Complexity of New Office Designs:
Thinking Through Your Future Workplace
Work itself is dramatically evolving and the results of that evolution can be seen in new — sometimes successful and sometimes not as fortunate — office designs. Technology is creating a huge evolution in office design, affecting where, how, when, and what work is done. Companies’ business models and technology needs must be identified for architects and designers to design appropriate solutions. To bring about the successful spatial embodiment of a business in the physical world, architects and designers must carefully glean from a company what their present and future business models are and will be.
Some forces driving these new office designs include private workspaces getting smaller as less time is spent working individually and a larger part of work is done in teams and in group areas; working out of the office or telecommuting; new communications technology bringing greater, faster changes every day; and businesses changing their philosophical, structural models. During major design shifts, there will be the usual leaps forward and some backtracking of those who leaped and shouldn’t have.
As you will discover, office design is a hugely complicated intersection of conflicting and complementary parameters. Writing about it in one article is rather like trying to summarize an entire encyclopedia, but now may be the time. In the current job market, more and more employers are looking to attract and retain a productive work force. Providing a beautiful and utilitarian work environment is one way to reach that goal.
are investing in people and what makes them more productive — including
redesigning the office work environment. Before moving furniture and walls
around, a company must assess its corporate philosophy and either confirm
it, rework it, or adopt a new one.
|A Tale of Two (Virtual) Offices
In spite the of the best of intentions and contrary to rumors, the paperless office still hasn’t arrived. Closest to making it a reality is Denmark-based Oticon, where it snows every morning inside the cafeteria. Okay it’s not snow, it’s shredded mail that travels through a transparent chute on its way to a recycle bin in the basement. A global corporation now, Oticon founders early on decided to change the way work is done, and among those changes is the “Mail Room.” Here employees receive, read, and shred their mail after scanning it into a computer database for perpetuity [Tom Peters, Liberation Management — Necessary Disorganization for the Nanosecond Nineties, pub. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1992, p. 203].
Sounds cool, doesn’t
it? Before you consider a paperless office, be forewarned that the reality
of going virtual requires more than a top-down management decision. The
Chiat/Day advertising agency in Los Angeles “went virtual” in 1994 at the
command of founder Jay Chiat. Before long, the ill-fated attempt at outlawing
paper — any paper (even storyboards) — drove employees to stash files in
their car trunks; running out to retrieve them all day long. Then again,
the paperless office wasn’t the only problem at Chiat/Day. Each day began
with a race to check out a Powerbook, phone and a new place to sit since
no one was allowed to “nest” (sit in the same place twice). At the end
of 6 months, the place was a media circus and a very real company disaster
[Warren Berger, “Lost in Space,” Wired magazine 7.02, February 1999,
|New Office Design Terms and
On-Site Office Design Options for Individual Employees
Three Basic Business Philosophies
Reflected in Office Design
Office design should reflect the needs of the work and employees, as well as the structure of corporate philosophy. In the “rank or job title equals square footage” model, numerous rows of low-ranking employee cubicles graduate to fewer larger ones and then to private offices and then to increasingly larger private offices, to the ultimate highest rank, the top of the pyramid — the top floor or executive suite. This model is primarily a holdover from the military-industrial structure, but remains in use and genuinely applicable in some types of corporations whose employees require private, enclosed offices to enhance concentration.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, a new business model has appeared in which rank is not denoted by square footage, but by other compensations, such as the start-up company with a flattened structure that gives greater equality and autonomy to employees. Here, rank doesn’t depend upon territory or physical space, it depends on individual and collective performance results.
In the middle of
the spectrum, utilizing a mix of the elements of the two previous business
models, is the zone where many businesses hedge their bets, opting for
office designs that are not drastic, but effective and flexible enough
for the future.
Technology Drives New Office
The sudden focus upon teamwork has resulted in new office designs with exotic names such as hoteling, hot-desking, free addressing, shared assigned, and more [see the “Terms and Definitions sidebar on page 61]. The names may or may not tip one off to the fact that employees’ workspaces are getting smaller, more tightly arranged, with less privacy, and more visual and aural distractions. In some instances, workspaces aren’t even permanently assigned — you have to reserve them. This is a complete reversal of the traditional office design where your office or workspace was assigned, and as you advanced, you moved to increasingly larger and more private offices.
