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Magazines > Searcher > January/February 2010
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Vol. 18 No. 1 — Jan/Feb 2010
Office Design 2009: A Perfect Storm?
by Mary Colette Wallace
President, Assoc. AIA, The Wallace Research Group

“However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.”

– Winston Churchill, 1874–1965

Amidst roiling job markets, slashed travel budgets, decimated retirement portfolios, and an economy in turmoil, there are significant changes occurring in office design. Some are long overdue, some unexpected, and some have yet to be completely defined — a kind of perfect storm in office design involving three strong forces: autonomy, demographics, and technology.

Architectural and design firms have worked hard at making sense of what office needs are and have sought ways to improve workers’ performance through more appropriate environments. It has taken years of surveys, research, and experimentation to begin to understand what works in the design of offices for knowledge workers. Confusing the issue at times, furniture makers were only too keen to design furniture that seemed to increasingly take a page from the airline industry in seat size — reflecting the cost per square foot that client companies worried about.

However, as Frank Duffy of DEGW noted, the built environment has failed to evolve in parallel to technological and social changes. One issue no longer presses on the office environment as much as it has as commercial space becomes increasingly available and costs for it drop. According to a June 2009 press release from CB Richard Ellis Group, Inc. on global office occupancy costs, Singapore was down 34.4%; New York City, 31% at $68 per sq. ft.; Boston, 29.7%; Hong Kong, 29%. London’s West End is the second-most-expensive in Europe at $172 per sq. ft., while Tokyo is the most expensive at $183 per sq. ft. 1

Given this backdrop, companies have begun adopting significantly overdue changes in office design. Looking at the challenges of creating optimal environments for knowledge workers, I conducted a literature survey that included several critical surveys taken by large architecture firms that design thousands of offices. It appears that at least three primary concepts significantly alter office designs of top-performing companies currently and will continue to prevail for those wanting to be top-performing companies in the future.

Autonomy and the Office
Environment for Knowledge Workers

Information being gathered by architecture firms is greatly helping to close the gap on how to design office environments for knowledge workers. Global firms such as Gensler, with its yearly Workplace Performance Surveys of office workers in the U.S. and the U.K., show conclusively that workplace design directly affects a company’s performance. The “2008 Gensler Design+Performance Report” reveals that top companies see their employees as “internal customers” and provide them four different types of office environments to encourage optimum performance: 41% focus on work, 36% on collaborating, 21% on learning, and 7% on socializing. These top companies have reaped at least 28.0% higher profits averaged over 3 years by focusing on quality of worker spaces. 2

In 2004, partner Laurie Aznavoorian, at Australia’s Geyer Pty. Ltd., 3 wrote that the design processes of previous years would not define the workplaces of the future. Company and workplace identity have several facets in desired organizational culture and brand that architects and designers need to take into account with the impacts of technology and social trends. Often, she says, architects and designers do not go deep enough in the briefing process to capture the level of information needed to create successful workplaces.

Knowledge work — the product of collaboration, initiative, and expertise — is the product of most offices, now that technology has computerized many repetitive tasks. In the past, knowledge workers were often viewed as a single group, but, in reality, along with the work they produce, staff vary in status, influence, and differentiation of their workspaces. Thus they need autonomy.

In 2002, Thomas H. Davenport, Robert J. Thomas, and Susan Cantrell issued an article based upon a year’s worth of interviews. It defined two key concepts which companies can utilize to increase knowledge workers’ productivity: choice and segmentation. The study provides more detail about knowledge workers on a scale of low to high and what they need in a physical environment. Having greater information about knowledge workers’ needs allows companies some leeway in deciding the amount of resources they will devote to attaining and retaining the lowest through the highest levels of knowledge workers. This, in turn, provides architects and designers with a more detailed portrait of knowledge workers and their environmentally driven performance needs. 4

Office environment design has been traditionally driven by cost per square foot. Today’s workplace environments also need spaces that contribute to innovation and places for collaborating, researching/learning, socializing, and reflecting. It remains up to the companies as to whether or not what workers need and want will be provided— or simply leave it up to the employees to find it, possibly elsewhere. Sometimes companies which create a space for ‘creativity’ abandon it. Senior executives must schedule and participate in any creative meetings for workers to understand its use. If special spaces and even special furniture are not formalized into the culture of the company, employees will not use them.

Rather than finding the Holy Grail of office design, some companies which tried hot-desking furniture arrangements (namely furniture arrangements that support multiple employees sharing an office space at different times) have ended up rejecting them due to acoustic and/or visual privacy concerns and/or confidential information handling (including identity theft concerns). Some have found that despite the concept behind hot-desking, human nature triumphed and employees gravitated to the same location each day. Of course, due to the wide variety of knowledge work accomplished in companies, there is no single design that fits every one.

