Reconfiguring the Open Office

April 21, 2014

A look at new trends in corporate interiors.

Benching systems, collaborative spaces, and glass walls remain hallmarks of the open layout, yet these highly flexible spaces are seeing a rise of new design elements. Stay on top of these trends to keep your open office competitive.

Amenities That Appeal to All Ages
One of the driving factors of open offices is rising real estate costs, with many companies buying or leasing a smaller space while increasing occupancy.

Some individuals may grumble about closer proximity to colleagues, but the expectation that they are chained to a single spot all day has been banished.

“Occupants are being given more areas to work outside of their workstation,” explains Marc Spector, a principal for architectural and design firm Spector Group. “The entire office space is now available to use by everyone.”

“Space utilization has really evolved in recent years and become more strategic,” adds Scott Spector, principal. “It’s integrated into the work culture and creating a better office than we’ve had before.”

Despite smaller desks, the office has become more comfortable for workers. Furniture has a residential feel, color schemes are energetic, and the overall atmosphere is casual. To keep employees engaged, design elements have been borrowed from college campuses, lofts, and coffee shops.

“Spaces are being designed around the concept of ‘take the space you need at the moment you need it to get the job done,’” says Carl Bergauer, director of furniture sales with Business Interiors by Staples. “I may start at a workstation, move to a quiet corner, hop into a collaborative space with coworkers, and head back to a desk – repeating some variation of this throughout my workday. Office interiors must accommodate the constant and rapid change in business processes that take place every day in corporate America.”

To keep pace with technology and generational habits, the open office continues to experiment with new configurations. Consider these four trends in your space:

  1. The Open Executive Office – Companies are moving toward a model of inclusiveness for all workers. Some have eliminated the private corner office in favor of seating managers amid their subordinates, while others are using glass walls to foster transparency. “We’ve also created several executive business gardens for senior leadership,” says Marc Spector. “These function as an open plan that is private yet collaborative for management.”
  2. The Floating Conference Room – Take advantage of how mobile video conference technology is – it no longer needs to be rooted to one room. “Some companies are creating small chat areas for just one or two people,” explains Scott Spector. “These spaces are much more personal and local to the user, as opposed to booking a large conference room for just one person.”
  3. The Café Corner – Food brings people together, and many offices are adding restaurant-like areas or a support kitchen adjacent to conference rooms. Capturing the atmosphere of a bistro or coffee shop, these hot spots are perfect for lunches, extended meetings, and company events. They also double as an enticing workspace for individuals or small groups. “The traditional office kitchen is just a pass through – people grab their coffee or lunch and leave,” notes Marc Spector. “A pantry or bistro, however, serves as a gathering space where people touch down.”
  4. The Benching Alternative – Systems furniture is a fine offering for many organizations, but there are other options to keep in mind. “We’re seeing supper-style tables that are 20- to 30-feet long, which create a cafeteria-like seating. These are ideal for teams working on specific projects,” says Scott Spector. “You can dedicate only 100 square feet per person with this arrangement.”

If your company is planning a renovation, make sure building management has a voice at the table – your department often has the best understanding of potential noise, visual, thermal comfort, and privacy issues.

“A great facility manager must be constantly observing occupancy habits,” says Bergauer. “Know how the space is used and what issues are killing productivity.”

Sound Off on Acoustics
No discussion of open offices is complete without addressing acoustics – it’s one of the most common complaints that FMs hear from occupants. When BUILDINGS readers were asked “What is one thing you would change about your current office layout?” 33% answered acoustics.

“Even with carpet, proper sound attenuation on the walls, and dropped ceilings, open offices still have sound transmission between workstations. It’s not just one voice that can be heard – it’s 30 to 40 people potentially talking at the same time,” explains Marc Spector. “You need to provide some white noise privacy for the whole group. Phone booths or small conference rooms can also cut down on chatter.”

Most workers can tolerate some level of background noise, says Alicia Larsen, an acoustic consultant with the firm Acentech – it’s when there’s not enough speech privacy that they become distracted.

A useful sound metric to keep in mind is the articulation index (AI). This calculation measures how distinctly speech intelligibility stands out from background noise. An AI of 0 would be total privacy and a 1 would be no privacy at all.

