The open office has come in for a lot of criticism lately, but is it going to disappear to be replaced by some new concept? “Not so fast,” characterizes the general response of the architects and designers. That’s not to say office design won’t evolve to accommodate a variety of work styles and functions, from focused to collaborative, and respond to culture and technology changes. The open-plan office of the future won’t be a one-size-fits-all proposition. Rather, it will be about balance and choices.
“I don’t see [open-plan offices] changing any time soon. The mistake of critics is thinking of them as huge open spaces like gymnasiums, lined with rows of identical workstations and no partitions or privacy. The effective, high-performing open-plan offices that we design, and that our clients and their employees love, feature a variety of work areas and furnishings to accommodate diverse work styles, and a range of meeting room types and sizes. Most of these rooms have doors that close, often made of glass so that the natural daylight and exterior views that we integrate into the open-plan area reach into those huddle spaces and conference rooms,” commented Ashley Dunn, AIA, director of workplace, Dyer Brown, Boston.
“The open-plan office is the future of workplace design,” agreed Andrew Franz, AIA, LEED AP, principal, Andrew Franz Architect, New York, “but it’s a matter of finding the right balance. It’s important to incorporate a variety of more intimate spaces to accommodate different working modes. Considering acoustics is also crucial in order to limit distractions.”
The open office definitely has a future, but it will continue to evolve, added Kendra Ordia, senior interior designer, Perkins+Will, Dallas. “The open office should be approached as an ecosystem of spaces that thrives when there is diversity and has functions that support one another,” she continued. “Employees should be free to choose from a variety of work settings to allow the range of work that needs to happen in a day, from focused to collaborative. Increased adoption of wellness and enhanced user experience will also allow greater user control at the individual level allowing adjustments in thermal comfort, lighting, and acoustical privacy.”
The open office often gets a bad rap when, in reality, the open office isn’t to blame, observed Sara Barnes, senior interior designer, also at Perkins+Will, Dallas. “What needs special consideration is everything else—all the other spaces surrounding the open office. This secondary, supportive space makes or breaks the open-office experience. As desk space becomes more consolidated over time, it becomes critical for break-out spaces to be provided at a higher quantity and quality to create a restorative office space. Users should feel that they are gaining additional spaces in which to focus and meet, as when an open-office plan is done well, versus being left with a non-functioning, loud, over-stimulating workplace when it’s done poorly.”
“The office always has been an evolution, which continues to respond to changes in culture, technology, and social influencers. It looks different today than it did 20 years ago and will look different again in another five years,” said Louise Sharp, design principal, HLW International, Los Angeles.
Regarding open-plan offices, Sharp remarked, “I think it’s about finding the appropriate balance of openness. The design of the office environment should always respond to the functions of the client, which are most likely different from one to the next. As long the open office is supported by a variety of diverse spaces which allow private or focused moments and minimize both visual and acoustic distractions, the space will suit the function.”
Not to be overlooked is the fact that “the open-office layout is the most efficient way of maximizing square footage per person. As real estate prices go up, companies often do not have any choice but to reduce the number of private offices and introduce the open-plan concept,” said Julia Libby Associate AIA, senior designer, Spacesmith, New York.
“However, we do tend to test our limits with open offices by not providing enough personal, storage, meeting, or amenity space. I believe the open office will continue to evolve over time, always seeking a balance between these factors,” she said.
Dwelling on the negative aspects of the open office makes it easy to forget the positive attributes, Libby continued. “The open-office layout is extremely beneficial for collaboration, socialization, learning opportunities, and expressing a flat hierarchy,” she added.
Open-office design is not set in stone. “Like a pendulum, the trend of open offices seems to swing back and forth,” observed Lynn Brotman, IIDA, NCIDQ, associate principal with Svigals + Partners, New Haven, CT. “Today’s workplaces require a mix of both open plan and private space. Combinations of private, open, and collaborative spaces lead to the solutions that we have found work the best. Open-plan offices are not an all-or-nothing proposition. This also holds true for touchdown and hoteling spaces. It’s all about choices. The determination of whether spaces and workstations are unassigned or mixed with assigned and single function should reflect the culture of the company or work group.”
“Huddle rooms, quiet rooms, room schedulers for larger conference rooms, and teleconferencing all foster the employee’s ability to choose where and how to work. Wireless infrastructure is critical for supporting those choices for all this to happen. It all comes down to flexibility—supporting the staff’s ability to select the area where they feel most productive for the specific type of task or work being produced,” Brotman said.