Demographics and the Office
Furniture to Address the
Physical Needs of Aging

As the demographic shift of more workers over 50 than under occurs across many countries, companies will find it increasingly difficult to gain or retain workers with the usual cubicle and its worktable facing the wall next to that ubiquitous, “adjustable” yet somehow always uncomfortable chair. A CRS Report for Congress states, “By 2025, [the population] of Americans aged 25 to 54 years old will increase by 3.8% to 236 million while the increase in those aged 55 to 64 will increase by 11 million or 36%. These numbers point to a significantly greater number of older workers remaining and a near scarce number of younger workers entering the work force.” 5

Before the recession hit, it was widely held that aging Boomers would leave the workforce depleted of talent and experience. While the manufacturing, construction, retail, and services industries accounted for nearly all jobs lost during the recession, it has not discouraged older job seekers. 6

Companies are scrambling to retain older workers who can and will weather the recession and keep these organizations profitable and growing. The aging of the workforce will place increasing demands on office design — in furniture needs, acoustics, lighting, the variety of environments, spatial arrangements, assistive technology, physical access, material finishes, and air quality.

RH Chairs, with AA in the U.K. and with Dutch ANWB, studied the issue of seating and ergonomics. Jorgen Josefsson believes that ergonomics and its focus on posture is not as helpful as once thought. 7 Instead, the focus is more on the need for the worker to have greater movement within a chair. In addition to ergonomic concerns, companies need furniture with greater flexibility, greater variety in types of seating, and adjustable tables to provide for all workers’ comfort, no matter their age, ability, or health. One of the more interesting chair designs for privacy and work is the Ear Chair by Jurgen Bey for PROOFF from the Netherlands.

Technology Has Untethered Workers
From the 6'-Cable, and in Many
Instances, From Business Travel,
Specific Furniture, and the Office itself!

According to a March 2009 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, approximately 12% of workers telecommute from home and most of them cite workplace noise as the main reason. Many of the changes brought in to address older workers’ needs and wants will help workers of other ages as well. High real estate costs, offices, workspaces, and furniture have shrunk in size, diminishing worker performance. For instance, acoustics researchers at the Center for the Built Environment at the University of California have found that speech privacy, not mere noise, is a problem for workers. More than 50% surveyed said that their ability to perform their work was directly affected by people on the phone, people talking in nearby offices, and overhearing private conversations. 8

Some companies with under-the-floor ventilation or air distribution systems may need under-the-floor acoustic septums installed to reduce the transfer of noise (including speech) through the floor plenum. Beside a specific type of abatement, there are also noise-masking, or sound-masking, “white noise” systems that can meet the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations for companies. And then there is also the ever-present concern over potential identity theft of private information. 9

Surveys from occupants in more than 200 buildings, including a naturally ventilated one, revealed too little air movement as the most common complaint among office workers. While many bring their own small fans to help, architects and designers have been working the problem with varying degrees of success. Most designers rely upon ASHRAE and ISO thermal environment standards, but a survey by researchers at the Center for the Built Environment at UC–Berkeley reveals that people need more air movement, especially in warm and neutral temperatures. 10

One of the best ways to help the planet and company bottom lines is only traveling to absolutely necessary meetings. The wide array of teleconferencing and video teleconferencing services on the internet seems perfectly timed to meet companies’ economic needs as well. According to Forrester Research, these services will only continue to grow dynamically. 11

Technology Alters Workplace
Learning, Even With Immersive
Virtual Worlds.

“We talk of basic skills and literacy, but there is almost never any talk about visual literacy. All the studio art courses were scrapped long ago. We teach the sciences as a series of facts to be memorized with machine-like accuracy and recall. (Why do we think we should be competing with machines — just because it gives impressive test results?) Facts are easy to test and allow us to avoid having to teach critical thinking or having to understand deep patterns in nature. We focus on the facts, yet no one acknowledges that the essence of science is not a list of facts but a process that, for many of the best scientists, is largely visual — making discoveries about patterns in nature through seeing patterns in complex visual information.”

Thomas G. West 12

The office environment is a perfect place for a variety of both formal and informal learning activities. Learning today concentrates methods from cognitive science, learning theory, neuroscience, psychology and game design. Learning types used by the military, corporations, universities, healthcare organizations, and companies worldwide include multiple channel-blended learning, Web Learning 2.0, knowledge centers, immersive, interactive learning simulations, serious gaming, Second Life. Serious games (defined as games with some type of educational or training value) and similar learning games on Second Life create virtual environments where workers compete against themselves or others, learning in safe environments the consequences of their actions and decisions. 13

Learners in these virtual environments create content by engaging with tools, strategies, methods, and standards, while analyzing opponent strengths and weaknesses and allocating resources toward a goal. Industry watchers say that by 2011, $1.5 billion globally will be spent on serious games. 14

In this area, technology’s real impact on workplaces or offices is to make the workplaces themselves unnecessary for most work. With the varying levels of knowledge work, the greater ability to perform more focused work at home, and the benefits to the environment with more telecommuting, there is a probability that offices or workplaces are becoming largely social networking, collaborative, learning places.