“For open offices, normal privacy corresponds to an AI of 0.20 or less, which means approximately 25% of words can be understood,” Larsen explains. “An AI of .05 can achieve confidential privacy – less than 5% of words can be distinguished. This level of isolation is appropriate for private offices and conference rooms.”

One way to improve AI is to increase background sound levels with white noise – for every decibel you increase background noise, you effectively decrease intruding speech by one decibel, says Larsen.

Evaluate sound absorption for the entire space, not just for individuals. Look for wall, partition, door, flooring, and ceiling materials with STC (sound transmission class), CAC (ceiling attenuation class), or NRC (noise reduction coefficient) properties. These building materials can help dampen noise levels and keep your open office at maximum productivity.

These three case studies highlight the variety of open office layouts yet each ensures employee interaction remains at the heart of the design.

Open Office Vibrates with Daylight and Clean Lines

Daylight floods the interior of the offices for the architectural firm the Spector Group. The majority of employees are seated in an open floor plan, with a variety of support spaces available for teamwork.

With 13,000 square feet of usable space, the Spector Group’s New York City office balances areas of privacy and collaboration. The interior layout is comprised of an open space that is divided into workstations for 60 professionals. Multiple semi-private and open conference areas foster team engagement.

The second floor provides uninterrupted floor-to-ceiling views, and a 13-foot exposed slab ceiling creates a loft-like yet linear atmosphere. The reception area is defined by a satin sealed exposed concrete floor, which leads the visitor’s eyes into the space and seating area. A linear ceiling light fixture further defines the reception zone.

The main conference room features an acoustically enhanced setting with fabric-wrapped panels and an integrated dropped ceiling with direct LED lighting. Glass fronts are used throughout the office and conference perimeters to facilitate daylighting and street views. Classic modern furniture coupled with benching complements the interior architecture.

A Cocktail of Collaborative Spaces

Gathering areas are a key focus for the headquarters of Pernod Ricard, a wine and spirits company. Employees are encouraged to mingle in glass conference rooms. Workstations are placed around the perimeter for maximum daylight.

This top-shelf office is home to famous brands such as Absolut Vodka, Malibu, Jameson, and Seagram’s.

Pernod Ricard USA and Pernod Ricard Americas consolidated several locations into this 67,000-square-foot space designed by the Spector Group. Occupying three floors of a historic building on Park Avenue in New York City, the interior features a distillery-like ambiance with reclaimed wood ceilings and concrete corridors.

Individual workstations are placed around the perimeter to maximize daylight and a variety of glass conference rooms accommodate meetings. A bar area serves as an entertainment space and a new glass, metal, and wood communicating stair links two floors to enhance employee interaction.

“The space was a real exercise in open floor plans and gathering areas,” says architect Scott Spector with Spector Group.

A Modern Twist on a Historic Space

No private offices were included in this layout for KMA Architecture. Small nooks provide areas to collaborate in addition to a central conference room. Screens provide visual privacy between workstations.

Situated in a renovated military barracks, this 4,000-square-foot space has a little of everything – conference rooms, casual seating areas, and benching. What’s not present is a single private office.

“This layout enabled the open office model we had been trying to achieve in our former space,” says Rich Guerena, senior associate and project architect for KMA Architecture.

Height-adjustable workstations provide generous space for KMA’s nine employees while screens offer visual privacy. Touchdown areas and drafting tables are placed along a bank of large windows for optimal natural light.

Demountable walls create areas for storage, printing, and teamwork. Even the conference room is subject to the open office concept, with its top walls lower than the ceiling. Carpet tiles help to maintain suitable acoustic levels in the space.

Thermal comfort is aided by operable windows and mechanical ventilation, as a traditional cooling system isn’t needed for this San Diego office. The firm plans to install low velocity ceiling fans in the future.

“Most of us are LEED accredited professionals, so we love being in a historic building that’s repurposed. Being able to have a sustainable space was a big draw for us,” explains Tim Rubesh, principal.

Jennie Morton is senior editor of BUILDINGS.

About the Author

Jennie Morton

A former BUILDINGS editor, Jennie Morton is a freelance writer specializing in commercial architecture, IoT and proptech.

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