By: Heather Boerner
Call it a more communal office space.
The rise of the entrepreneur class and self-employment, along with the let-it-all hang-out vibe of tech giants like Google, are changing the ways in which we work and today's office space.
Smaller spaces, open floor plans and workplace flexibility are altering the way our offices look, even while aiming to increase employee productivity.
“Think about a city park with a soccer field, a lake, a picnic table area and a grassy area,” says Randy Howder, senior workplace strategist at the global design and architecture firm Gensler. “That’s what we’re talking about when we’re talking about where office design is going.”
Like a park, there’s an awful lot of open space in today's office spaces. Gone are private offices, office cubicles and giant conference rooms. They’re being replaced with common spaces that look more like lounges, private spaces that can be reserved by the hour, and conference rooms for five or so people instead of 30.
Underpinning all of this are two things: Shrinking square footage and technology advancements.
The Shrinking Office Space
Since the dot-com bubble, space-per-employee has dropped dramatically, says Garrick Brown, director of research for the commercial real estate company Cassidy Turley. Back then, each employee got about 2,500 square feet worth of personal space.
Fast forward to 2013 and Twitter’s move to a San Francisco office that squeezes seven workers into a 1,000 square feet office space.
Modern technology and business models that encourage telecommuting allow for smaller work environments, adds Brown. That includes WiFi, but also hotspots for mobile providers and conference rooms decked out with audiovisual technology to connect small offices with telecommuters and employees worldwide.
“These companies are looking at their workers as not having a permanent anchor” or office, says Brown. “You might be working at this desk one day and another desk another day. You might take over a room for a little while to get some private time. You might be working from the break room if you want. It’s all very free.”
While the trend started in tech, it’s spreading to all industries -- or nearly all. This modern office space won’t work for some divisions or companies. Think data centers, call centers or back offices -- anywhere where workers need privacy and storage.
But for creative workers and workers who can store files on the cloud and plug their laptop into any outlet, the trend is taking off.
Thinking of redesigning your office environment? Consider these watchwords:
Did you ever think the location of a restroom would be important in the office design? For many companies today, it is, says Brown. Putting the restroom in the right place maximizes chance meetings that could spark new ideas.
In other words, says Edin Rudic, creative director of the New York City-based design firm MKDA, “‘Me’ space is becoming ‘we’ space.”
And it doesn’t stop at the restroom door. Norm Miller, a professor of real estate at the University of San Diego, says one company he visited has its head of innovation act as a social director in the break room, introducing strangers so they can start conversations that may lead to new products, services and greater productivity. The room is set up like a café, with tall tables and good coffee.
“They said it was the most innovative location in the building,” Miller says. “The idea now is not only to share space but to create more collaborative rooms so people can be productive.”
At least in part because of shrinking office space, office environments must now do double duty. That’s where walls made of foam blocks that double as chairs come in. If it’s got one purpose, it’s not going to work in the new office space, says Rudic.
“Everything is multifunctional,” he says. “The flexibility is really important because it gives people options and the ability to feel special.”
Not everyone works well in open spaces. Indeed, in Gensler’s recent survey of U.S. workplaces, companies that balance open collaborative spaces with private spaces where employees can focus were “multiple times more innovative and profitable than those that only provided collaborative space,” says Gensler’s Howder.
“In completely open plan environments with all these soft seating areas, a lot of workers struggle to think clearly and deeply because of the interruptions,” he says. “So the idea is really to focus on giving people choices of when and where to work so they can be most productive, depending on the task.”
To that end, Rudic says small so-called escape rooms that people can reserve for a few hours have become essential, as have new chairs with high walls that act as single-person privacy screens. “We categorize these into thinking spaces,” he says. “And then there are semi-private spaces and public.”
More than Space Planning
But space planning isn’t enough, says Howder. Management has to reflect this open, flexible and collaborative attitude, too. “The point is to give people a real choice and then balance the work environment with varied spaces that allow people to be their most effective.”