Changes in the Making

The perfect storm is what shakes out the important from the unimportant. To cause office workplace design to significantly change will require a combination of autonomy, demographics, economy, sustainability, and technology.

Technology - The Good, the Unproven, and Big Brother

Marshall McLuhan’s quote that the “medium is the message” has become true in that we have been more impressed by technological changes in the ways we communicate rather than what is being said.

Good Technology

Teleconferencing, Video-Teleconferencing —, Cisco Telepresence, etc. Allows meetings around the globe without the travel and its associated costs, without delays and unnecessary expenses, and provides a huge relief to those counting their carbon offsets. Video or teleconferencing is greener than green.

Virtual, Immersive Learning — Second Life, etc.

Noise-Masking — Johnson Controls or Lencore’s system meets ASTM standards for speech privacy and oral privacy solutions in an effort to meet the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) [].

Environmental Controls—Johnson Controls’ “personal environments system” provides individual fan, heating, cooling [;].

Unproven Technology

Cloud Computing — The jury’s still out as to whether or not this will be a panacea for most companies, mainly due to persistent security questions.’

Big Brother Technology

Microsoft is interested in the next generation of helping workers with frustration or stress, perhaps even before they notice. Patent applications for workers’ surveillance systems using wireless remote sensors monitoring body temperature, movement, blood pressure, facial expression, and heart rates have been filed to “offer and provide assistance accordingly.”

Not to be outdone, Johnson Controls Global WorkPlace Solutions RFIC and smart cards can “help” designers, showing how people use their space by tracking and analyzing their movements. That may seem a good idea for some (workers on parole come to mind); however, as a part of attracting and retaining employees, not so much.

Furniture Links

Sound-absorbent Airflake molded felt panels (cut-outs) by abstracta

Gaetano Pesce’s Colorado sectional looks like the Rocky Mountains. Fun and bright solid colors

The Ear Chair by PROOFF

Simon Pengelly — Wrap Chair

Citi Tablet Chair

Brion — Gestation chairs wow

Anthro — Gold in Best of NeoCon 2008 ergonomic, highly adjustable, highly customizable workspace furniture


1 CBRE Press Release: “Global Office Occupancy,” by Kathryn House, June 3, 2009, CB Richard Ellis Group, Inc., Los Angeles.

2 2008 Gensler Design + Performance Report.

3 Geyer Future Environments, Why Yesterday’s Process Won’t Deliver Tomorrow’s Workplace, by Laurie Aznavoorian, November 2004, Geyer Pty. Ltd. [;].

4 Thomas H. Davenport, Robert J. Thomas, and Susan Cantrell, “The Mysterious Art and Science of Knowledge-Worker Performance,” MIT Sloan Management Review, Fall 2002.

5 CRS Report for Congress. “Older Workers: Employment and Retirement Trends,” Patrick Purcell, Domestic Social Policy Division; updated Sept. 15, 2008.

6 “Senior Unemployment Rate Hits 31-Year High,” Richard W. Johnson, Fact Sheet on Retirement Policy, Urban Institute, January 2009.

7 “Positive Thinking: The Back,” On Office Magazine, June 09, Issue 32, published online by Media 10 Ltd, Essex, U.K. [].

8 “Acoustical Quality in Office Workstations, as Assessed by Occupant Surveys,” K. Jensen, Edward Arens, and L. Zagreus, Proceedings: Indoor Air 2005; accessed at the eScholarship Repository, University of California.

9 Center for Environmental Design Research, Center for the Built Environment, University of California–Berkeley, “Designing Acoustically Successful Work Places: A Case Study Assessment of the Speech Privacy and Sound Isolation of Space Having Underfloor Air Distribution Systems,” Charles M. Salter, Randy D. Waldeck, Summary Report, April 2006.

10 Air Movement Preferences Observed in Office Buildings, Hui Zhang, Edward Arens, Abbaszadeh Fard, Charlie Huizenga, Gwelen Paliaga, et al., Center for the Built Environment, University of Berkeley, Berkeley, Calif., 2007.

11 Trends 2009: More Tech Choices for Customer Service Improvement, Chip Gliedman, with Natalie L. Petouhoff, Sharyn Leaver, Andrew Magarie, Forrester Research.

12 Thinking Like Einstein — Returning to Our Visual Roots With the Emerging Revolution in Computer Information Visualization, Thomas G. West, 2004, Prometheus Books, New York, p. 21.

13 “Teaching and Learning Processes in the Contemporary Work Organisation,” Workplace Learning: Main Themes & Perspectives, Tracy Lee, Alison Fuller, David Ashton, Peter Butler, Alan Felstead, et al.; Learning as Work Research Paper, No. 2, June 2004; Centre for Labour Market Studies, University of Leicester, U.K.

14 “Serious Games: Online Games for Learning – A Whitepaper,” Anne Derryberry, I’, 2007, Adobe Systems, Inc.

Mary Colette Wallace ( is President, Assoc. AIA, The Wallace Research Group in Bellevue, WA (
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