Meeting in the Hallway

Nov. 21, 2005
Facilities seek more open, flexible, and informal collaborative spaces

The mention of meeting spaces at corporate facilities tends to evoke less-than-enthusiastic responses from those who have experienced them: cold, sterile, pale-colored, and fluorescent-lit conference rooms, often set apart from other building activity and more conducive to boredom than brainstorming.

Or, at least, that’s the way it used to be.

These days, facilities professionals are noticing a tangible shift in what some employees are seeking for meeting space. The status quo in facility planning once dictated conference and meeting rooms as the only suitable place for team collaboration. Now, newer buildings and recently remodeled offices are reflecting a standard that calls for more efficient and multifaceted use of public areas. Project participants needn’t huddle in soulless spaces to coordinate with each other anymore, nor do they need to arrange such meetings days in advance. Productive collaboration by colleagues - even that which takes place on a spontaneous basis - is made possible by new facility designs taking shape across the country.

One such design is located at the new facility for Aetna Information Systems (AIS) in Blue Bell, PA. Completed in November 2003 and designed by Little Diversified Architectural Planning, Charlotte, NC, the project sought to consolidate the company and its roughly 700 employees from locations in various cities to a single unit. The driving force behind the idea was to create working areas that facilitated teamwork and open communication between project members. Space would be used more efficiently and business would be more effective because of enhanced collaboration.

“What our clients are asking us to do is find a way to make a hallway or lobby or gathering space do more than one thing,” says Carol Rickard, a Washington, D.C.-based partner with Little Diversified who oversaw the design of the AIS offices. “By increasing the width of a circulation hallway or space pocket, and placing soft seating and a teaming table there, we’re able to maximize use of that space by creating an informal collaboration hub.”

The floorplan at AIS was created to be flexible and open. Employees are able to concentrate on a project alone if necessary, but can correspond with colleagues at a moment’s notice with the informal meeting areas located just steps away from individual workstations. “We call it ‘chair ballet,’ ” says Rickard. “People literally wheel themselves over to the table and are able to meet.” The set-up allows for personal and group space that is closely intertwined with larger meeting areas, facilitating various levels of collaboration.

Even the walls reflect this concept: They’re covered with material that turns the surface into a dry-erase board, which can be used for formal presentations or spur-of-the-moment discussions. The colors matter, too: A yellow wall indicates that the space behind it is for collaborative purposes, while red implies workroom space. This allows workers to easily find their way on any floor of the building.

The layout of the AIS headquarters is certainly not alone in its effective use of space. Bill Blanski, a design partner with HGA architectural firm of Minneapolis, has undertaken a series of similar high-profile projects in recent years - most notably a new headquarters for Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul and the MIND Institute at the University of California-Davis, where neurodevelopmental disorders are researched. His philosophies are a pervasiveness of information, flexible space, and interdisciplinary interaction.

“At the MIND Institute, it was all about getting people together to share info,” says Blanski. “Breakthroughs in medicine don’t happen in the test tube. They happen when the neurologist runs into the psychiatrist in the hallway while getting coffee, and they talk to each other and things become clear.” This idea is reflected in the design: MIND is composed of four separate buildings with just one café - a “necessary nuisance,” as Blanski puts it - which forces workers to come together and communicate on an ad hoc basis, a stark contrast to the days when interaction was confined to windowless conference rooms.

Open space and strategy of location are the rules at MIND. The mild California climate allows people to interact outdoors in courtyards, while various facility amenities are situated in a manner that promotes communication between individuals. And though the harsh Midwestern winters didn’t allow for the same level of outdoor space, the new Minnesota Public Radio offices don’t leave out the notion of flexibility.

This concept seems to be taking root across the industry. “Conference rooms really are not an efficient use of space, because they’re dedicated to one function that’s used only 15 to 20 percent of the time,” says Rickard. “Companies are starting to look at their bottom line and say, ‘How do we make our space do more?’ ”

Peter M. Warski ([email protected]) is assistant editor at Buildings magazine.

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