New office designs not only reverse the traditional individual workspaces, but also the team areas traditionally known as the conference room. In many new office designs the only floor-to-ceiling walls in the place, besides the restrooms, now enclose team or group work areas that have increased like rabbits in size, space, and variety. Now you know where your extra space went.
One of the complicating factors in office designs is the new technology. Now, instead of just insuring the usual electrical, phone, power, lighting, and heating-cooling, office design must support data, networks, and communications technology for each workspace. Add to that the reconfiguration of the office to accommodate the smaller individual work areas, the multiple team areas and team rooms, and the office begins to look more like a 9-foot-thick waffle-weave blanket with employees threading their way through each workday.
Thankfully, communication, data, and technology consultants, specialists such as Seattle-based Sparling [http://www.sparling.com], can make all those wires, cables, and connectors nearly “transparent,” while making the Internet and intranet accessible from everywhere but the restrooms — except for those PDAs and cell phones.
such as Sparling are crucial to today’s office designs, as communications
technology becomes ubiquitous in the work environment. “As hard as people
are working, the office environment as a place to work with minimal distraction
and highest technology needs to be a more comfortable environment,” says
Hunter Fulghum of Sparling. Satellite feeds from the roof and fiber optics
networks from the basement weaving up, down, and around through the building
can significantly affect office design, which must incorporate technology
Employee Attraction and Retention
Create More Enticing Office Spaces
As workplace values shift from being territorial and pyramidal to more equal status and respect-oriented, from management directives to self-directed work, from data technology to enhanced connectivity technology, from paper shuffling to challenging team projects, more and more employees are working in optimally designed office spaces. Due to a shortage of workers, businesses are now caught in the swift rapids of attracting and retaining qualified, educated, and technology-savvy employees by providing enticingly positive, energetic, flexible, and dynamic workplaces.
Present-day work environments are being designed more for employees and their work needs. Reduced layers of management brings new energy, product development-to-market, creativity, and flexibility to the office. Increased teamwork has created the need for more different types of group areas and interactive spaces than just conference rooms. As a result, individual workspaces are decreasing in size, but the need for a space for concentration, privacy, and quiet has not.
workspaces more closely placed cause unwanted noise to become more than
just a distraction. Added team spaces, larger computer monitor screens,
furniture systems, and walls below ceiling height make acoustic control
a necessary and important part of office design. Some products create “white
noise” to mask phone conversations, small-talk around the corner, and laughter
from teamwork areas. The smaller office spaces can utilize new individual
control products, such as Johnson Controls’ Personal Environment Unit [http://www.johnsoncontrols.com/
cg/PersEnv/pe_home.htm], that have integrated personalized, cool and warm, filtered air units, incandescent task lighting, and white noise generators, as well as motion sensors that turn off lights when the employee is away from the space. The employee is more in control of his or her own micro-environment.
Three Project Examples
Partly driven by higher real-estate costs, rising energy costs, and the recognition that valuable offices frequently lie empty, companies are hiring architects, interior designers, and space planners to change their office design. For the design professional and the client, office design needs to reflect changes in employee demographics, in business model or organization, and corporate branding.
NBBJ [http://www.nbbj.com] utilizes design elements that bring rich aesthetic experiences to employees in team environments or individual areas. Recent projects include the telecommunications company Telenor in Oslo, Norway, and the satellite communications network company Teledesic in Bellevue, Washington. Whether overlapping community and private spaces or designing cul-de-sacs for increased contrast in interactivity levels, the key to the design remains the interactions within the built environment.
Valuable, intimate, face-to-face meetings provide intensely rich contrast to the technology inherent in most of today’s offices. Making the most of the “in-between” spaces to encourage peoples’ need to connect on levels other than just the five senses, the architects use techniques like slowing down the elevators to promote spontaneous conversations and brainstorming. Patterns of human behavior give architects predictable paths. Then architects define areas where flexibility is built in, including pathways to slow circulation so that overlaps occur, enabling serendipitous encounters that “feed the brain,” according to Scott Wyatt, FAIA, and CEO of NBBJ.
