A fly on the wall gives some insights into office design

What really happens in an office? Can staff focus on their tasks and work effectively at their desks? How are meeting rooms used? Do the results live up to the employer’s expectations?
Social anthropologist Eva Bjerrum observes the behaviour of office workers in order to create workplaces that are based on real needs.

Research/Case studies Expert interviews Office

There is a large volume of research and workplace studies that are based on questionnaires, in-depth interviews, sound measurements, etc. But few studies actually observe what goes on in a workplace, to complement people’s answers to such questionnaires.

The Alexandra Institute is a research and consultancy company that specialises in IT and digitalisation, and is based in Aarhus, Denmark. Eva Bjerrum is a senior organisational analyst who focuses on the user perspective, which in addition to technology includes organisation and the physical conditions in the workplace. For the past 20 years she has been observing many different types of workplaces, from schools and other teaching environments to museums and, of course, offices. The dairy company Arla and the pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk are two large companies that have used the social anthropology insights of Eva Bjerrum and her colleagues to optimise their office environments.

“We are passive observers; we act like flies on the wall. After a while, people forget that we are there and behave the same way they did before we started observing,” explains Eva Bjerrum.

Impartial notes

To get a complete picture, the social anthropologists observe all parts of the office at different times. They watch and record what is happening, what work is being done and where. Do employees talk a lot on the phone, do they focus on their work, do they talk naturally or do they whisper to each other? The meeting culture is also observed: Where do physical meetings and online meetings take place; how many people are in the meeting rooms at a time?

“We make notes on the sound environment, whether there are a lot of people moving about or whether it is mostly calm and quiet. We record all these details impartially, we only describe what we see. In addition to these details, we also describe the general impression.”

When the observations are complete, Eva Bjerrum summarises the characteristic features of the various departments.

“We can clearly see that there is often nowhere for people to really concentrate on a task. We see the typical conflicts in open-plan offices: some want to focus entirely on their work, some talk a lot on the phone, while others have frequent discussions with others. It can easily become a struggle over what type of work gets done in these environments.”

Meeting rooms are used to concentrate on work

The use of meeting rooms is one example that may not match the original intention when the office was designed. In Aarhus, Eva Bjerrum and a colleague observed Arla’s office and its 700 employees for 60 days.

“There were lots of meeting rooms for up to ten people. But usually there were only one or two people at a time in these rooms. They were often used for work that required concentration, rather than for meetings. And often the same people stayed in the meeting room all day. If they had succeeded in booking a room, they were unwilling to give it up.”

As a result of Eva Bjerrum’s social anthropology studies, Arla has made several changes to its office in Aarhus. There is now a library where people can concentrate and study a problem in depth; the large meeting rooms have been divided into smaller rooms, and booths have been created for online meetings. The open lounge area, which was previously an open space surrounded by desks, has now also been separated from the workspaces.

“The office solution that existed when we started observing simply did not live up to the actual needs. Many people used working from home as an escape rather than an opportunity for flexibility.”

Home working is seen as effective

Fifteen years ago, Eva Bjerrum participated in a research project that explored the design of workplaces for knowledge work. It showed that many people defined “real” or “effective” work as work that you can plan at home and then carry out in peace and quiet at your workplace. Colleagues who have questions or want to discuss things that lead to interruptions are perceived as disruptive.

“During the corona pandemic, I have interviewed 200 employees in companies and municipalities, and I hear the same message repeated. Home working and online meetings are described as really effective. You organise your time the way you want, meetings are short and clearly structured, and you don’t have to travel to and from your workplace.”

Will the office soon be a thing of the past?

When Eva Bjerrum talks about the results of her observations and interviews it naturally prompts the question: Should we abandon the whole idea of shared workplaces for office workers?

“No, the physical workplace contributes to job satisfaction. It is where we collaborate and get quick feedback on our work. The workplace lets us stay in touch with what is happening, together with colleagues. It is also where we find a sense of community, energy and humour – at the cost of some disruption.”

In the surveys Eva Bjerrum has conducted, several common benefits of real-life meetings are frequently mentioned. We make eye contact here and are better able to read body language. We discuss things, come up with ideas and encourage each other. Real-life meetings also give us the opportunity for more personal conversations.

“When I think about these benefits, I ask myself whether they contribute to our effectiveness. I think we need a broader definition of effectiveness. It is not just a question of my own effectiveness – but our collective effectiveness.”

Open-plan offices still have their place

Eva Bjerrum believes that the debate about open-plan offices is too black and white and one-sidedly negative. The open-plan office is not a single solution that looks the same everywhere.

“In one workplace, there may be ten employees who have chosen to share a common open space. And in another there may be 200 people who are forced to sit together. You can’t compare them,” says Eva, adding:

“It is clearly untrue that you can focus on your work in an open-plan office as well as you can in a private office. But at the same time we see that where employees have other options, such as walking somewhere else, many enjoy working in an open-plan environment.”

On the way to this other area you might bump into a colleague who stops you and starts talking about something completely different from what is on your mind. You might feel interrupted, possibly a little irritated, or that you are wasting time, focus and hence effectiveness. Eva Bjerrum wants to turn this idea around.

“This is a chance for someone else to share your knowledge, and for you to gain insight into your colleague’s thoughts. It may in fact be the most effective meeting of all.”

Text: Lars Wirtén