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Interviewed by Boštjan Eržen

Dr. Nigel Oseland is a workplace strategist, change manager, and international author and speaker with 23 years of consulting experience.  He understands what type of work environments lead to desired behaviors, which, in turn, lead to greater engagement, more ideas, and better individual and team performance in the workplace.

In his new book, Beyond the Workplace Zoo, Nigel explains how the original open plan concept has been misinterpreted to create something, not unlike a traditional zoo, which has a directly opposite effect on employee productivity and satisfaction to the one desired.  He offers an alternative, more creative, inclusive and humane workplace,  the Landscaped Office.

 Nigel  talks about the advantages and disadvantages of remote work, the hybrid workplace and why he likes to visit Slovenia for the Workplace Design conference year after year.

What is a landscaped office? Why do you see it as a more efficient and humane alternative to the open-plan offices?

Open-plan offices are more synonymous with a high-density workplace with serried ranks of desks with little screening to break up the space. The alternative is often considered to private offices, but the workplace is non-binary and there is an optimal middle ground which I call the landscaped office. The landscaped office is fundamentally open-plan but more spaced out and broken up by work settings such as pods, booths and rooms to create smaller zones. High-density is not good for noise, personal space and health reasons.

For an organization to be successful, it has to have its people perform to their maximum potential. However, heads of businesses and finance often view the workplace as a cost rather than an investment in people. Would they change their minds if measuring employee performance, presenteeism or talent attrition was as easy as calculating utility costs?

It would definitely help. The business case for a new or refurbished office is often based on space and associated cost savings. However, the productivity equation has two sides, input costs and output performance. I often hear that cost/space can be easily measured whereas performance can't, and so the impact of the workplace on performance and wellbeing is usually ignored. This seems a strange response to me as most organizations monitor their staff and team performance in a way relevant to them. The trick is to separate the effect of the workplace on performance from other factors, but it can and should be done.

The largest cost to an office-based organization is its people which means people are an organization's biggest asset.  What are the elements of a good cost-benefit analysis that would reflect this?  

As well as entering capital and operational costs in the analysis, the benefits should also be included. These are often less tangible, however research reveals that they can be measured, and my recent work with the Institute of Workplace and Facilities Management (IWFM) shows how default values, the monetized impact on individual and team performance, absenteeism and attrition, etc. can be used in a cost-benefit analysis.  

Office interventions are complex projects and can have long-term positive or negative effects on the performance of the organization. Deciding on a project based on costs alone seems therefore inadequate and risky. Would you recommend a total cost of ownership or a similar approach as an alternative?  

Measuring the capital and operational costs over the anticipated time occupying the building makes good sense. For example, it allows for some up-front investment which will reap larger savings over time. However, as mentioned, the cost is just one side of the productivity equation. The total cost of ownership analysis also needs to include monetized performance benefits.  

You advocate for an evidence-based and human-centric workplace strategy and office design. Please explain the concept and does it require adaptations for different industries, personality type, demographics?

Evidence-based refers to using data to make design decisions, rather than depending on intuition, trends/fads, personal preferences, and what "looks cool". Sources of data include occupant feedback surveys, interviews, and workshops, space/utilization analysis, observation studies, etc., but an experience is also a form of evidence. Human-centric relates to engaging with the building occupants to understand their specific requirements. Consultation, along with the evidence, is used to inform the design and create the best environment for the occupants. The process is similar for all projects, but the outcome should be different as it will recognize any differences in requirements due to personality, demographics and sector. 

Those who work remotely seem to be struggling with distracting working environments, stress and an always-on culture after almost two years of working from home.  A recent study (Egress) claims that three-quarters of remote workers reported feeling worse as a result of long-term working from home.  For humans as social beings, what do you think could be some negative effects of prolonged isolation from face-to-face interactions?

Working from home offers the opportunity to work without continuous distraction from colleagues, which can lead to increased productivity. However, for many, there may be other distractions at home, such as family or flatmates, especially if there is not a private space to work. Evolutionary psychology proposes that we are all social animals, but also need time for contemplation. The response to working long-term from home also depends on personality type. For example, we found that extroverts are more easily distracted by other things at home and are also more likely to suffer from "cabin fever", which is missing the social interaction and collaboration with their colleagues which is better suited for the office. In contrast, introverts appear to like the formality of the office and the services it offers, along with better work-life separation. 

Altman's Privacy Regulation Theory proposes that we want the achieved level of privacy to match that required - too much privacy leads to feelings of isolation and too little to overcrowding. The desired level of privacy depends on the task, the environment, the person's mood and personality, etc. Due to individual preferences, the answer is to offer flexibility on the time in/out of the office.

