The Next Generation of Open Offices

April 18, 2013
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. PageBreak

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.” PageBreak

Invest in the Future
An interior remodel isn’t an investment to make lightly. Do your homework before committing to a renovation. Not only should you review the physical requirements of your space, but you also need to assess your capacity for change, Duff stresses. Some companies want to mimic the innovative environments demonstrated by companies such as Google, but find out later that those designs aren’t feasible, cost-effective, or in line with their business culture.

A good budget understanding will also help guide your project. Even if you simply want to reconfigure furniture you already have, there is likely a service or labor fee required, says Michael.

Other organizations may need to invest in different furniture, tear down walls, add supporting technology, reconfigure lighting, or reroute access to power supply. How much you’re willing to invest up front will determine how far your design can go.

Unlike switching out light bulbs, however, this transition doesn’t lend itself to an easy-to-calculate ROI. It’s true that some reductions could be seen in HVAC and lighting loads, particularly if you capitalize daylight extensively, but not on the scale of an energy efficiency project.

What you’re doing by switching to an open office is taking space that previously had one purpose and making it multifunctional. And if your square footage is more efficient, it stands to reason that your workers will follow suit.

“Instead of viewing real estate as an expense, it can be used as a strategic tool to improve the productivity and effectiveness of your workforce,” Michael suggests.

Collaborative offices can also serve as a long-term cost benefit by increasing the number of years between interior redesigns. When desks, chairs, tables, and partitions are easy to repurpose, they generate more opportunities to modify the layout than with a fixed environment.

Wall colors and artwork may come and go, but a single room can undergo several reiterations with the right furniture and technology.

Jennie Morton [email protected] is associate editor of BUILDINGS.


Case Study #1:
Prioritize Conference Areas to Increase Collaboration Forrester Research

Construction Type
Build-to-suit of a six-story,
186,000-square-foot space

Project Highlights
There is not a single private office in the entire company. Everyone works in open pods – communities of low, flexible workstations defined by the placement of team rooms and other community spaces. Work is done wherever it is most efficiently accomplished, not just at the individual’s desk.

In addition to 72 meeting rooms, Forrester’s conference center is strategically located around the lobby to encourage activity and steady foot traffic.

The conference center resides on the first and second floors for client convenience and staff privacy. It includes 17 conference rooms of varying sizes with videoconferencing capabilities.

It also features a 4,275-square-foot room that can accommodate up to 450 people for client seminars and company-wide meetings.

To ensure the space is used on a continual basis, it can be divided into three conference rooms. Retractable walls reconfigure the space and a moveable front wall connects it to an adjacent gallery.

Because there are no real walls in this conference room, a centrally located AV control room automatically adjusts the shades, lighting, and equipment.

The entire area sits on a raised floor to provide greater flexibility for power and data, and moveable, modular tables and chairs can be configured endlessly.

Photo Credit: Warren Patterson Photography

Case Study #2:
Minimize Personal Space to Maximize Interaction Philips North America

Construction Type
Fit-up of a 34,000-square-foot office

Project Highlights
The philosophy of the office has been completely transformed at the Philips Workplace Innovation (PWI) center – there are no assigned seats, offices, or cubicles. The PWI aligns the company’s work-from-home practices, reduces real estate needs, and challenges employees to work in a manner that best suits their own lives.

Philips’ open workspace features 200 individual work settings for 260 employees in a free addressing concept – three seats per every four people. The adaptability of each work setting allows employees to migrate from desk to desk depending on workflow, projects, and accessibility to other team members. Benching reduces space needs by offering 6- by 6-foot workstations with 30- by 72-inch desks.

To promote interaction, the open workspace is arranged in seven neighborhoods located along the window line. To address privacy needs, each neighborhood contains small meeting rooms, enclosed work settings, and file/copy areas.

Touchdown work settings allow additional space for visiting employees to work near a given neighborhood. A multifunctional town square anchors the office like an urban center, serving as a café and meeting room.

Photo Credit: Warren Patterson Photography

Case Study #3:
Zone with Style to Encourage Flexibility Interaction Associates

Construction Type
Fit-up of a 11,000-square-foot area

Project Highlights
Interaction Associates (IA) and its non-profit sister organization, Interaction Institution for Social Change (IISC), needed a multipurpose office that offered collaborative and flexible spaces. The building itself presented several challenges, which ended up contributing to the overall design.

In order to take advantage of the views from high-set windows, flooring around the perimeter was raised and outfitted with a range of workstations. While IA’s employees preferred more private cubicles with shared meeting tables, IISC personnel use continuous desks that offer flexibility to those who are frequently in and out of the office.

This left a “sunken living room” in the center for impromptu meetings and brainstorming sessions. The Collaboration Area is outfitted with retro sofas and ottoman seating, small moveable worktables, and semi-private lounge seating with large overhead lights.

Ramps and staircases transition the surrounding workspaces to the Collaboration Area. Traditional conference rooms are located at the back of the office and a divider creates a clear path for clients to avoid disrupting employees in the middle.

Smaller conference rooms are available, some of which are outfitted with videoconferencing options. There are also four enclosed offices, a catering kitchen, and two private telephone rooms set up for Skyping.

Photo Credit: Warren Patterson Photography  

Case Study #4:
Add Transparency to Team Spaces Atlanta Development Center

Construction Type
Fit-up of a 15,061-square-foot office

Project Highlights
This layout shows how Gresham, Smith and Parnters used pods to strategically group teams throughout the Atlanta Development Center. The 15,061-square-foot office is home to Asurion, a software development firm.

Each pod consists of three zones – benches and stools for casual interaction, meeting tables for formal engagement, and segmented desks for individual tasks. A typical pod accommodates six test and software engineers, a technical analyst, a technical writer, a project manager, and a team lead.

The nine pods are arranged so they are easily accessible by other teams. Glass walls and door openings make it easy to determine if coworkers are free or engaged with others. The glass can also be used as boards for erasable markers so a writing surface is always within reach.

A cafeteria offers additional space for collaboration, including tiered seating that can be rearranged for presentation activities. Energetic colors and exposed ceilings evoke a loft-style space.

Photo Credit: Brian Robbins Photography

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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