Human beings are not designed for long periods of sedentary work. We must get up, move around, stretch, and change our environment periodically to keep engaged. Companies became increasingly aware that previous work models did not honor this part of human genetics, and so the open office was born. The intent was to unbox the cubicle, let employees have whole rooms in which to work, and take down the physical and psychological barriers that stymied organic teamwork.

Now we know open offices don't work like we expected.

So how do we fix the 70% of office spaces in the US configured as open offices? We certainly can't go back to the cubicle; there would be revolt in corporate hallways. While employees aren't always fans of open office logistics, being shoved back in a box--an increasingly smaller box as square footage measurements per employee have consistently shrunk for the last 20 years--is not an option. The taste of office freedom has been a sweet one, and employers recognize a people-centric focus on office design is where the future lies.

The Rise of Privacy Pods

Cloud-based storage has eliminated the need for a static workstation, so employees are more mobile than ever. Studies have shown natural employee movement throughout a work day includes seeking out quiet, private spaces to complete focused work, hold small huddle sessions with colleagues, or just in general staking a claim on an area that feels homey and comfortable in which to work.  

Savvy employers began providing small cubbies for employees to make phone calls in private, work without distraction in soundproofed spaces, or even catch a quick nap to recharge the batteries.  Employees may have been reluctant at first to take advantage of these spaces. After all, they're even smaller than the cubicles of the past. But increasingly, workers report a cocoon-like feeling of comfort and well-being when they're protected from prying eyes, noise, and distraction.  

A Pod is More than a Place to Get Away from Distraction

Pods provide a great incentive for employee movement. The movement of a nomadic worker--even within the confines of a building--is desirable for a number of reasons. It keeps people from becoming too sedentary, which has health benefits such as increased blood flow, better heart rate control, ergonomic benefits, and overall mood improvement.

People can only handle the inflow of so much information before their brains reach overload. This is when a quick walk around the office helps. Changing the environment in which a person works helps them compartmentalize and assimilate information in manageable chunks. By varying their environment at intervals of their choosing, employees are also building mental connections between the information they're focusing on and their surroundings. As such, they'll begin associating certain types of productivity to certain spaces around the office. When collaboration is needed, they'll head to the office cantina for a brainstorming session with their team. For greater data analysis, they'll seek out more enclosed spaces in a quiet environment to concentrate. For problem solving that requires more abstract thinking, wide open spaces are ideal, particularly those with high ceilings or outdoor space.

By providing employees with this wide variety of options, companies are helping their workers find that state of consciousness, often called "the flow," where they're at their most productive, most innovative, and also most satisfied with the work they're doing and how it's being done. 

Pods Improve Flexibility in More Ways than One

For many US companies that have shifted to the open office design model, millions of dollars have been spent. Now that we're finding the shortfalls of the open office, these same companies are understandably reluctant to undertake another remodel. Pods are an elegant solution to the need for change in an open office to a more activity-based design without immersing in an expensive, time-consuming refit.

Pods are classified as furniture rather than infrastructure. Many of them can be shipped flat-packed to be assembled on-site and plugged in to the appropriate sources of energy, networking, and security. Their modular functionality makes them a flexible, cost effective alternative with endless options in the configuration of office design. This means a company can change in a heartbeat with the needs of their employees without sinking renovation costs into every reconfiguration, and that ability to turn on a dime to fit employee needs keeps the work flowing with minimal disruption.

Pods are also a great alternative to meeting rooms. According to a Steelcase study, 61% of meetings are between 2 people, and that number jumps to 78% for 3 people. In fact, one of the biggest complaints employees have is finding meeting space in an office that doesn't offer their employees privacy nooks. The conference rooms get taken over by people seeking privacy for phone calls or focused, distraction-free work, subverting the entire purpose of the conference room.

With pods for both single-person use, often referred to as phone booths, equipped with teleconferencing equipment, a small desk, even whiteboards, the meeting rooms are left free for others to use for their intended purpose. Not only that, 2-person or even 4-person pods are becoming more widely available as an alternative to the static meeting room. A company with enough huddle-sized pods to cover meetings could entirely shed the conference room walls and dedicate that area to something more productive and pleasing to both management and employees alike. 

The Psychology of the Pod

Pods are particularly well-suited for privacy, even though many of them are designed with one wall as a window. Despite this fishtank-like aspect of phone booth style pods, workers still say they feel less scrutinized than in an open office atmosphere. They can't be overheard, as many pods are manufactured to be soundproof, and with noise and distraction being the number one complaint of an open office, this quiet is really attractive. As younger workers are entering the workforce who've never experienced the static workstation of the cubicle, these little oases dotted around an office are particularly enticing.

For some, however, an entirely enclosed pod is ideal. Some pods are being designed with specific purposes, such as meditation, and even as lactation stations for new moms. As such, even the one glass wall is too open. If those reasons seem too unique to justify the expense of a pod, consider companies dealing with sensitive information. The financial or cybersecurity sectors alone could find great value in entirely-walled-off pods for employees to conduct confidential business with clients. Even something as simple as a supervisor having a conversation with an employee without the entire office reading into their body language is reason enough to consider just how private a pod should be. 

The workforce is changing. New generations of talent are coming in, and the way we do business has experienced exponential shifts thanks to technology advancements. How we worked in the Industrial Age does not apply to the Information Age, and open offices aren't the comprehensive solution we expected them to be. Flexibility in the work environment will be key. People-centric companies who adapt the office space to the employee instead of expecting the employee to adapt to the office space will get left behind and quickly.

Published on: Jul 15, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.