Vol.8, No. 10 • Nov/Dec 2000
Complexity of New Office Designs:
Thinking Through Your Future Workplace
by Mary Colette Wallace, Associate AIA, Wallace Research Group

Kahlil Gibran, in “The Prophet,” wrote: “Love is work made visible.” Whether he meant that love is work or that work is the expression of love, it’s a good reminder that our work and the place where we do that work is a huge and important part of our lives.

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.

Today, corporations 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 Definitions

On-Site Office Design Options for Individual Employees


  • Free-Range or Free Address: Workspaces available to anyone who gets there first.
  • Hot-Desking: Movable and or quickly assembled individual workspaces.
  • Hoteling: Ideally for employees who only stay in the office for brief periods and where the ratio of employees to workspaces is 2 to 1 or higher.
  • Hoteling Free Address: See the “concierge” for unassigned workspaces.
  • Hoteling Reserved: For your “reserved” space and/or equipment.
  • Shared Assigned: A single workspace is assigned to two or more employees for different times of usage.
  • Permanent Assigned: Traditional assignment of one employee to one workspace.
  • Cubicle: Semi-enclosed workspace.
  • Private Office: Enclosed workspace.
On-Site Office Design Options for Teams or Groups of Employees


  • Group Address: Dynamic team projects workspace.
  • Huddle Spaces: Areas for informal meetings.
  • Learning Spaces: Interactive learning areas.
  • Team Spaces: Large, open-plan group work areas.
  • Permanent Assigned: Group workspace.
  • Conference Room: Traditional designated group workspace.
  • War Room /Videoconference Room: Non-traditional designated group workspace.
  • Cave and Commons: Designed to accommodate need for individual concentration (small, enclosed workspaces are assigned) and team communication (one or more shared common areas are designated).
  • Universal Standard: All employees are assigned the same size workstation or office.
Off-Site Office Design Options
  • Home Office: Employee workspace at home.
  • Virtual Office: Employee workspace is anywhere they are.
  • Client Site: Employees who work at their clients’ site.
  • Satellite or Telecenters: Branch or support office in field.

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 Design
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 [], 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.

Technology specialists 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 transparently.

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.

Smaller private 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 [
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.

Example 1: NBBJ
NBBJ [] 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.

Example 2: Greenwell Goetz Architects
Washington, DC-based Greenwell Goetz Architects [] 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.”

Example 3: Future@Work
Innovations in office designs were recently featured in a collaborative “Future @ Work” [] exhibit installation in Seattle, Washington. Exhibit sponsors, Callison Architecture [], 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.

[Photos:Teledesic LobbyTeledesic LoungeGGA Team AreaGGA Studio]

Caveat Emptor
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] 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 [], 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.



  • Francis Duffy, The New Office, London, Conran Octopus Ltd., 1997.

  • Book explores design innovations in facilities management, furniture, heating and cooling, lighting, power, and information and their interface within office buildings.
  • Harvey Robbins and Michael Finley, The New Why Teams Don’t Work: What Goes Wrong and How to Make It Right, San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, July 2000.

  • Read Chapter 23, “Myths of Team Leadership,” online at
  • Howard Gardner, Intelligences Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century, New York, Basic Books, 1999. 

  • Terrific insight on the corporation as analogous to the individual in intelligences.
  • Tom Peters, Liberation Management — Necessary Disorganization for the Nanosecond Nineties, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

  • 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.
  • “Computer Support for Real Time Collaborative Work,” by Saul Greenberg and Ernest Chang, first pub. 1990, “Congressus Numerantium,” 75, pp. 247-262. First published in Proceedings of the Conference on Numerical Mathematics and Computing, Sept 28-30, Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1989. This version published May 1998 by Advanced Technologies — Alberta Research Council  [].

  • Twelve-page survey paper focuses on real-time, computer-supported communication and collaboration: face-to-face meetings and casual real time interactions.
  • “Distributed Collaborative Science Learning Using Scientific Visualization and Wideband Communications” by Roy D. Pea, Daniel C. Edelson, and Louis M. Gomez, Northwestern University, Illinois. Paper originally entitled “Multimedia Information Systems for Science and Engineering Education: Harnessing Technologies,” presented at the 160th Meeting of AAAS — American Association for Advancement of Science — February 22, 1994 [].

  • The CoVis — Collaboration Visualization Project — which focuses upon aspects of collaborative telecommunications environments.
  • “Telework and the Environment Report: The National Air Quality and Telecommuting Act” (as part of HR 2084), prepared by The National Environmental Policy Institute, July 31, 2000, pp. 48-49. Available on the NEPI Web site at [].

  • “Competitive Intelligence: A Futurist’s Perspective — Socio-Economic Trends Will Alter CI’s Methods and Techniques, But Not Its Value” by Steven Shaker and Mark Gembicki, January-March 1999, SCIP [].

  • The transformation of the boardroom into the war-room.
  • “The Info-Age Workplace: Now at a Location Surrounding You,” by Jack Lyne. Site Selection, August 1995 issue [].

  • 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.
  • “Sound Solutions: Increasing Office Productivity Through Integrated Acoustic Planning and Noise Reduction Strategies” by ASID — American Society of Interior Designers, Armstrong World Industries, Inc., Dynasound, Inc., Milliken & Co., Steelcase Inc.,1996 []

  • An excellent 20-page analysis of workplace noise reduction problems and solutions.
  • “Office As Hotel,” reprinted from Washington Business Journal, Jan 29-Feb 4, 1999 Issue by Adam Katz-Stone, “Alternative Workplace Data Challenges Industry” excerpt from 1998 “Alternative Workplace Study” report by LaSalle Partners, Inc. and the IFMA — International Facility Management Association, pub. in “Real Property Policy Site,” Spring 1999, pub. by U.S. General Services Administrative Evaluation and Innovative Workplaces division (MPE), Office of Governmentwide Policy [] 


Mary Colette Wallace is an Associate AIA, Wallace Research Group [].  Her e-mail address is

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