Open office design often gets a bad reputation—some of it perhaps deserved, some not. It was meant to break down walls and spaces to bring people together, but in doing so, it also took away what helped people succeed to do their best work in the right environment for them.
Saying a space is an open office doesn’t mean it has to be 100% open. Knowing the right mix of space types—focus, collaboration, social, training/learning and respite—can go a long way in occupant success and happiness.
Furnishings and layout play heavily into open office success, as noted in an earlier article looking at the open office dilemma.
Beyond furniture, consider items like comfort, acoustics and wayfinding, and read about other tips to increase productivity. Make sure the open office design is a healthy environment that offers both the technology and human touches occupants need to be productive and happy.
“Think about how open office layout has shifted over time: It’s evolved from efficiency to effectiveness to experience,” notes Gensler workplace leader and principal Janet Pogue McLaurin in our first article on the open office dilemma. “Think about what’s next. … It will be an interesting way to think about the role the physical environment might play.”
Industry leaders, reports and surveys consistently bring up a handful topics when discussing the future of open office workplace design: health, technology and comfort. When Brigitte Preston, principal interior design director at Perkins and Will, works with a new client, she helps guide them to make decisions that will have a long-term impact.
“Imagine that the space you’re designing today is never finished and exists in a constant state of flux and change,” she says.
“Now, imagine that this not only applies to the current practice of moving walls, desks and people, but also to culture change, brand changes—and very importantly, changes in the experience of the space. What decisions would you make in the design process if such pervasive, constant change was your end goal? This is what we must design for: the potential for change.”
Sustainable and Healthy Environment
With $36.4 billion lost each year from employee absences, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the focus and awareness on health and how healthy environments contribute to wellbeing will continue to intensify.
Preston challenges designers to consider: What if the office is not only a place where you feel good but you leave feeling better than when you arrived?
“Ideally we should always be creating spaces that anticipate a user’s needs, tap into their emotions and engage the senses,” she says.
“The elements that make up a restorative space include numerous considerations such as acoustics, color, temperature and air quality, biophilic elements, body posture and lighting. All of these factors come together to create a space that is pleasant for inhabitants to occupy, however most are lacking in intensity and heart.”
This could include items such as the following three:
1. Healthy lighting
“Circadian lighting schemes have continued to pick up steam, owing to the fact that lighting has proven to be a huge factor in the wellbeing of building inhabitants,” says Sabrina Pagani, principal at The Switzer Group. She has clients asking for human-centric lighting to ensure occupants receive the right amount and type of light to help lessen seasonal depression and the fluctuation of melatonin levels throughout the day.
2. Relaxation support
Offer quiet spaces like privacy pods or rooms set aside for meditation or yoga; or apps or programs focusing on relaxation or disconnecting. “It’s about mental wellbeing,” notes Jamie Feuerborn, director of workplace strategy at Ted Moudis Associates.
3. Biophilic design
The concept that connects the user to nature could be as iteral as a green wall, but Feuerborn says it could be more subtle, like mindful and experiential designs that are inspired by nature in different ways, such as the angle of a ceiling or bringing shadow in from a window.
The most leading-edge companies are asking for sustainable solutions for their interiors, Preston explains. “As we become more mindful about our lives and the hundreds of daily choices we make, we are more aware of what can positively influence our health and wellbeing.”
Technology and Data Drive Design
Technology has already changed how, when and where we work, making remote and coworking easier.
The Staples Workplace Survey 2019 reports that almost two in three respondents (64%) say they work remotely at least some of the time. And the Gensler U.S. Workplace Survey 2019 notes that 14% of employees at large companies surveyed use coworking spaces, finding that coworking is part of a company’s broader plan to facilitate autonomy and mobility.
Even in the office, people want choice in where they work: Ted Moudis Associates 2019 Workplace Report states that the architecture and interior design firm is already designing spaces with slightly more alternative seats than workplace seats, at 51% vs. 49%.
These alternative seats aren’t assigned to an individual, providing employees with opportunities to change their work environment throughout the day, the report notes.
Technology and data can help create the right mix of seating and spaces, including for:
Space and occupancy
Sensors and tracking can monitor when and how a space is being used, which can help determine how to make updates to a given area backed by data.
Pagani notes how artificial intelligence is being used in office spaces for employee comfort by recalling desk setting preferences. She sees this evolving further for settings such as lighting and temperature throughout the day, “creating smart open workplaces that work in harmony with humans.”
An ideas-driven design process that is backed by science and data is needed to elevate programming and outfitting spaces, Preston explains.
“The best way to know that our designs are successful is through the collection of data, which will enable us to make more informed decisions about how building inhabitants interact with the environments that we design,” she says.
“This ties into empathy and not just thinking about aesthetics, but also the wellbeing of the people who will be spending time in these spaces. As designers we need to be passionate about making a deep connection to the people we design for.”
Open office design is and will continue to transition further into residential, with a focus on experience, Preston says. She predicts a focus on community and comfort, where you need to develop a connection with the occupants and how they use the space. “This process is needed to be able to create a purposeful space that inhabitants can thrive in.”
Pogue McLaurin points to how hospitality company Hyatt reimagined its new headquarters: “They took the guest experience at their hotels and extended it to their employees and how they thought through the whole headquarters.”
The new space features hospitality-inspired furniture and areas one might see in hotel common spaces. They scripted experiences employees and guests might have throughout the day and designed the space to support those experiences.
“There are ways you can design to the work activities and connecting the people to the purpose and reason the organization is there in the first place, so employees’ work aligns with the overall purpose and values of the organization,” Pogue McLaurin explains, citing the Hyatt experience.
“If you can get your employees engaged and aligned and get them excited to get to the office every day, that’s the holy grail right now. Not just a workplace experience but engagement. That’s the amazing role the physical work environment can play.”
Creating a space that will evolve and grow for future expectations and needs will save money and offer a more sustainable solution. “People are signing 10-plus year leases, so we’re trying to plan for that as much as possible,” Feuerborn says.
She notes that offices at the forefront of current and future expectations will be the ones creating an environment that allows:
- Individuals more empowerment and choice in where they work
- Teams more flexibility to come together to work on projects and grow
- Organizations the ability to adapt their work environment as the market changes
To help create the best space for her clients’ needs, Pogue McLaurin helps them determine what activities need to be accomplished and how the space they have works to achieve those goals. This might include having a dialogue with employees about what they think of current office layout and what they value.
When a new open office design that fits the culture is in place, she encourages implementing policies and change management that empower employees to experiment and use the space in a way that best fits their needs. She also advises them to make sure they feel like all the space is theirs to use.
“Once employees have all the resources available, they can really focus because the solutions are at hand, they have the right technology and spaces, and can focus on the work itself and get lost in the joy of work,” Pogue McLaurin says. “It takes away the obstacles.”
More from our open office series: