Articles 9 min read

Workplace design must finally respect the singularity of worker needs & contexts by Karen Walker

The history of office design, and our Covid-19 working from home experiences, prove successful digital workplaces, rely on designing for psychosocial diversity and inclusion.

Open Office Workplaces

In 1939, probably the most famous open office workplace is born, when SC Johnson’s Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Administration Building is completed.

Decades ahead of his time, Wright employed innovative modular furniture and an open office plan to make the workspace more productive.”


By 1965, Robert Propst launched his Action Office furniture range.

Before our designs you either had a private office or you didn’t. And if you didn’t you were crammed into rows upon rows of desks in a big open room. We could have kept designing desks for those spaces but this was something else entirely. We wanted to liberate the common office worker from the tyranny of the open office. The vision was egalitarian.”

By providing privacy, limiting noise, and a huge range of shapes and configurations, for individuals to customise their workspace to their specific needs and preferences. From whom and what was in their line of sight, and even providing 55 years ago, choices between adjustable sitting and standing desks. Management loved it, and bought the customised furniture for their offices, and but wouldn’t invest in individualised workspaces for their employees. Hence the cubicle was born, much to Propst’s despair.

Not all organizations are intelligent and progressive. Lots are run by crass people. They make little, bitty cubicles and stuff people in them. Barren, rathole places.” Designer Robert Propst, Herman Miller furniture manufacturers, considered “the father of the cubicle.

We don’t have a lot of time on this Earth,” says the cubicle-dwelling protagonist of the great cult film “Office Space” (1999). “We weren’t meant to spend it this way.”

Hot Desks

In the 1980’s hot-desking begins. It’s back to the open office layout, except far, far worse, usually without as much personal space, or an assigned space to personalise. Also, without any privacy, limiting of noise, and any sense of personal safety, creating bullying and micromanagement issues. Managers embraced the reduced real estate costs, associated with more efficient space and occupancy management, whilst falsely selling the concept as benefitting human’s ability to work better together.

A 2018 Harvard Business School study found that open-plan offices actually lead to a 70% decrease in face-to-face communication (Bernstein & Turban, 2018). Constant noise can make you tired and feel a sense of sensory overload, making you less productive. Many people find that quiet or absolute silence is essential to their productivity.

People who work in an open-plan office had a deterioration in their perceived health and performance, and more absences due to illness. Everyone has their individual level of “people exposure” – how long you can be around people before you need time alone. Add to mix a coworker who is gaslighting you and sabotaging your career.” Dr Stephanie Sarkis

Activity-based Work Layouts

Later rebranded as ‘Activity Based Work’ layouts, offices started to resemble hotels, with a sprinkling of quiet cubicles, telephone boxes to make phone calls, random lounges, and a variety of meeting rooms, that are solidly booked out / rarely available. Meant to promote workers proactively moving between different workspaces, that suited their needs for the work at hand, research has shown that very few workers do switch their locations. Besides lack of availability, there’s also the time and productivity costs, of doing so.

Activity-based work assumes all employees work flexibly and will seek out a range of different spaces to undertake different tasks. These workspaces provide a range of work settings for different types of activities such as meetings, collaboration, private work, creativity and concentration. The flipside is workers have trouble finding privacy or concentrating.

Research shows that employees rarely, if ever, switch between different work settings. [It] creates social tensions between those who come into the office and use certain spaces regularly, and those who don’t. [And] it can create additional work, as workers must find and set up a workspace, move between locations, and then remove everything at the end of the day.”

Digital Workplaces

And somehow, we’ve ended up today, back in cubicles, except they’re virtual ones. With their own, unique, dehumanising effects and challenges, that continue to perpetuate the non-individualisation of workplaces.

