Building a sense of community with spaces in which to collaborate, innovate, huddle, do team building—and enjoy the benefits of natural light—promises to be an integral element in office design going forward. Flexible and efficient designs that are functional and fun are increasingly in demand and will be key for offices of the future.
Open floor plans in workplace environments continue to gain momentum. “The last time I remember being on the cusp of a trend or fad was about ten years ago when we began talking about sustainability,” Jim Young, vice president of corporate facilities, services, and real estate for Marriott International, says of the company’s work on open office floor plans. “We’d have meetings and then people would lean in and ask, ‘How long is this going to last?’ And of course now sustainability is a part of life.”
Changes in office design span the world. “The revolution is about design,” says architecture firm Gensler’s Design Forecast 2014, which predicts ideas likely to prevail over the coming decade. “This is a time of profound change in how design supports work in all its varied forms. Old ways are being set aside as organizations look at work and its settings holistically. There’s a demand for new approaches and real estate products.” These approaches and products are reflections of a new, more collaborative way of working.
“Reduced-occupancy footprints and an upgrade to better-quality space are two global trends that show no sign of letting up,” says Nick Viner, director of workplace at HKS Architects in London. “From New York to London and Paris, business leaders continue to monitor their real estate costs and no longer tolerate wasted space.”
Most modern European offices tend to integrate open and enclosed workspaces, collaboration areas, and formal meeting areas, Viner notes. “More creative and diverse workplaces that buck this trend are favored by the technology, media, and telecoms [TMT] sector. Employees working in this sector are empowered to use their office space in a very different way, and employers provide a wide assortment of creative interior spaces for staff to undertake their work,” he says. “Indeed, the TMT sector has also taken space traditionally allocated to cellular [private] offices and given this over to spaces that improve the well-being of staff.”
DesignLab, Office of the Future
In the United States, Mitchell Schear, president of Vornado/Charles E. Smith, which owns 19.2 million square feet (1.8 million sq m) of office space in the Washington, D.C., area, envisions the Crystal City area of Arlington County, Virginia, as a “natural habitat” for tech firms because of its excellent transportation system offering quick connections to nearby Reagan Washington National Airport, the Pentagon, and downtown Washington. Vornado recently held a design competition called DesignLab in Crystal City and challenged six architecture firms to create the “office of the future” for six potential tenants in offices on a single floor.
DesignLab showcases innovative offices designed by RTKL, Perkins+Will, VOA, Fox Architects, SmithGroupJJR, and OTJ Architects. Vornado provided each firm with $65 per square foot ($700 per sq m) to cover the hard costs of finishing the offices, which range from 2,800 to 5,900 square feet (260 to 548 sq m). The architects were given no design constraints, but were told to design for the needs of tenants in the creative/technology field. The firms worked individually, yet several strong trends emerged, including collaborative spaces, transparency, flexibility, and efficient design—concepts expected to be adapted in the future by traditional companies as well as creative firms.
Encouraging people to collaborate at work is one of the strongest factors driving office design today. “People have all this technology, so you can work anywhere with a tablet and a smartphone; you can sit in the lobby of a hotel and do work. One of the reasons to come to an office is to collaborate, create synergies,” says Schear, who wants to inspire “meeting points, collisions, and collaborations.” Indeed, the importance of face-to-face interactions is one reason Marissa Mayer, chief executive officer of Yahoo, in early 2013 ordered remote workers to return to Yahoo offices to work.
Many think transparency promotes collaboration. “When workers are more likely to see each other, they are more likely to connect and share successful and creative thinking,” says Viner. “This type of requirement reinforces the need to depart from the cellular office template and lose internal walls to create a more open and less hierarchical workplace environment.”
DesignLab architects embraced transparency, eliminating walls or replacing them with glass partitions to make almost everything happening in an office visible at a glance. They also created open areas with bench-style workstations and low workspace dividers. The designers made sure natural light from the building’s windows reaches as far into the office as possible—interior offices have glass walls—so everyone benefits from the light.
Creating communal spaces and transparency drove the renovation of Gensler’s award-winning offices on K Street in Washington, D.C., last year, where 90 feet (27 m) of the building’s ground-level facade, a mix of floor-to-ceiling granite walls and smaller windows, was replaced with floor-to-ceiling windows.
“Everything about design is on display. We want anybody who walks in to see what we’re doing,” says Jordan Goldstein, principal and managing director of the firm’s D.C. office.
The renovated ground level has a conference room with telescoping glass walls that open to tiered stadium seating off a wide staircase that now connects to the second level, forming a grand, two-story atrium. With banquette seating along the walls and state-of-the-art technology, Gensler can now accommodate all 275 of its local employees in one space for a meeting. The firm almost doubled the number of meeting spaces, creating “war rooms” so teams can leave their project paraphernalia out for months and adding lounges and other places for people to connect. Some rooms are reserved and others are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. “We were at 0.43 conference room seats per person, and the industry target for the number of conference and teaming spaces is 0.6. We’re now at 0.83,” says Goldstein. “Look around: there are tons of places to meet.”
Office design must take into account that employees representing multiple generations may be simultaneously working at a company, says Scott Ashley, senior workplace strategist of Vocon, an architecture and interior design firm with offices in Cleveland and New York City. “You have to offer the amenities employees are looking for. Boomers are looking for the same things as millennials: convenience, location, a simple commute, food on site, and workout facilities,” he notes. “The most critical element is finding balance between supporting individual focused tasks and team collaboration.”
Open-plan offices allow companies to connect their knowledge workers with one another. “An open plan is critical in moving workers forward,” says Ashley. “They rely on each other to bounce ideas off. You can’t create and innovate in a vacuum.” Most innovation happens in groups of two to four, but most conference rooms seat ten to 12, he notes.
Adapting to open-plan office space may be a bit more challenging for firms that require confidentiality for legal, accounting, and human resources needs. And visual and auditory privacy are sacrificed with open workspaces.
“As I’m speaking to you, I’m looking at five colleagues who have gathered four feet from my workstation and are discussing where to go for lunch, but it’s 12:30, so I can’t complain,” Ashley says from Cleveland. In such instances, a person needing privacy could move to a quiet room.
Another change in design is in allocation of premium space within the office. “The corner office isn’t for the CEO anymore. The corner space is given back to the staff,” says Mike Johnson II, an associate at SmithGroupJJR. His firm late last year moved into new space in Washington where no one except those working in human resources has an office. This concept is common in high-tech firms in Silicon Valley.
In open floor plans, when conference rooms occupy interior spaces, they often have glass walls and conference tables that can be broken into smaller meeting tables rather than have just one big boardroom table. Huddle rooms, where a few people can get together to exchange ideas, and “phone booths,” where a person can make a private call, are an important part of the mix, especially for those dealing with confidential matters, says Ashley.
Efficient design involves creating flexible spaces that can be easily transformed and that maximize a space’s potential. Among the many agile office elements available are carpet tiles that can be replaced after a spill, glass walls that can be reconfigured, workspace dividers that can be moved to redefine a workstation, filing cabinets that can be rolled to a new location, adjustable desks that can be lowered and raised for a worker’s well-being, and LED light fixtures that can be snapped in and out of a ceiling grid. New workspaces integrate writable walls treated with special paints that transform them into dry-erase canvases, chalkboards, and whiteboard walls, as well as glass walls that can be written on.
Even the role of the receptionist is evolving. Occupancy sensors may alert a virtual receptionist in another office—perhaps even in another part of the country—when a guest arrives. Also, a reception desk on wheels may do double duty as a serving table during company social events.
Design that creates a sense of community and engages employees will become paramount. Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace, released last fall, found that companies with the most engaged employees—those who are involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and who contribute to their organization—have significantly higher productivity, profitability, and customer ratings than those with the least engaged employees.
Communal spaces have been popular in Silicon Valley for years. With companies since the financial crisis relying more on unassigned seating in offices—and with real estate expenses driving companies to reduce their square footage and cut costs—creating more efficient space with a sense of community within a corporation may be more important than ever. Whether called hoteling, hot desking, free address, or nonterritorial offices, the trend for workers to be untethered from a workspace is gaining momentum. “That reduces hierarchy, which helps create innovation and collaboration through impromptu meetings as a result of a more dynamic workplace,” says Sarah Brown, an associate at VOA. “It also helps develop an overall sense of community as workers interact more with each other.”
Companies such as Marriott are creating larger areas for staff members to connect. Young is working with Gensler to expand the lobby in Marriott’s Bethesda, Maryland, headquarters to 19,000 square feet from 9,000 square feet (1,800 from 800 sq m) in an open floor plan. The renovation will encompass the existing lobby and some existing surrounding cubicles and offices in the 800,000-square-foot (74,000 sq m) building, which is rated Gold under the LEED for Existing Buildings program.
“We’re going to create almost a conference-center feeling [in the lobby] with a broad spectrum of meeting spaces to accommodate from two to 20 people and more,” Young says. “We’re moving from an old cube farm environment to an environment where it is easier for people to move around and work with a variety of colleagues and teams in a variety of different and conducive spaces.” In other parts of the headquarters building, “we’ve piloted a couple of open floor plans as we speak,” Young says. “But we don’t have all the answers yet. Furniture alone for a facility this big would probably cost $60 [million] or $70 million, so we want to make sure we get it right.”
Along with creating community and a healthy workplace, incorporating sustainability continues to be a focus, and designers around the world are working in eco-wise ways. “A number of recycled and environmentally friendly construction materials like recycled carpets, coir sheets, calcium silicate boards, and composite marbles are available today,” says Kartik Punjabi, chief executive of Vijay Punjabi Consultants, a Mumbai-based firm that designs more than 2 million square feet (186,000 sq m) of workspace annually across India. All of these materials are used in current office fit-out projects in India, he says.
Technology and collaboration will continue to spur office design in the future. “It’s a permanent paradigm shift,” says Schear. “Hold on to your hats.”
Trish Donnally has cowritten two books on design, The New Traditional and The Collected Home, published by Clarkson/Potter Publishers. She is the former editor in chief of Washington Spaces and a former editor at the San Francisco Chronicle.
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