The Next Generation of Open Offices

Zone with Purpose
To avoid a haphazard layout, zoning is a practical way to build the office environment around different types of activities. This allows an office to host a blend of work spaces while accounting for acoustic considerations, employee-client boundaries, and departmental needs.

No matter how open your office is, it’s important that we vs. I space is clearly defined. Some companies, for example, use open offices for quiet work. If employees need to have a problem-solving session or a quick meeting, they congregate in huddle rooms so they don’t disrupt their neighbors.

For other organizations, the opposite is true – open areas are energized and riddled with impromptu discussions. Huddle rooms are on hand as a place of refuge when an employee needs peace and quiet (see Interaction case study).

Recognizing this need for delineation, Philips North America renovated a 34,000-square-foot office with zones in mind (see case study above). Within the open design, there are three areas marked for specific work modes, explains Dianne Dunnell, senior associate with Margulies Perruzzi Architects. The first zone fosters high collaboration activities, the middle section contains a mixture of workspaces and meeting spots, and the last segment is reserved as a quiet area for individuals.

Zoning can be applied to client areas as well. Taking a page from convention centers, companies are starting to cluster conference areas near their entrance, Dunnell says. Instead of formal meeting spots peppered throughout a building, conference rooms are centralized for ease of access for clients (see Forrester case study). A reception area, modified break room, or small kitchen may be added nearby.

4 Tips for Transitioning
Depending on your existing configuration, switching to an open office can be a significant undertaking. For some companies, it requires a complete renovation while others may only need to make superficial changes. To make your transition successful, use these four tips.

  1. Identify Work Habits
    It’s critical that you understand the way your employees work so you can give them an effective space.

    “Say you have employees who spend most of their time collaborating in teams – giving them high-walled cubicles is tantamount to giving them the wrong work tools,” warns Marc Margulies, principal of Margulies Perruzzi Architects. “You have to ask yourself, what is the purpose of your building under this new work model? The answer is for people to come to the office when they need to be with others.”

    To foster teamwork, you have to do more than just provide employees with a place to meet – they also need the tools to collaborate. Conferencing technology, media-sharing devices, white boards, and power supply for computers and tablets are necessary considerations.

    “It’s more than just adding lounge furniture and a conference table to an empty area of the office,” stresses Michael. “If you want people to truly be productive in that space, you have to look beyond what they have to sit on.”

  2. Foster Employee Buy-In
    In order to create collaborative spaces, you will likely have to downsize elsewhere. Workers may frown on losing personal desk space, Michael cautions, so make sure they are included in planning discussions and understand the full extent of the layout changes.

    “When you’re a consensus-driven company, there should be planned engagement throughout the change management,” advises Duff. “You also need to have executive endorsement so the workforce understands that the shift is supported from the top of the company.”

  3. Sound off on Acoustics
    Acoustics are paramount in collaborative spaces. While you want workers to engage with each other, you also want to ensure that heads down time won’t be full of distractions. It’s best to provide pockets of enclosed spaces that support private conversations, training sessions, or conference calls, says Margulies.

    As you plan for these spaces, make sure they are acoustically isolated, otherwise their purpose will be defeated. From panels and cloud canopies to sound masking systems and proper insulation, there are a plethora of acoustic options to dampen noise.

  4. Test the Waters
    Open offices won’t work for everyone and some organizations may hesitate to make the change across the board. A combination of open spaces and traditional offices may provide a happy middle ground.

    “Test out collaborative spaces by implementing them for one department or floor at a time,” recommends Dunnell. “In most cases, companies find that a specific group gravitates to these office environments.”

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