The Next Generation of Open Offices

04/30/2013 | By Jennie Morton

Does your collaborative space have the right mix?

Collaboration, adaptation, and innovation aren’t just buzz words in the workplace – they’re fundamentally changing the way the office looks. The rigid cube farm has lost its foothold to flexible offices that encourage employees to move freely within the space.

More than hoteling desks together, today’s open office is an energetic mix of casual and formal areas for employees to meet, congregate, share, and discuss. Look beyond color schemes and get down to the brass tacks of your office design to make your real estate work as hard for you as your employees do.

A Trend Becomes the Standard
The move to open offices has steadily expanded the last few decades. The rise of the knowledge worker, a multigenerational workforce, and evolving technology have rendered the cube farm a relic of business culture past.

Globalization has also demanded a nimbleness from companies irrespective of time zones. In many ways, the 9-5 business day is being erased as people work in teams distributed around the world, notes Mary Lee Duff, principal with IA Interior Architects.

The rise of mobile and wireless devices allow people to work without being tethered to a fixed spot. The personal desk is now just one of many places an employee can work.

“Rather than one workspace for each employee, offices will provide a range of work settings that employees can use depending on the task at hand,” explains John Michael, vice president and general manager of Business Interiors by Staples.

But the growing prominence of teamwork is the real culprit. Knowledge workers require interaction with colleagues. Collaboration has become the engine of most companies, but the traditional office landscape hinders the free movement of people and ideas.

“Open spaces can enable innovation to occur at faster rates,” says Duff. “You want a high level of knowledge share and few barriers to collaboration.”

Offices have accordingly become energetic, casual, and transparent. “The days of fixed environments with silos of people, groups, and information are over,” says Dan Lee, national manager of interior design for Business Interiors by Staples. “You want to create an informal space that forces collaboration intuitively.”

Reimagined Spaces
Whereas the traditional office is a standard mixture of individual offices, cubes, and a handful of meeting rooms, the open office of today has no cookie cutter model to follow. It is highly reflective of the company culture it supports.

“Your office should be like a smartphone,” Duff says. “You can customize the space in a number of different ways so it works for you.”

The overall approach is to downsize individual space while increasing collaborative areas. Common tactics include fewer walls and partitions, multifunctional furniture, a mix of casual and formal meeting areas, more collaborative technology throughout, and better disbursement of natural light.

Beyond these characteristics, however, lies a cornucopia of options that can be tailored to your exact specifications. Is hoteling desks the right option for you, or do you simply want to lower cubicle walls so people can see each other? Do you need personal offices at all, or can you create other areas that support meetings, heads down work, and phone conversations?

As you add team space, don’t overlook opportunities to improve individual areas. A smaller desk with more room for side chairs or pullout benches is a great way to encourage people to linger.

“Not only have cube farm walls come down lower or completely gone away, but there are more opportunities within an individual workspace to collaborate now,” Michael says. “These modifications make them more amenable to casual meetings.”

Unhindered sightlines can also visually promote interaction. With benching, for example, most companies are forgoing privacy panels. If used at all, the panels are so low that they’re almost a gesture of separation, explains Duff. Glass walls, interior windows, opaque partitions, and doors with cutouts add transparency. These elements also enable daylighting strategies, which can increase productivity and reduce your HVAC and lighting loads.

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