Not just for living in: The rise of the office neighborhood

There are many factors to consider when designing an office and implementing a functional office model. Our workplace impacts productivity, collaboration, employee wellbeing, talent retention, real estate costs, and more, so it’s important to get it right.

And there are challenging decisions to make to ensure it happens — especially now for an ever-changing workforce. 

For example, how do we reconcile the need to reduce office space to save on costs with providing enough space for a healthy, welcoming environment for employees? How do we support a diverse workforce with different roles, needs, and working styles, and who may have very different preferences and views on the office they want (or don’t want) to work in?

One approach that some organizations are taking is to introduce office neighborhoods, which balance the need to standardize and streamline office design while also providing flexibility to support varying working styles and the needs of different groups of employees. The ultimate goal is to support collaboration, community, productivity, and wellbeing.

What are office neighborhoods?

Think about a city and the different neighborhoods across its districts. Each neighborhood has its own individual character, identity, and sense of community, but is still very much part of that larger city. A neighborhood will have a variety of local amenities and places to go and citizens may spend most of their time there, but they will also travel to the city center and to other neighborhoods.

Office neighborhoods bring these same concepts to the workplace, with different areas of your office supporting varying sets of employees or activities. An office neighborhood might be based around:

  •   Divisions, departments, and teams who may work together regularly
  •   Different types of activities and individual working styles
  •   Company or department-wide projects and initiatives 

What does an office neighborhood contain?

Like a city neighborhood, an office neighborhood has its own “local” amenities and areas including desks, meeting rooms, informal collaboration areas, places for study or quiet working, working pods, whiteboards, and areas to relax. Ideally, an office neighborhood provides a good balance between open plan and intimate spaces and supports a range of different working modes and styles.

There are also likely to be hot desks within a particular neighborhood, although there could also be fixed desks for specific roles. The proportion of hot desks will vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, depending on “local” employee needs.

The balance between all these aspects could vary across neighborhoods, with changeable patterns of distributed work, requirements for collaboration and privacy, and even demographic profiles of neighborhood members. There may also be different décor, color schemes, and furniture to emphasize a particular identity and culture; technology organizations and sales divisions or support functions and lines of business can be very different. An office neighborhood is designed to support and nurture a sense of community and identity.

What are the benefits of neighborhoods?

1. Flexibility

When it comes to office design, one size does not fit all! Office neighborhoods avoid the bland uniformity of the fully open plan office and allow for much more flexible use of space, targeting the needs of particular groups and teams. It means you can target changes and improvements solely in the neighborhoods that require it and provide a more agile response to employee feedback. Neighborhoods can also be designed in response to organizational needs, supporting large projects, and even reacting to sudden crises.

2. Community

Furniture designer Steelcase carried out research that found a correlation between overall levels of employee engagement and how satisfied employees are with their workplace. Neighborhoods support engagement, wellbeing, and happiness, providing a sense of identity and character for a working space and driving a spirit of community. Having the same set of employees in one neighborhood provides familiarity and supports networking, particularly if your office has few fixed desks. Dedicated areas for impromptu and informal chats, as well as places to relax, can make a real difference here.

A familiar face, a pleasant working environment and a welcoming community spirit lifts the working day; this can be a vital ingredient in onboarding new employees and ensuring a smooth return to the office for those who are reticent about coming back.

3. Productivity

Recently, we examined the importance of optimizing employee productivity by supporting different types of work. Neighborhoods can be designed specifically to support the very best conditions for productivity by providing different spaces to match modes of work. For example, open-plan offices do not support the need for quiet time or privacy, so having access to closed spaces or working pods can be important. However, when these resources are fully centralized, they can get booked out; with office neighborhoods, you can provide more targeted spaces to suit the modes of work of different functions. Your IT function, HR team, legal department, sales division, and project teams are all going to have different working requirements for their space.

4. Driving collaboration

Office neighborhoods support collaboration with formal and informal meeting spaces and equipment such as whiteboards. They are also an excellent way to foster stronger collaboration between divisions, functions, departments, and teams that frequently work together, and can encourage more cross-functional collaboration.

Being located in the same office neighborhood means employees who are divided by org charts can get to know each other better and use common collaboration areas to work more closely on specific projects. A well-designed space can create the kind of serendipitous encounters that support informal collaboration.

5. Reducing space

The hybrid remote office provides an opportunity to rationalize office space. Office neighborhoods are a good compromise to introduce hot desking without having the “one size fits all” approach that can backfire by being unpopular with employees, or not support teams when they all want to be back in the office at the same time. A sales organization with a highly mobile workforce and an IT function with a high number of developers working in agile sprints are likely to have different needs. Office neighborhoods mean you can make the very best use of space without compromising on employee engagement or productivity, and provide flexibility and choice for where employees work.

Which companies have office neighborhoods?

Many leading companies have already implemented office neighborhoods. Groupon and Google have used offbeat designs including tiki huts and a speakeasy to give office neighborhoods a striking and fun identity. The Gerson Lehrman Group (GLG) has organized its New York headquarters into neighborhoods to gather together groups who are working on similar kinds of projects, with each neighborhood including a variety of different working spaces.

Uber is another high-profile company that has experimented with neighborhoods for communities of between 30 and 60 people. Microsoft also introduced office neighborhoods through their Workplace Advantage program. Detailed in the book “The Digital Renaissance of Work”, Microsoft set about creating office neighborhoods designed for 16 people at different parts of their Redmond campus, supporting flexibility and involving employees in the process.

What supports office neighborhoods?

Two essential ingredients for designing office neighborhoods are having access to data and involving employees.

Access to data

To be able to design office neighborhoods, you need data on working patterns, desk and meeting room utilization, and more. When the Harvard Business Review reported on the concept of office neighborhoods back in 2014, they pointed out the academic roots of office neighborhoods in “urban physics”, a discipline that takes a data-driven approach to understand the design of urban areas.

Effective office neighborhood design will take into account data surrounding everything from energy consumption and employee engagement, to desk utilization, wellbeing, and in-office collaboration patterns. When optimizing and streamlining space for different neighborhoods, the data provided by a desk reservation and team scheduling solution like OfficeTogether will prove absolutely essential.

Involving employees

Getting some input from your employees on the design of their neighborhood can drive a sense of ownership and community. Here, you could survey the attitudes of employees and then use feedback loops to drive ongoing improvement.

If your employees are able to influence and improve the office design with their feedback, this improves buy-in and perceptions of their working environment. Academic research indicates that when employees feel they have some control over their office environment, it can improve work attitudes and outcomes.

Martha Clarkson, the former Global Workplace Strategist at Microsoft, has said that involving employees in designing office neighborhoods supports success:

“When teams are enforcing their own ideas, it just works much better. It’s really important for groups to have that ownership and to be able to run the space as they want to.”

 

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Sash CampbellNot just for living in: The rise of the office neighborhood

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