Is Your Agile Workspace Layout Legible?

Design from an HR perspective

by Ann Harten

As Human Resources leaders, one of our goals is to enhance the work-day experience of our people. To accomplish this, we create methods and practices to influence engagement and satisfaction. In this context, I would like to offer the following: space also matters. How we enable people to collaborate, engage and navigate their space, is important.

In fact, Human Resources’ influence on office and work area design is increasing and we are becoming a more influential voice in this conversation. More and more we are joining facility and design teams to identify the most effective space planning. Whether it be a new building or remodeling project, we help determine the best design that offers a variety of choice.

In this age of ubiquitous wi-fi and long commute times, a lot of space planning focuses on providing that choice. In question would be where, when or how a person works. For sake of this discussion, we could consider this the ‘degree of agility’. There are several reasons to consider agility. Among them are employee satisfaction, real estate efficiency, granting people choice, and providing employees with a sense of control.

Obviously, agility also has a major impact on our spaces. This design philosophy celebrates openness, surprise, variety and complexity mixed with a homey vibe. As we work on this concept of agility, it is also helpful to consider legibility because of the ambiguity that can occur across the floorplate. In other words, the ability to discern the intended use of a space affects the actual use of that space.

So, what is legibility? Legible offices offer configurations that are easy to understand and easy to navigate. Most importantly the proposed uses of that space are clear and obvious. Legibility can be designed into the office space by using landmarks that help people orient themselves. One can also leverage outside landmarks and signage to further guide people. These markers allow employees to create a “mental map” of the layout and find any location within the building, even with limited experience with that building.

Conversely, cube farms (monotonous regularity where every location looks the same) can form a disorienting maze. Complex, illegible layouts can limit desirable movement of workers between available areas, decrease collaboration, and reduce overall sense of employee control.

Even with an agile design, if the intended use of a collaborative space (such as a café or lounge area) is ambiguous, people will avoid using it or waste time trying to determine how to use the area, the technology, and the furnishings. Without legibility, those beautiful, complex, open, homey areas that are intended to increase collaboration, comfort and satisfaction, may go unused.

Most intriguing to me is the natural fit that legibility has with the goals of Human Resources. The intention of this well designed office layout is to create a predictable rhythm that makes it easy for people to learn (or easily guess) how to navigate between locations and where a desired work area might be found. Legibility is intended to create a positive work experience where employees can quickly and effectively use each type of space. In addition, research indicates that good legibility can have a positive impact on stress reduction, suggesting that this should be a consideration when designing habitats in any setting.   What are your thoughts? Do you have an experience with something particularly legible or not?

If you would like to read more on the topic of workplace legibility, I recommend Dr. Michael O’Neill’s paper The Emerging Need for Legibility in Workplace Design. Dr. O’Neill is a Sr. Workplace Strategist who focuses on workplace design, market analytics and the outcomes related to wellbeing, performance and business results. 

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