Greenwell Goetz Architects
Washington, DC-based Greenwell Goetz Architects [http://www.gga.com/] use a form of hoteling in their offices, placing a concierge in the reception area of the offices they design who functions similarly to a concierge in a hotel. Winners of the American Institute of Architects 2000 Honor Award for Outstanding Interiors, they have incorporated many new office design elements in projects. Examples are “collision areas” — overlapping zones where informal, creative, idea-sparking opportunities can happen; simplified individual spaces, contrasting with more complex team areas; and wayfinding or orienting cues, such as lighting and color differences in corridors and office areas to locate common areas for clients with multiple floors of offices.
One recent project, the Marriott Shared Resource Center, has a radically open work environment where each employee has the same size space. Noting that this is difficult for employees to adjust when coming from the “rank-equals-square-footage model,” Lewis Goetz AIA, IIDA, GGA Principal & CEO, says, “Part of the reason it works is that the employees are totally new — with no prior expectations.”
Innovations in office designs were recently featured in a collaborative “Future @ Work” [http://www.future-at-work.org] exhibit installation in Seattle, Washington. Exhibit sponsors, Callison Architecture [http://www.callison.com/], along with Sparling, Steelcase, and Barclay Dean, decided to showcase an experiential office as a reference point for future and present clients. The inviting space was furnished more like a hotel suite without the beds, intermixing group and individual needs, formal and informal meeting and work spaces. A comfortable blend of progressive office equipment and technologies, workstyle aids, individual and group needs, the exhibit was so successful in showcasing new office design that the sponsors plan to repeat it next year. “Environment is the third most important item to employee retention and retraction,” says Sari Graven, ASID, Associate Principal, Callison Architecture.
Lobby • Teledesic Lounge
• GGA Team Area • GGA
Design pitfalls can result from failure to provide individual privacy, choosing a too-trendy look, cutting corners on lighting and comfort, too much or too little up-to-date technology interfacing, relying on furniture only, and many more poor choices. And, lest you think everyone follows the same path to new office design, currently, some companies continue to choose the traditional “rank-equals-square-footage” office design because their business model fits that design. One-size-fits-all isn’t good design practice.
Merging the Employee, the
Technologies, and the Office Workspace
The past: You were in the office. The present: Your desk is office. The future: You are the office.
In the future, work may be completely virtual. You may conference, work with 3-D prototypes, or teamwork with others in remote locations using a virtual meeting space or environment like the holodeck on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Or, you may simply slip on wearable computer clothing and download your e-mail while enjoying a game of tug-of-war with your dog — all at home. As computer technology and haptic or built-in computer sensory devices [such as those from http://www.immersion.com/] expand into more aspects of our work lives, they will also alter office furniture such as desks and workstations. Pod-like or cockpit-like environments such as the APTUS [http://www.workenv.com/contents.html], with everything in easy reach, may become your next office.
For now and the
near future, though, talented and highly skilled employees rule. Despite
the media attention to outrageous office designs, not everyone is following
the same path. In fact, lately the trend has begun shifting back to the
traditional rank-equals-square-footage office design as more attention
is given to detailed assessments of highly skilled employees’ workplace
needs as well as the corporate business model. A one-size-fits-all workplace
design using today’s complex technology can end up being an expensive,
trendy mistake. As Hunter Fulghum of Sparling puts it, “We strive to use
appropriate technology within a structure that supports change.” The same
goal must be holistically applied to office design — especially at a time
when highly skilled employees are hard to recruit and retain. If companies
want employees to put their hearts, minds, and souls into their work, the
design of the workplace must appropriately reflect and enhance that vision.
Book explores design innovations in facilities management, furniture, heating and cooling, lighting, power, and information and their interface within office buildings.
Read Chapter 23, “Myths of Team Leadership,” online at http://www.mfinley.com/bizbooks/teams/chapter23.htm.
Terrific insight on the corporation as analogous to the individual in intelligences.
Excellent book providing rich insights into the current business and design trends seen in various forms and in various states of success or failure today.
Twelve-page survey paper focuses on real-time, computer-supported communication and collaboration: face-to-face meetings and casual real time interactions.
The CoVis — Collaboration Visualization Project — which focuses upon aspects of collaborative telecommunications environments.
The transformation of the boardroom into the war-room.
Article updated in June of 1999 about the impact on real estate by telecommuting based upon results of IDRC’s (International Development Research Council) new Corporate Real Estate 2000 Research.
An excellent 20-page analysis of workplace noise reduction problems and solutions.
Mary Colette Wallace is an Associate AIA, Wallace Research Group [http://wallaceresearch.net]. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org