More Than Open-Plan
Beyond the open-plan question, the office as we know it is changing fundamentally. “Leading companies at the front end of the curve know that their employees are more productive when they have options that suit their individual work styles,” said Dyer Brown’s Dunn. “These days our designs, which typically include some amount of open-plan office area, all incorporate appealing amenities, a mix of work area types, a range of seat and work-surface heights, and layouts and programming that encourage activity and promote wellbeing.”
The office is becoming a more active and less sedentary experience, adapting and changing to meet work needs, according to Andrew Franz. “Using stairs and mezzanines is just one approach, encouraging users to move throughout the day, generating happenstance meetings and the exchange of ideas. Other techniques for workplaces include creating spatial juxtapositions and multiple circulation pathways.”
“We have seen amenity and community spaces increase, but one of the greatest changes we will see is the desire for increased access to nature (not just views of nature, interior plants, or green walls) for building tenants. This may mean an increase in exterior workspaces like terraces, courtyards, atriums, and roofs,” commented Perkins + Will’s Kendra Ordia.
Her colleague Sara Barnes added that “since technology allows employees to work anywhere for both focus and collaborative tasks, companies should ask themselves, ‘what makes it worth coming to the office?’ The answer to that question will give some clues as to where the future of the office is headed.”
“A recent Harvard study pointed out the issues of privacy and disruption, but this is only really a concerning issue when the correct support spaces aren’t included in the program, and they almost never are,” cautioned Amy Jarvis of Spacesmith. “Desk space and headcounts are not the way to measure the square footage required for a workplace project these days. Also, there’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all when it comes to finding the ‘Goldilocks ratio’—the just-right proportions of support space to open space to amenity space.”
She continued, “There needs to be an investment made, before a lease is signed, to gather quantitative data that will help the architects and designers tailor a design solution that best fits not only what the company is today but also what it aspires to be in the future. Also, the company then needs to take charge and implement a culture that will allow them and their space to work cohesively toward reaching their goals. Change management will play a big role in whether a new office design is perceived well or not. Employees have to be taught how to use their new workspaces and new work flows, and the company’s managers have to be leading that charge. With hybrid open offices, often chosen to save money and promote collaboration, a company will be more likely to operate successfully compared to those in a traditional plan where most people are tucked away in offices.”
Spacesmith’s Julia Libby concurred. “If the appropriate space allocations are not provided when implementing change, the office as we know it tends to fall short. The office can quickly become a sea of benching instead of a dynamic workplace with breakout spaces, phone rooms, and ample meeting space.
“I believe pre-programming and programming phases are crucial to progressive office design. Focusing on the company’s needs and the needs of their employees informs us of the best use of their real estate. Implementing observation-based technology such as room booking and occupancy systems can provide useful data to assist designers and their clients in identifying their space needs,” she said.
Identifying the right questions is a key first step, Libby continued. “This is an opportunity to concentrate on the current and future needs of the company both spatially and culturally. With this information we can help them make informed decisions to make the open office successful as a workplace and as a business.”
Concepts such as remote or co-working will have an impact on what tomorrow’s office looks like. “This paradigm shift is already underway, although telecommuting and co-working won’t suit every company’s needs and workflow. The important thing for every company and their design team to keep in mind is that the workplace should support the organizational needs and mission of the company it will serve. For companies that encourage employees to work remotely, the office should incorporate sufficient data infrastructure to support the workflow, and probably will emphasize amenities that draw remote workers to the office to collaborate when needed as well as unassigned touchdown workstations for those times when remote employees do need a desk. The office will become a destination, a place to go to see colleagues, meet face-to-face and collaborate, rather than a sea of open desks where people come, sit, and leave, just to prove they were in attendance for a specified period of time,” said Dyer Brown’s Ashley Dunn.
“With workers spending less time sitting at a designated desk or work area, offices are beginning to replace traditional desk space with touchdown stations and rooms for group work. Expect to see more of these innovative setups for sharing and flexible collaboration,” Andrew Franz of Andrew Franz Architect noted.
Connection and connectivity are always desired regardless of where work is completed. “Co-working will continue to gain popularity and should be considered as part of a mobility plan to allow greater flexibility of work environments. Incubator spaces can also serve as an internal co-working space for companies looking to connect and collaborate with thought leaders and start-ups. Flexibility in work styles is still important to these environments too,” said Kendra Ordia of Perkins+Will.
