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2015: The Year We Refined the Workplace

Dec. 1, 2015

Backlash to open offices doesn't mean the trend is wrong, just that we need more variety

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The end of the year often marks a time of both personal and professional reflection. We allow ourselves a brief moment in time to gauge where we have been and what has been accomplished before a hectic new year with new goals and new projects begins. For many of us, the personal and the professional blend now more than ever.

As designers, it is our responsibility to ensure that the built environments we create support balance in the lives of their users—with special focus on flexibility and choices—resulting in increased overall wellness. To that end, this year was all about refinement, specifically, refining the open office workplace to better meet employee needs.

The backlash to current open office workplace designs has been well documented as workers report dissatisfaction with their wall-less environments. In January, Fast Company writer Lisa Evans asked, “Will 2015 be the year that we finally rethink open office layouts?” Washington Post blogger Lindsey Kaufman simply said, “Google got it wrong.”

But did Google really get it wrong? Probably not.

Google was only designing a space that reflected their culture. It isn’t surprising that companies of all sizes and industries continue to attempt to create their version of these storied environments. What CEO wouldn’t want to harness the well documented creativity and innovation reportedly generated from this type of workplace design?

But as we know, these attempts often happen at the chagrin of employees who are asked to change everything about the way they work after decades of ample space and perceived privacy.

Let’s not discount the positives of open office design. These environments promote transparency, allowing management and staff to be more aligned in their goals. Bringing down walls means more staff has access to natural light and each other—thus increasing knowledge-sharing, creativity, and innovation. Lastly, open plan office design can give employers more flexibility as companies can hire additional staff and save by allocating for less expensive square footage, particularly in densely populated urban areas.

But the perceived drawbacks for many are clear: noise and acoustical

complaints, productivity concerns, and a reduction in spaces where employees can have closed-door meetings or make private phone calls. While many open office designs (based on aesthetics versus internal culture) may have been an over-correction to the workplaces of the past, in 2015, interior designers further guided the process of workplace refinement and succeeded in showcasing how better design can support the way we want to work now. What we know is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. For many companies, the answer lies somewhere in the middle based on their particular DNA. Here’s a look at the workplace design trends I witnessed in my practice and throughout the interior design industry.

can you hear me now?
In an analysis of data from The Center on the Built Environment, researchers at the University of Sydney found that sound privacy was by far the biggest complaint of workers in open office environments. Noise level wasn’t far behind. It’s no wonder then that in 2015 interior designers experimented with sound-absorbing materials and sound-containing products in order to make the open office environment less distracting and more productive for employees.

This trend is illustrated in NELSON’s work with the Minneapolis administrative hub of intellectual property and litigation firm Fish & Richardson. As their open office design required increased density within several departments, our project team anticipated the need for increased sound absorption to offset the potential increased disturbance. We worked with the manufacturer Filtz-Felt to create vertical sound barriers that not only provide increased acoustical control, but also provide an energized visual aesthetic and a perceived visual barrier from the many busy paths of travel.

a right to privacy
As personal and professional lives continue to overlap, the lack of private spaces in open office environments can cause some workers undue stress. It’s hard to shake the feeling that someone may be watching, making workers who once had the freedom to make a personal call or pay a bill online during work hours feel increased anxiety. While that is likely not the case in most organizations, the loss of autonomy, inability to hold private meetings, and lack of options to simply get work done in a quiet area is another common complaint of the open office concept. To remedy this, designers worked to integrate more private spaces throughout offices for personal use in 2015.

space savers
Brand identity continues to become intertwined with corporate culture, making a company’s reception area, where many lasting impressions on guests and outsiders are made, increasingly important. We see the traditional model (large expanses of unused space with only a reception desk and a seating area) as not highly practical when square footage is at a premium. Designers were challenged in 2015 to reintegrate the reception area into the workspace so that greeting guests and offering employees additional choices for interaction were both considered and prioritized.

Refinement of the workplace will no doubt continue to evolve, and I am constantly eager to see how we tackle the challenge to better design the built environment in order to support all the ways we live, work, and play. To stay current on what’s now and what’s next, IIDA membership provides valuable touchpoints in our ever-evolving industry. Now and in the future, I want to tap into the knowledge and expertise of our 15,000+ members as I navigate new trends in the commercial interior design industry in 2016 and beyond.

If you’re not already a member, I invite you to join before the end of the year; the $75 application fee will be waived for new members. If you are a member, don’t miss your chance to refer a friend (you could win a $250 American Express card). For details, visit www.iida.org.

Here’s to a happy and healthy holiday, and a productive new year full of choices!

Scott Heirlinger, IIDA, LEED AP is the president of the IIDA Board of Directors. As design director and co-principal of NELSON’s Minneapolis office, he serves as an expert in corporate design with 21 years of experience. He is responsible for all aspects of the design process including programming, space planning, design development, construction documentation, and project management.

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