Tips & Advice

Think IKEA – And Reclaim Your Workspace

Photo of Holger Reisinger
February 3, 2015
Reading time
4 minutes

Accidental noise, gigantic rooms, and humming machinery all stand between you and productivity. Getting the office plan right is your key to a dynamic and productive workplace, which is fit for human habitation.

“I am sure you can hear the drop of a coin on the concrete floor at least 25 feet from where it landed.” I could hear the despair in his voice. My friend Michael’s company just got new offices – beautiful, but very spacious, new offices – and now he is having a difficult time getting the soundproofing and the decoration of his very large industrial open plan office to work. I have just been on the phone with him, offering to go with him to IKEA for some basic supplies, and help with ideas to mask the sound and lines of sight in his new space, before his 75 employees make the move.

Office layout planning and soundproofing is one of the challenges of business life. It is no longer just about getting a table, a chair, and a set of drawers for each employee and put it in a room. Today’s open plan offices take a bit more planning, if you want your staff to feel invigorated by the office environment, or indeed, if you expect your people to get anything done during the day.

According to design writer Renee Young’s book, A sound business plan (designing better acoustics for today’s open offices) Building Design & Construction, “Over 70 percent of office workers say that a reduction in noise would increase their productivity.” This does not surprise me one bit. Actually, I have seen similar survey results in our own research. Most of the sounds around us are accidental, street noise, colleague chatter and machines like the Xerox humming away. When you lay out the office plan, you need to take this into consideration, so that you only get the noise you want and not accidentally end up in the office equivalent of Grand Central Station. Fortunately, it does not have to be very difficult to make your office work.

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Granted – IKEA is often noisy, crowded, and relatively better known for testing relationships than for office layout. But the Swedish furniture chain does one thing particularly well, which every office planner can learn from: they exploit every square inch of space to create a comforting and homey feeling, without mindlessly cramming items into a room.

Planning, planning and people

Now, I am not telling you to feng shui your office, but you need to keep a couple of things in mind when planning a space where human beings can thrive. Because even though we want to make the most out of the space available, there are basic human needs and psychological aspects to take into account. The environment has a huge impact on the way we work at the office, and a little interior design nudging can form a basis for the behavior you want to encourage.

The four behaviors you need to look out for and encourage are stimulation, socialization, belonging, and retreat. If you plan your office landscape based on those principles, you can create a productive environment. If not, then you may end up with a workplace where, in no time, your employees will beg to work from home or indeed, from the coffee shop across the street.

The office village

The Japanese have long worked with an open plan office technique, which did not make it to the West for years. They base it on the way water runs. The corridors have open spaces in each end, planned disruptions if you will, meant to create ripples and encourage the workers in the office to meet casually and create a dynamic environment; a comfortable environment.

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Similarly, you should consider placing the desks in ways that allow for collaboration in teams: open – but not so open that people are constantly disturbed. Here, line of sight is important. Break it often. Offer some shelter from the main walkways. Visual noise is as counter-productive as audible noise. In addition, you will tie the team closer together, if they get a space to call their own.

This brings me to the point about clean desk policies, originally invented to keep confidential documents out of sight. Pictures of babies and small personal items make your employees feel a sense of belonging, and no office needs to be so clean that it shows no sign of human habitation. I say allow it.

The possibilities are endless, but you have to think about people first. Therefore, when you get your new offices, I suggest you make sure that you get furniture that is flexible and can be reshaped. This is another good reason why I love IKEA, and why I am taking Michael there. I am sure we will find some great furniture to make his employees thrive.

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