Designing Workplaces for Healthy Hubbub and Dimmer Lights

Partner, IDEO
Tom Eich, partner, IDEO Courtesy of IDEO

IDEO’s Tom Eich joins our experts discussing e-mail overload, open office plans, telecommuting, and eating lunch at their desks.

What’s the most common design flaw within workplaces nowadays?
Lighting. Most places are actually overlit, and there’s a huge investment in the build-out to put in all kinds of headache-inducing cold color-temperature fluorescent lighting. Most people want to turn it off or down. And sometimes people don’t invest in dimmers. So it’s either on or it’s off.

The whole audio-video side of work life is, in my mind, ripe for disruption. It’s a horrible amalgam of crappy interfaces from companies that have dominated the market for years but don’t integrate nicely with really nice consumer-based products, like flat screens and iPads.

Do you think that open-plan offices have won out?
Private offices can become horrible, horrible hiding places. There’s also no going back from an economic standpoint; it’s too expensive to dedicate private offices. The biggest challenge is presenting enough diverse spaces for the various moments throughout the workday. Some of these require privacy or a team space with lots of vertical display or a place where they’re not going to get distracted by too much hubbub. And definitely, there is a healthy level of hubbub in an open-plan office. But people like it, and you need to feel a certain amount of energy.

Your office does something called hot-desking. What’s that?
Hot-desking is where basically you don’t own the desk. You use it, you sign it out, and when you’re gone, say, on a research trip to central Asia, you leave it neatened up for someone else to use. It requires a certain amount of reconfigurability and flexibility and modularity to our spaces.

Our space is set up in a workbench type of arrangement, where the modules that people sit at can be adjusted. You can actually compress down to three-foot-wide sections for people who are hoteling or they can have six feet if they’re permanently there in an operations role or something like that. And there are sit-and-stand options.

People don’t miss having personal space?
They need personal storage. But they actually really want that team space, and they don’t want to give that up. They’ll give up having a dedicated desk as long as they know that when they’re between projects or when they do need a dedicated desk, they can sign one out.

How should we take advantage of mobile devices in the workplace?
In certain modes of work, they’re a huge distraction. They should go away. You know, we’ve done a lot of work with our teams on how to be more effective together, and one set of agreements that the teams like to build is when we’re going to put our phones away, so that people aren’t constantly going between their phone when we’re trying to do something together.

That said, we’re buying everybody mobile devices.

Can you describe your personal workspace?
I have a bookable desk. But since I’ll probably be traveling a lot, I have to keep it neat enough to let others use it when I’m gone.

And when you’re in the office, or when you’re in the home office, how often do you have lunch at your desk?
Oh, gosh, almost never. If I have a call, which is tragic, then I might have to ask the person to excuse me.

Dec. 18 (Bloomberg) – As part of Bloomberg Businessweek's Fix This/Workplace series, Ideo's Tom Eich talks about the impact of open-plan office layouts and teaming spaces. (Source: Bloomberg)

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