According to the survey by Superhuman, 89% of office workers say daily work tasks such as sorting through an inbox of unopened emails or incoming Slack or Teams messages is one of the most unpleasant parts of working remotely.  More than one-third say that this, so-called, email fatigue is likely to push them to quit their jobs.  What is email fatigue and why does information overload, especially digital information overload, seem to be a bigger issue for those working from home?

I think email fatigue has been a problem for a while regardless of whether working from home or in the office. For example, some organizations introduced email-free days to encourage staff to get up from their desk and talk to each other. Email is good for sharing large chunks of information, like reports, to a large group of colleagues but not so good for getting the message across or for quick decision making. Most of us have not been taught the etiquette (the when and why) of sending emails, or for that matter other forms of communication, and it is good to share the house rules once in a while. When people are not meeting individuals face-to-face on a regular basis, planned or unplanned, then the easy default option is to ping out an email even though a good old-fashioned phone call may be a better option. 

My experience is that a bigger problem than email overload is Zoom/Teams fatigue, with many home workers on back-to-back calls. In the office, we would take time to travel between meetings and decompress, grabbing a coffee and having a chat along the way. Focusing on a screen and being seated for extended periods of time is also not good for us. One simple answer is to schedule 45 rather than 60-minute meetings, allowing participants time for a break. 

Almost 60% of young workers in a recent UK survey, with 18,000 respondents, expressed concerns about being isolated and missing out on social connections with co-workers.  They also fear that remote working will limit their earning potential and future success.  Do you think these concerns are real?

A big part of work is socializing and meeting new people, especially when you are new to a workplace or just starting your career. I think new and junior, as well as younger staff, will also be missing out on mentoring, tacit knowledge and perhaps being seen as good, diligent workers. The latter harps back to the days of managing by sight rather than output. As people spend more time with a company their reputation, experience, confidence, trust and remuneration grows, perhaps reducing their concerns about success. 

People who have to work from home and are not happy about it are experiencing higher levels of stress and can withhold mental health conditions from their employer for fear of a negative impact on their careers. Are there any ways for organizations to detect this, be proactive, offer support programs?

Some organizations are more aware of such issues than others and already offer private counseling sessions. With more staff working away from the office and not so visible, I think managers have more of a duty to keep in touch. I recommend regular 1:1 meetings, preferably face-to-face otherwise a video-conference call, along with weekly team meetings in the office plus "lunch & learn" style presentations (by junior as well as experienced staff) and occasional social events.

Technology is a huge enabler but can remote work, especially if it becomes the norm, impact people and their organizations in potentially negative ways?

Video-conferencing platforms offer convenience and benefits such as reduced travel and connecting staff worldwide. The visual component also makes them so much better than teleconference calls, but they still miss out on much of the non-verbal communication. I certainly recommend that a new team meet in person before connecting online to get to know each other, as well as to learn about their communication styles and body language.   

What are some of the burning workplace trends and issues employers will have to find answers for in 2022?  

Employee wellbeing will continue to be a key focus. More organizations are now employing people on the autism spectrum because of their high cognitive functioning and problem-solving capabilities. Inclusivity and diversity are also major topics, so workplaces will need to accommodate a wide range of people. Of course, in the short-term, the return to the office and how to manage it and make it more attractive, will be the main focus for most organizations. My main concern is that real state advisors may see people coming back to the office as an opportunity to reduce cost and space, rather than improve employees' well-being and performance.

You are a regular speaker at the annual Workplace Design Conference in Slovenia which touches on these and other workplace-related topics.  Why do you like to come to Slovenia and what has changed here since your first (business) trip?

To be frank, I come to Slovenia because I like the people, culture and landscape. It's a wonderful country that I only discovered thanks to Kragelj Architects. However, in those few years I have been visiting, I have noticed that the workplace debate has become more mature. It's no longer just about cost and space efficiency but also about creating better working environments for the occupants.

Kirk Vallis from Google, whom you know personally, will be the keynote speaker at the WDC22 live on stage at the Rikli Conference Center at Lake Bled. For those attending, either in person or online, what do you think will be some takeaway lessons from his speech?  

Kirk presents a fantastic session on enhancing creativity in the workplace. His focus is more on people than on the workplace but he does draw on environmental psychology and architecture. Fundamentally, in the current economic age, to be more successful than our competitors we need to be more creative and innovative.

Last but not least, you are also a beer lover and connoisseur.  Does Slovenia have good craft beers and how do they fare on the grand European and global level?

I've been pleasantly surprised by the beers I have tasted in Slovenia, not particularly the major brewers of mass-produced beer but the numerous artisan craft breweries with their delicious IPAs and porters. Like the country, Slovenian beers rank high in my opinion.

Thank you.

To learn more about the next WDC conference, visit Workplace Design 2022.


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