More than any other single factors, furnishings and layout drive the success—or failure—of open plan office design. Creating an open plan office where people can be productive demands an honest look at your client’s company culture and the way they do business.
Open office design means different things to different people, notes Dave Madson, principal at CBT, an architecture, interior design and urban design firm.
Even the companies that fully embrace the open office concept often don’t have 100% open design, so it’s a good idea to start the design process by understanding why your client wants an open plan design solution in the first place.
“If the organizational culture itself does not support employees having these types of choices, it’s very difficult to make it successful, It has to do with the behavior and whether management is willing to walk the talk. It’s very much a top-down scenario. Make sure that senior management or the leadership team buys into the idea of giving these types of choices to employees.” – CEO Jonathan Wasserstrum
Companies that implement an open office strategy tend to do so for one of two reasons, explains Angie Lee, vice president of buildings for Stantec, a global design firm:
1. Cost reduction. Open plan offices allow you to fit more people into a space, which minimizes your square footage requirements.
2. Recruitment and retention. Open office implementation can be part of an overall upgrade aimed at keeping the talent you have and bringing in new people.
5 Open Office Space Types
The most functional open office design accounts for different work modes by including flexible spaces that cater to each type of work. Most office employees don’t do the exact same task for eight hours a day, so it doesn’t always make sense to have them stay in one type of space all day.
Stantec designs spaces for five basic work modes, Lee explains:
This critical space type fosters concentration. Private offices, workstations in quiet areas and benching can all contribute to healthy focus spaces, Lee explains.
People should be able to duck into areas specifically designed for collaboration when they need to have conversations or brainstorm with colleagues.
Cafeterias and other multiuse gathering spaces are perfect for bumping into coworkers for quick conversations that can lead to further collaboration later, Lee says: “Having those types of spaces woven into the planning and design is critical.”
Most organizations don’t need dedicated training space, but they will have to do some type of all-staff learning periodically, Lee explains. Think about flexible furnishings and layouts for spaces like conference rooms—clients can convert them into auditorium-style or classroom-style seating when they need to train groups.
This category describes any area where employees can rejuvenate and come back to work with fresh eyes, Lee says. This could be an outdoor terrace, a peaceful meditation room or any other space that’s not specifically for working.
There’s no set formula for the ratio of focus spaces to other space types, Lee adds. The recipe for success depends on the industry your client is in.
A tech company might prize collaborative space, for example, while an insurance company might need more focus space for sensitive conversations. Company culture is also part of the mix, Lee says. It’s not enough to simply provide different space types; employees need to know they can actually use them.
“If the organizational culture itself does not support employees having these types of choices, it’s very difficult to make it successful,” Lee explains. “It has to do with the behavior and whether management is willing to walk the talk. It’s very much a top-down scenario. Make sure that senior management or the leadership team buys into the idea of giving these types of choices to employees.”
Selecting Open Office Space Size
Correctly sizing space for various work modes is a constant struggle in open office design. Workstations that are too small can leave employees feeling like they’re working in the proverbial sardine can. Huge conference rooms go unused or underutilized, accommodating a dozen people once a week and remaining empty for the rest of the time.
Look at how big your total space is and your current square footage per person, then consider how you might reallocate that space to a different balance of open plan workstations vs. other space types.
A recent Stantec project, a consolidation of two Washington, D.C., offices for business management consultancy Gartner, decreased total space from 450,000 to 350,000 square feet, even as the staff size grew from 1,600 people to 2,000, Lee explains.
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The density ratio in that office dropped from 280 square feet per person to closer to the industry standard of 175-180, and the open plan to closed plan ratio moved from 70% open and 30% closed, to 95% open and 5% closed. The client ultimately eliminated several floors from their lease from the square footage savings.
“The CEO at the time had a vision of moving, knowing that the existing space was private office-intensive and people weren’t talking to each other or collaborating,” explains Lee. “It’s primarily occupied by two major groups, sales and research. You can imagine that the sales people operate differently than the researchers. But they needed to recruit the best people, and to do that, the work environment has to reflect the best state-of-the-art 21st-century environment. It was his vision that drove the project.”