Carolyn Reinach Wolf, a mental health lawyer, and NY Times contributor says, We are now starting to see “Zoom fatigue,” the term being used to describe the tiredness, anxiety, or worry resulting from overusing these virtual platforms. Video conferences are mentally exhausting. It is unnatural to have someone’s enlarged face extremely close to you with prolonged eye contact. Nonverbal cues are lost, distorted, or delayed. The expectation that we can have normal professional and social interactions this way is unrealistic.”

There’s something plain weird about a wall of faces staring out of the screen. That’s a blocker to empathy. In a real physical space, they would be turning towards each other, making eye contact, interacting with varying degrees of subtlety .. as opposed to a linear transmission of information.

Such relationships are established and smoothly maintained in the manner of people walking together, entering into spaces, marking transitions of focus, running through patterns of activity, noticing, gesturing towards and away from, in a way that gracefully manages the complexity of people and their differences. This comes so naturally to us in our everyday lives that we often don’t notice it happening. In videoconference tech, this just isn’t possible.”

Australian remote Worker digital workplace experiences during Covid-19

In Australia, the so-called fourth industrial revolution, is here. Research highlighting that the global pandemic accelerated the adoption of digital technologies in 2020, to the extent that it equalled the equivalent of up to 10 years of historical rates. Digital technology enabled 3.2 million Australians to continue working during Covid-19.

However, the suddenly fully digital workplace for those working completely remotely during lockdowns, hasn’t been universally positive, productive or healthy. And the popular open plan and activity based office layouts, are an infection management risk, now, and for any future epidemics and pandemics.

Of those Australian organisations implementing a digital workplace without any other supporting non-digital workplace practices, only 13% reported productivity improvements. Compared to almost 3 times the productivity outcomes for those that did.

Implementing Workplace changes such as:|

  • Increased flexibility in working hours
  • New initiatives to boost social connectivity, physical and mental health
  • Increased investment in IT – tools, training, and support
  • New management and reporting structures
  • Increased staff pastoral care

Levels of productivity are related to levels of physical, social, mental, and emotional wellbeing. For Australians working from home, there were three differing experiences. A third experiencing lower productivity, a third of no change, and a third of higher productivity, according to research completed for Australia’s Fair Work Commission (FWC).

According the FWC research, and research by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), the majority of challenges for many, were psychosocial – lack of work/home boundaries, distractions, inability to switch off and stay motivated, loneliness, online communication and collaboration, and increased workloads.

But the rise of the digital workplace is here to stay, given the consensus on predictions of both workers and managers, who are ultimately the decision makers on the future of remote working.

Successful digital workplaces rely on designing for psychosocial diversity and inclusion

The opportunity for organisations to reduce their real estate costs are huge, with a whopping 39% of all jobs in Australia, estimated to be able to be performed from home.

Insights into to psychosocial individual contexts, preferences and needs as part of virtual work and workplace design, can be understood through various insights, as per the following model published in the Mental Health, Australian Government, Productivity Commission Inquiry Report. Volume 2, No. 95, 30 June 2020.

Such as levels of job demands – those events precipitated by the organisation’s characteristics (e.g., culture, managerial practices, communication styles, and specific task and role properties) that can create stress. Job demands such as these are referred to as psychosocial risk factors. High job demands require sustained effort and exhaust employees’ coping abilities, leading to energy depletion and long-term health problems.

And balancing these against levels of job resources – aspects of the work environment that, through their motivational potential, help employees to achieve their goals, as well as stimulating learning and personal growth and development. Variables such as these are considered to be contextual characteristics of the work environment that foster a supportive culture.

Insights should also include those personal contexts, such as their home as a work environment, and work / life balance.

A recent Australian Centre for Future Work report found only 77% of those working at home, indicated their workspace at home was appropriate and safe.

An Australian Institute of Criminology survey found the outcome of victims and offenders spending more time together, and other factors created by Covid-19 social distancing rules, resulted in coercive control abuse increased in frequency or severity for 47% of women who had experienced it previously.

A recent report by SAP ANZ found 1 in 4 of those working from home, did not have a computer desk, had internet network connectivity problems, and had limited private space, and 1 in 5 said they did not have an external monitor. Others reported being caregivers for elderly parents with dementia, meant keeping their cameras switched off, and being on mute during virtual meetings. Whilst others were embarrassed by their working circumstances at home, using fake backgrounds, or remaining on mute, due to background noise.

The FWC report found only 40% received guidelines in how to setup their home office.

The reality is for very individual and personal reasons, although their role maybe suitable for working from home, there will always be people who shouldn’t be required to do so, and some, for whom working 100% remotely maybe ideal.

Why the FWC recommends that working from home should be optional. Which opens the door to organisations providing locally available, digital workplaces for workers, small satellite workspaces that build community and social connections and support, for co-workers living and working in the same neighbourhood.

Insights on personal characteristics matter too. Responsibilities for ‘inclusion and diversity’ include neurodiversity, and within this concept, there is no normal, to which work and workplaces, should be designed. This encompasses dyslexia, ADHD and dyspraxia, as well as introversion and extroversion.

When it comes to being on the introversion / extroversion spectrum, ~33% are on each end of the spectrum, with ~33% in the middle. Open plan offices, and large group gatherings – physical or virtual – is exhausting for those at the introversion end of the spectrum. Just as working in isolation – physical or virtual – is energy depleting for those on the extraversion end of the spectrum.

At the heart of any user centric design, is designing for those individual, human needs and contexts. Which for digital, and any workplace, requires designing for individuals, not a one-sized-fits all approach.

Quoting Michael Fenlon, the chief people officer at PwC, the company “asked all of our teams to create well-being plans using the framework of mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being, where spiritual refers to having a sense of purpose. We provided tools and examples and asked everyone on the team to have both a personal goal and a team goal. We asked teams to visit progress against those plans on a regular basis. And we asked all of our leaders to lead from the front, to share goals they’re working on, and to serve as role models.”

Recent research by Deloitte in the UK found that the highest return on investment were mental health initiatives and interventions that were personalised – achieving between 8 – 10 pounds ROI for every pound spent.

Is this finally the moment for employers to finally act on lessons from the history of workplace design for knowledge workers, by acknowledging needs are individual and deeply personal? 

Lessons reinforced by the large-scale digital workplace experiment, the current global pandemic created.

personalising digital workplaces

I’ve been using psychosocial assessments with my clients whom have been working from home / fully digital workplaces, to identify their unique psychosocial needs – met and unmet. So as PWC has endeavoured to achieve, every individual has an appropriate and safe, and therefore, productive working from home experience.

And their managers and team members, can respect what being truly inclusive for everyone means. Through very deliberate, and disciplined choices made by everyone, when it comes to associated workplace practices.

  • When is it appropriate to phone rather than email someone?
  • Choosing videoconferencing or audioconferencing?
  • When might it be appropriate for everyone to be in the office at the same time?
  • When are people required to be ‘always on / always available’ versus self-management of when they take breaks, and are unavailable due to doing focussed work without disruptions? How are you using digital technologies to balance synchronous and asynchronous communication and collaboration?
  • Are the meetings that used to occur when everyone was on onsite, still appropriate – time, agenda and implementation – for virtual meetings?

Quoting Anthropologist Dave Cook, “in March, I published findings from a four-year research study tracking remote workers. I warned, to be a successful remote worker deep reserves of self-discipline were required, otherwise burnout followed.

We understand this now. But I spent the first lockdown patiently explaining to news outlets why working from home was so hard. As old norms vanished, a rapid procession of novel technologies marched uninvited into our homes. Zoom simultaneously saved and ruined working from home, and it’s not going away anytime soon.

We had to master Zoom meeting etiquette, compassionate email practices, navigate surveillance, juggle caring responsibilities. The list goes on. A hopeful wish-list for 2021 includes continued increases in workplace activism and for companies and governments to reveal their remote working policies.

In 2021 work-life balance must become recognised as a public health issue.”

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