplace has good places for breaks
  8. Access to needed technology
  9. Quality lighting and access to daylight
  10. Temperature control and air quality

You can see how all of these attributes contribute to making people comfortable both in their social interactions with co-workers and in their ability to do solo work.

So the ideal office space needs to give people a degree of privacy (for both alone and group work), but it also has to encourage collaboration – a tricky balance to pull off. 

One important factor that most team leaders don’t consider is actually asking team members what they need, what they’re lacking in their work environment and what elements could help them do their work better. In a US News article, John Vogel writes: 

During the course of my career, I have occupied over a dozen different workspaces for a variety of for-profit, nonprofit and university employers. Not once was I formally asked if I liked my office or if it was adequate for the type of work I do. In fairness, when I was the boss, I did not ask my employees if their workspace met their needs, even when moving into new space.

So why not ask your team members, if they are the ones inhabiting the space anyway? Depending on the size of your team, you might want to do an anonymous poll and see what your team members are missing. 

There are other considerations to keep in mind as well. For example, a low ceiling can encourage analytical thinking, whereas a high ceiling can encourage creativity. Colour and light can also affect how we think and the way we approach tasks.

In her blog post Office Layouts and Productivity, Elizabeth Gaitlin writes about what she found out during an office remodel assignment. By talking to all of the employees, she noticed that younger employees desired connectivity and personal privacy, while older employees wanted an office space free of auditory distractions such as other’s music and conversations. This anecdote proves the need to communicate with your team members to find out what they need. 

But even so, there are still things that you can do to improve your small office layout now. One way is to incorporates design elements with strategic placement of minimalist furniture.

In a small office space, less is more. You have more space to connect teams, and the ability to make the most of even the smallest square footage. 

These 3 agile office space savers foster teamwork with a flexible ease and simplicity:

Design & Desk Space

The simple act of strategic desk placement can have the biggest impact on team productivity. Once again, these should be set up depending on what your team’s priorities are. Here are four basic layouts: 

Paired Islands 

Desks are scattered in facing pairs like islands within an open-concept room. Rotate the pairs on a monthly basis so that employees build close working relationships with everyone on their team.

Assembly Line

Desks are lined up side-by-side along the length of the room in rows. For some spaces, this will feel far too cramped, and perhaps more like a factory than a space for collaboration. Have your rows face each other to at least build a debate-style set up for conversation and ideation.

Blocked Seating

Desks are typically arranged in groups of 4, much like the paired island structure. A great set-up for team-based collaboration, but beware of the siloed groups that can potentially form. Mitigate any isolation by rotating this formation on a quarterly basis (just like HubSpot does) so that different groups can take shape.

The Bullpen 

Desks form an inner-facing circle (or rectangle) so that you can get the most face time with everyone on your team. Think of the bullpen as the campfire or circle of trust for your team. Gather around, throw ideas back and forth, and bask in the creativity that ensues.

Since we know by now that open office spaces are not really conducive to productivity, you might want to find a way to place dividers between desks. in order to improve privacy. 

Fixtures & Focal Points

Every office needs an area conducive to communication, dedicated to teamwork. Establish a feature wall with these go-to team-builders:

The whiteboard 

Shake up the space and get everyone out of their seats for some amount of time every day. Having a visual focal point that everyone can focus on together provides a welcome break from solitary desk time.

The roundtable

In corporate settings, the boardroom is a typical place for convening and collaborating, so why not bring the boardroom to your office? A small round table situated to the side of the desk area allows teams to share ideas in a more intimate and informal setting.

The monitor

There’s nothing worse than crowding around someone’s desk to see what they’re working on, especially if space is already tight as it is. A presentation monitor draws everyone’s attention and allows team members to properly showcase their projects for feedback. But make sure the monitor is mounted on a wall if you’re already strapped for space as it is. 

Movement & mobile furniture

When space is limited, you can make the most of it by maximizing flexibility. Functional and forward-thinking solutions will keep your space fresh. 

Moveable desks

Desks on wheels: who would have guessed that something so simple could transform a team environment? Embraced by business accelerators and start-ups alike, the mobile desk means working with whomever you want, whenever you want.

Collapsible meeting space

No room for a roundtable? No problem. Invest in an ergonomic-friendly standing table that can double as a back saver or simply collapse a round table and pull up your chairs for meeting time.

Expand your space 

If the office is starting to feel stale, head outdoors for a meeting in the park, work in your local coffee shop for a few hours, or do a walking meeting. You’ll come back to the office ready to embrace the structure and productivity it affords after a welcome space break.

Like everything else in life, office space is what you make of it. Furniture, seating structures, and focal points can define how your office space is being used, and can improve the space for your team members. 

If something isn’t working in your current space, don’t be afraid to try new office layouts. Keep re-defining your space until your team finds what works.

Defining the design of your office space will be a naturally collaborative process offering a great chance for everyone to share ideas.

Looking for more inspiration? Check out these ultimate office layouts.

Photo credit: David Wall, cc

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