5 Key Considerations for Open Office Layouts
Open office layouts are likely here to stay. But clients can make the most of them for tenant success and employee retention. The way you arrange commercial spaces is almost as important as what’s in them. Consider these five tips for maximizing finite square footage.
1. Make space transitions functional.
The transitions between space types at SquareFoot are “pretty fluid and open by design,” says Jonathan Wasserstrum, CEO of commercial real estate tech firm SquareFoot. “But one way you can create some separation is the positioning of a couch. The back of a couch can ‘seal’ a space, naturally. People do it all the time in their apartments and homes, without worry. The same concept can be adapted to the modern workplace to both appeal to those who want to sit on those couches and do their work, and those passing by on their way to their desks or to a meeting.”
2. Separate solitude from noise.
SquareFoot’s engineering team often needs quiet to write code or plan infrastructure, but brokers are often on the phone with clients. “This work can make for loud afternoons, especially with over a dozen brokers in-house, like we have here,” Wasserstrum explains. “We did our best in the old office to separate these two departments, yet there was only so much we could do.”
The new space physically separates the two, but also features a lunch and leisure area for all departments so that the two teams aren’t completely removed from each other. Monthly birthday events and after-work happy hours encourage socializing between different areas of the company.
3. Manage visibility.
Glass walls and partitions let daylight penetrate deeper into the building’s core, but they also reduce visual privacy. At Base Camp, Interface’s new global headquarters in Atlanta created by Perkins+Will, some of the collaborative rooms add graphics to the glass to help with visual distraction.
“You can see people but you can’t read documents,” says Chip DeGrace, chief design officer, of the rooms. Other spaces, like the boardroom, large conference rooms and the other collaborative spaces, are arranged along the perimeter and glazed on the inside and outside to capitalize on incoming daylight.
4. Enable mobility.
Place conference and huddle rooms in central locations so they’re equally convenient for everyone. Respite spaces where people can kick back on a couch or comfortable chair might work better near the front or back of the office where they’re not in the middle of the action. Buy-in from your client’s leadership is essential to making this work, but placing the spaces in the right locations will make it much easier to get that buy-in.
“If everyone sees themselves as mobile and the office as a shared workspace accommodating everyone’s needs, we don’t have a problem to solve,” Wasserstrum says. “Thankfully, that’s how it’s played out so far for us.”
5. Think about future flexibility.
“Every successful business has a three-, five-, seven- and 10-year business plan to help grow their business,” says Andrew Cisisly, Western regional director of sales for HAT Contract, a contract office furniture specialist. “A good facility manager should have a similar plan.”
You may not be on-site to execute your current client’s 10-year renovation plan, but you can set them up for success with spaces that are easy to reconfigure. That means creating layouts and specifying furnishings that can move around and change without too much work, such as demountable walls and partitions. “Look at the real estate portfolio as a blank canvas and try to make everything as liquid and flexible as possible,” Cicisly advises.
The most successful open office layout is the one that frees your client to do their best work. It’s a tool for empowerment – and for that reason, it can’t be a cookie cutter approach that’s the same for every client. Use your client’s existing footprint to create a customized blend of space types and pathways that’s perfectly suited to the people using it.
Specify the Right Furniture for the Space
Choosing open office furniture is all about finding tools that will support the activities happening in each space. A small huddle room that’s meant to be used for 15-minute meetings may not even have chairs, Madson suggests.
“Are there tasks where you’re going to need a place to write or ideate on the walls?” Madson asks. “We think it’s crucial to ask questions like this and co-create with our clients to understand what’s driving the need for these spaces and what resources are required to help them complete their day-to-day tasks.”
Client visioning sessions are the perfect place to discover these needs and guide your design. CBT’s process is called the Vision Lab and can last anywhere from four hours to three days, Madson explains. The company gathers a representative cross-section of employees from its client and leads them through a deep dive into their office needs, wants and culture.
