Which Office Layout Is Right For You: Linear, Radial Or Organic?

26 February 2019

Businesses change, year on year. Trends are left in the dust. Routine practices are rethought, redesigned. Whole industries are overturned. But has your office changed?

Office design concepts are pretty new. Office spaces have traditionally looked pretty similar – identical desks, in lines, broken down by department. We’ve moved through a paper-based society into a world where every desk had a computer. And now we’re coming out of that age too; many people use laptop technologies, which are far more portable and don’t need that central desktop hub, powered by wires.

Technological advancement is truly rewriting how and where we work. But being wireless is not the only factor at play here. This abrupt change in work practice is a great chance to reconsider the deeper factors at play here – hierarchy, respect and accountability being three key factors shaping your office environment.

We’re going to look at three office layouts, and explore how they could change your office dynamic, far beyond the aesthetic.

Linear office layout

This is the traditional office layout. Identikit desks are arranged in rows, by department. It’s a good design for existing buildings, without embarking upon drastic redesign – because most office spaces are run this way. It’s also good for imposing company hierarchy on the space.

Linear layouts may be good for accountability, but they can be reductive, as individuals feel constrained by their departmental role and place in the office hierarchy. A software developer is unlikely to problem-solve with Jane from accounts, tackling a bigger problem – departments function completely independently and with little interaction. There is also a constant sense of company structure, making the small cogs potentially feel insignificant, and building the self-importance of those bigger individuals.

Solution:

If a linear office is your only practical solution, a good way to modernise and innovate in the space is to scatter ‘touchdown spaces’ through the office. These are long, neutral tables where anybody can work (on their own laptops, or you can provide a few company desktops).

Such spaces are great for collaborative work, take the hierarchy out of the picture, and are also the perfect space for workers with less desk-based roles. If Sam from IT is usually hopping around the office problem-solving all day, does he really need a desk hub? A touchdown space could be the perfect solution, allowing him space to do those administrative tasks but minimising the identikit individual desk setups.

Radial office layout

A radial office design is modern, and works with how the office works – but very much relies on pragmatic honesty.

Let me explain. A radial design puts the most central individual/team right at the centre of the office – the team with whom the most other individuals/departments interact – and then departments radiate out from this one central hub. A good example of this working in practice is in the publishing industry. Editors are the keystone/final touchpoint for many departments, from copy editing and proofing to graphic design to sales. If the editors have to interact with many departments, it makes sense that they are the central hub, where they can easily be found and contacted by the whole office.

But a radial setup requires pragmatic honesty. It should not, necessarily, reflect company hierarchy. As the company director, realistically, how many of your team do you interact with every day? Are you truly the keystone to how your office functions? You may think a radial design will give you an oversight of your workers and keep them accountable, but it could dangerously stress company hierarchy over the individual roles your workers are employed to fulfil.

Solution:

Sit down and track your office for one day. This is a crazy undertaking – but one which could provide some real insight. Track emails, inter-departmental communication, and contact with your customers. Discovering which department actually interacts the most with the most other members of your workforce may be eye-opening! If you’re going to opt for a radial layout, which can really streamline office productivity, make sure it honestly centralises the most interacted-with members of the workplace.

Organic office layout

We’re not talking how well you recycle, here – that’s a different type of organic workplace, but still definitely worth considering! Organic workplaces is a design term for workplaces designed organically, considering how the occupants move across and utilise the space, what routes across the space are most frequented, and often using sweeping curves over the more traditional rectilinear office environment.  

Organically designed workspaces also avoid company hierarchy, as human movement and usage is centralised over departmental structures or company make-up.

Have you noticed that everyone cuts behind the last three desks in HR as an easier route to the watercooler? An organic office would note these main thoroughfares and use them, making the office space as human and ergonomic as possible (move those HR desks to another part of the office and make this a proper thoroughfare!). Organic spaces encourage inter-departmental relationships, so that hopefully you have more heads together to brainstorm what is best for the company as a whole, rather than individual cogs who have no idea how the rest of the office functions. It may decrease accountability, but it is upping trust levels. As Adam Pisoni of Microsoft said,

“Bureaucracy exists where trust doesn’t; excessive process and overhead exist because people don’t trust each other to do what’s right and what’s needed”.

Trust may be your secret weapon to imbuing your staff with respect and investing them with the self-confidence to go a step further for the company.

Solution:

An organic redesign is an expensive undertaking; ideally, you get rid of all of those rectilinear angles caused by rectangular desks and straight walkways. But if that is beyond you at the moment, a good start point is watching how people progress through the office. Prioritise the people using the space, not imposing a random organisational structure on it.

Another good way to begin the interaction prompted by an organically designed office, before you can commit to a complete overhaul, is a monthly desk swap. Simple as it sounds – everyone moves around the office every month.

This necessitates people only ‘decorating’ their desks with what they can easily carry, and it allows the hierarchy to be bulldozed as you take turns to sit next to accounts, directors, admin and sales. It also provokes those relationships that mean little ‘cogs’ learn the fuller picture, and can become truly valuable to a company by troubleshooting and problem-solving on an inter-departmental level.

Now you’ve seen all the main options, it’s time to reflect on what office layout will work best for you. Every team is different so consider all the above but keep your specific requirements in mind. What works for one office may not work for another. The decision is yours!

 

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