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We're not always happiest out in the open

We're not always happiest out in the open

| Text: Carl-Gustav Lindén, Photo: Mikael Nybacka

To fulfil the promises of a better working life where people want to work for longer, we need new ways of reorganise the way we work - physically. Nordic Labour Journal has visited two workplaces in Finland where the new office space is already a reality.

In Turku South-West in Finland you'll find the world's first lab for the study of how people work in open office spaces. 

"We compare good and bad office spaces and aim to show that it will pay to go for quality, something which will be measurable in increased productivity," says head of research Valtteri Hongisto from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health.

There is little research on open office solutions and their impact on workers' happiness and productivity. Acoustics, temperature, air quality, furniture and indoor climate are all aspects which are equally important as how work is organised.

Researchers are trying to find out how people react to different situations by testing different types of materials in walls, floors and ceilings, while also exposing volunteers to different audio environments. The volunteers will spend a few hours doing different psychological performance tests which measure the brain's ability to handle information in different situations mirroring different types of office work. The aim is to create good examples which architects can use when they plan new office environments. 

Visual architects

The technical solutions already exist. The next step is to find methods and examples to use in the planning of a better office space. Hongisto, himself holding a Ph.D. in acoustics, underlines the importance of the audible environment and how people react differently to sound. Interior designers rarely have any competence on acoustics and concentrate on the visual instead.

"The most usual problem is noise which prevents people form concentrating, or spaces that are not private enough for conversations."

If acoustics are bad it is possible to make out what is being said 20 metres way. Many people are on video conferencing throughout the day and could make life unbearable for colleagues, while the person doing the talking feels confidential information becomes public too easily. Draughty or too hot spaces represent another great obstacle to well-being.

Different types of work

Many problems stem from the fact that people and teams perform different types of work, which sometimes require silence and concentration and sometimes open debate. In Finland Microsoft has come far in its work to furnish its offices with flexible solutions, which means people can chose whichever area suits their task best. Areas adapted to different functions are becoming more and more common in public administration, and according to Hongisto they're here to stay.

”Equality is important so mobility is good.”

If someone is given their own room, everyone should be told why to avoid jealousy and a feeling of hierarchy. 

The boss with no workspace

The head of Microsoft Finland, Ari Rahkonen, has for a long time worked without having his own office space, but now he hasn't even got his own work station. When the new Espoo office was ready he was allocated a locker which only houses a box with space for his personal possessions. 

"When I go to fetch a cup of coffee chances are my space has been taken by the time I return," he says.

Swedish research shows people working in open plan offices are more often off sick compared to those who have the chance to work in private when needed. Stress, health, comfort in the workplace, productivity and the will to stay in work when retirement age approaches - all this can be linked to the work environment. 

Microsoft has furnished their offices according to the needs people have at any given time. If someone needs peace and quiet to concentrate on a project, the 'library' is the right place. No mobile telephones are allowed and conversations must be held somewhere else.

In the 'beach' area there's music, beanbags for relaxation and the sun shines over the sea. This is the area for team work and idea development. The 'bistro' recreates the city's café culture. This is the place for surprise meetings and where new combinations are discovered over some coffee or food. Other areas carry names like 'inspiration', 'nature', 'home' or 'peace', and each have their own rules for how they should be used. 

"I have freed my own work from the shackles of time and space," says Rahkonen.

Sociale media

Microsoft aims to increase productivity even further through the use of social elements which enable people with different ideas and backgrounds to 'collide'. The company wants to change from being a workplace to being a meeting place. Social media and digital forums make up important elements where status updates and commentary functions replace traditional project reporting. Even though discussions are kept secret from outsiders, there should be openness within the organisation where virtual proximity is as important as physical proximity. 

Surveys among employees show the experiment is on the right track. An overwhelming majority is happy with the reorganised space and is happy with the greater freedom of choice. The improvement is remarkable. A survey carried out for the Best Place to Work competition showed the number of happy workers had increased from 75 to 92 percent and more people chose to come to the office rather than working from home. 

Jari Hakanen, a researcher with the Helsinki Institute of Occupational Health, says tasks which manage to engage employees without turning them into slaves for work will have a positive influence on productivity as well as welfare, health and the joy of working.

"This welfare can be turned directly into increased revenues."

It's not about being able to afford this. Because measures which improve the joy of working have the greatest effect just when an employer comes across obstacles and is forced into dramatic change - like during downsizing and redundancies.

The cloud

For Microsoft it is also important to show customers how rebuilding the old office space gives a company new tools with which to change they way it works. New technology with software, databases and communication tools no longer tied down to a physical space but to be found in the digital cloud means endless possibilities for working independent from time and space. The number of digital nomads is increasing world-wide, and there's a need for solutions which are flexible down to the smallest detail.


28 April is the World Day of Safety and Health at Work, instigated by the ILO in 2003 to for the improvement of work environments. ILO is the UN agency dealing with labour and working life issues. This year's theme is the implementation of an Occupational Safety and Health Management System, OSHMS. On that same day the international trade union movement will commemorate employees who lost their lives at work.

Not even a work station

Microsoft 2

Microsoft’s country manager for Finland, Ari Rakhonen, has worked for a long time without his own office, but now he doesn’t even have his own work station...

Just a locker

Microsoft 3

…when the new office in Espoo was ready he got his own locker which only has place for some personal belongings.

Sit wherever you want

Microsoft 4

People choose freely where they want to sit and may change places several times during the day.

The Beach

Microsoft 5

The sun shines, the interior is in white and music plays: 'Beach' is the room where inspiration flows.

Virtually there

Microsoft 6

Microsoft has 260 employees in Finland. It is important that everyone is present, but optional if it is virtually or physically.

Designed for virtual work

Microsoft 7

Jaana Vuuori, director of communications, shows curious customers the space designed for virtual work.

The Bistro

Microsoft 8

'Bistro' is a place for surprising and inspiring meetings.


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