Creating Balance in the Open Office

12/01/2014 | By Christopher Curtland

Use these ideas to accommodate differing work styles of occupants

Open office designs

If you’ve been riding the design pendulum, you likely believe that enhancing employee engagement means cultivating collaboration. You might think it requires having an open office. But keeping workers satisfied actually depends on keeping an open mind.

The open plan pendulum may have swung too far, or it may be swinging back, but trying to keep up will only leave you dizzy. Beware of following seesaw trends that seem to change from year to year. Instead, focus on striking a balance between closed vs. open, quiet vs. collaboration, and privacy vs. spontaneity.

Let the following strategies shape your layout.

Consider the Complaints
The problems with open offices are well known and include acoustical control, inadequate meeting spaces, and inflexible furniture and partitions. Research reveals that an important issue to worker satisfaction is lack of space, but perhaps simply improving the use of the space can address that issue.

Space utilization is the trendy new buzzword, but what does it mean? Whitepapers from manufacturers and designers may offer you some explanation, but at its most basic, space utilization simply means that a workspace should support the work of its occupants. Mistakes occur when you assume that everyone works the same way and then take an all-encompassing approach to office layout.

“Designers and manufacturers will reveal a great new concept and spread it like mayonnaise everywhere,” says Karen Thomas, principal at architectural firm Lawrence Perry and Associates. “But the problem is that one size doesn’t fit all. Pay attention to your needs to balance your space. A tech company is different from an accounting firm or a sales enterprise. If the design is not appropriate for the individual company and users, then it’s not going to work. Understand the workflow of your organization.”

CASE STUDY: Software Company Strikes Balance Between Openness and Privacy
To achieve success, let work style dictate space

Project: Datacert
Location: Houston, TX
Architect: Ziegler Cooper
Size: 50,280 square feet on two floors
Schedule: 16 months
Construction Cost:
$82 RSF FF&E Cost: $24 RSF

As this global software and analytics provider relocated to a primarily open layout with increased collaboration areas, there was still a need for quiet and privacy. Each department required a unique workplace design with customized configurations and varied furniture solutions tailored to its needs.

The Datacert project focused on several facets, including:

  • Make sure solutions are flexible and adaptable.
  • Maintain quiet and privacy in a transparent environment.
  • Understand work processes to provide a variety of spaces.

While programmers, HR employees, and call center workers still work at open workstations and cubicles, some of them have the option of sliding a cubicle door shut, increasing visual and acoustic privacy.

Throughout the two floors, all workers have access to smaller huddle or breakout spaces when they don’t need a full 14-person conference room. Going to these spaces provides a quiet environment while preventing them from distracting other occupants. Equipping the rooms with technology is a bonus.

Privacy doesn’t always mean private office (although it can), but sometimes it simply allows a couple of employees to engage each other away from the group at large. Lounge areas featuring whiteboards support one-on-one sessions.

“Owners assume that if one group has a certain space or amenity, then they should provide it for everybody. That comes from the erroneous one-size-fits-all mentality,” says Jim Hanlin, corporate interior design principal at Ziegler Cooper, the project’s designer. “There’s a right solution for each group or team. You don’t get into the trap of backlash if you understand people’s work processes and support them accordingly.”

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