“Not everyone in the group works the same way or has the same ideas of what tools they need throughout the day to do their job,” says Madson. “A computer developer, an HR person and a legal analyst all work at the same tech firm but might need different tools throughout the day, and that’s OK. How do we solve for each of them and let them thrive in a new workspace?”
SquareFoot, a commercial real estate tech firm that helps companies find office space, conducted a similar process for itself when it relocated its New York headquarters into a bigger space nine blocks from its old one. It turned out that most daily interactions were informal and didn’t need conference rooms or scheduling, explains Jonathan Wasserstrum, founder and CEO.
“When it came time to planning the office space we really desired, we deliberately built in lots of little corners and areas that would be inviting to people looking to get a change of pace away from their desks or to meet with colleagues to check in on projects,” he says.
The project’s furniture specifications followed that same strategy, Wasserstrum says. The design team scouted for furniture that would support casual get-togethers, eventually embracing custom-designed items that were specifically created to work in the spaces where they’d be placed.
“We also kept an open mind to work with vendors not necessarily traditionally known for office space furniture,” Wasserstrum notes. “Our whiteboard desks, for example, come from a school supply vendor. But it was perfect for what we knew we wanted. The line between home furniture and commercial furniture is blurring more every day, as employees want to feel comfortable in their workplaces. We also wanted to select furniture of a certain size that would allow for the natural flow of movement and encourage collaboration. We chose lounge chairs that swivel around to give people the ability to turn their attention to someone else or something else.”
A thoughtful layout and flexible furnishings won’t promise your client success, but they’ll go a long way toward creating a space in which people can thrive.
This was part two of our series on the changing landscape of open office design.
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5 Ideas for Open Office Furniture
Specifying the right furnishings is crucial in any space, but in open office design, it can mean the difference between an open concept workspace people like and one they grumble about. Here are five ways designers solved the open office furniture conundrum for their clients.
1. Perches and Ledges
Colleagues can drop in and chat in spaces that have ledges or seating that facilitates perching. They’re perfect for little-used areas like gaps under the stairs or adjacent to conference rooms.
Informal perching spots aren’t a distinct space type on their own, but they can be a useful (and popular) addition to an office when they’re in the right place.
Interface’s new Atlanta headquarters, which was designed by Perkins+Will, uses stacked carpet tiles as floor cushions to encourage employees to “plant yourself there and hang out,” explains Chip DeGrace, chief design officer for Interface.
2. Nimble Demountable Walls
Ideally, your client should be able to dismantle and rebuild demountable walls quickly without a lot of noise or hassle.
It should be easy to take some walls down, put them back up to create a different size or shape of space, and run power and data to the area. “Some departments change like the wind, and they need to be able to reconfigure,” says Andrew Cisisly, Western regional director of sales for HAT Contract, a contract office furniture specialist.
Technological advances like flat screens allow you to make workspaces shallower than you might have even a few years ago.
File storage is another area where you can specify less than you used to—most companies aren’t as paper-intensive as they used to be, so you may be over-specifying storage solutions.
The ability to fine-tune a space to their own needs encourages employees to take ownership of your design.
That doesn’t mean you have to customize every space to each individual’s whim, though. Instead, provide flexible furnishings that adjust to fit a wide range of bodies, like height-adjustable desks with smooth height adjustment settings rather than just a few presets.
Photo: Furnishings are a major concern in open office design. These desks provide plenty of storage, and the tall stools provide an alternative seating option. Credit: CBT/Robert Benson Photography
5. Multitasking Spaces and Furnishings
“One of our design mantras is that 100% of the space should be used 100% of the time,” says Dave Madson, principal at CBT. He likens design to chef Alton Brown’s dislike of any “unitasker,” or a kitchen tool that only does one task. The same is true for design, Madson explains—no space can be a unitasker.
“A café should be used throughout the day,” Madson says. “You’re going to provide space to grab a cup of coffee. It’s going to have a table and chairs. That’s great for lunch, but it also could have a whiteboard next to it so it can be an impromptu meeting space. It’s private and out of the way so someone doesn’t have to book a conference room for a quick conversation. If it can only do one thing, it shouldn’t have a place in workplace design.”
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