Sara Barnes, from the same firm, agreed that despite remote and co-working arrangements, offices are still important. “As face-to-face encounters occur less frequently as technology develops, those encounters we do have hold a higher responsibility to build vision, joy, and trust among employees,” she said.
Technology can be both connective and divisive, and many employers are not sold on remote or co-working. “Instead, we are seeing requests for spaces that reflect the culture of an organization and encourage a sense of community for their staff,” said Louise Sharp of HLW, New York.
“These are the factors that most often drive people to work in an office, as opposed to working remotely. We are seeing a trend emerge with co-working spaces, however. This new typology can be used as supplemental space to support both growth or remote office work, often as part of a larger campus solution, and is taking hold in many major cities,” she said.
While remote and co-working may influence the way employees work, Spacesmith’s Amy Jarvis doesn’t think they will be what drives the biggest changes in the next ten years in terms of office layout. “For most of us, I think the bigger shift is going to be in how we start to define successful companies in the future and what that implies for the physical space. While we all still use financials to determine a company’s success and value, I think there is a growing need to also investigate the ethics and morality of the companies we choose to support and work for. People are taking notice of companies that do the right thing and a big part of that is how their employees are treated,” she said.
“Companies that build spaces that embrace efforts to promote employee wellness will benefit from retaining their talented employees and actually getting more work out of them day to day, Jarvis elaborated. “This is done by developing highly tailored design solutions for companies, or even departments within companies, while not throwing the baby out with the bath water when it comes to the open plan. Office design is in constant evolution and it will never be something that we can stop and say, ‘Okay, we got it; this is the perfect solution for this business and for all business for all time.’
At the same time, remote and co-working spaces require much more flexibility and detailed research in workplace design, according to Spacesmith’s Julia Libby. “This means executing in-depth programming or pre-programming exercises to determine the amount of time spent in the office and the proper amenities required to support a flexible environment. With less space dedicated to traditional offices and workstations, there is more opportunity for conferencing and amenity space. The introduction of co-working cannot solely be about a space reduction; it should also be about developing office culture and creating new ways to work and collaborate. Other concepts like user-friendly technology, room-booking systems, day lockers, and reliable IT support are also components to consider when designing the office of tomorrow.”
In the final analysis, the open office isn’t going to go away, but it will continue to evolve along flexible lines to mirror the culture and practices of tomorrow’s business environment.
Sometimes Open Plan Is The Only Solution
Kate MacAulay, NCIDQ, interior designer and project manager, The Architectural Team Inc. (TAT)
Open offices are more than just a trend, for a variety of reasons. For one, open-plan settings allow the kind of flexible programming that clients find crucial in today’s agile workplace culture. Just as important, greater interest in renovation, repositioning, and conversion projects is driving the creation of new workplaces within historic or landmark properties—in some cases, an open-plan design is the only possible solution for these unique spaces.
For example, The Architectural Team Inc. (TAT), Chelsea, MA, recently completed a new headquarters in downtown Rochester, NY, for business incubator NextCorps. Located on the sixth floor of the historic 1 million-plus-sq.-ft. Sibley Square—a former department store, whose renovation the firm is also leading—the NextCorps space includes a large landmarked “Tea Room,” where the design team was bound by strict historic preservation standards and could not create any new structural elements. An open-plan design was the best-possible solution. The TAT team used configurable benching workstations, freestanding conference pods, and privacy pods to create zones of work, lounge, and meeting areas within a space that allowed no new-built elements.
The NextCorps example demonstrates that when it comes to open offices, designers are compelled to employ innovative and clever means of devising settings that truly function as effective workplaces.
Privacy is often a concern, and successful strategies include creating visual privacy with custom glazing for conference rooms, specifying high-backed desking and furnishings, and enhancing acoustical privacy with a number of design features—including an applied acoustical wall-panel product in the Media Room, and partitions with high acoustic ratings that separate key uses, such as the lab equipment room and the adjacent office suite.
For many employers and organizations, the concept of an office—a place where people come together to work—is even more important in today’s world. Designing workplaces that facilitate collaboration and provide shared access to resources is crucial. In fact, this need was a primary driver for the NextCorps organization’s move to a large, 48,000-sq.-ft. space in downtown Rochester. Previously, the NextCorps leadership and administrators worked in an office park on the outskirts of the city. Moving their headquarters and incubator spaces into a single, dedicated facility allows the organization’s leaders to be in the same space as the entrepreneurs whose work NextCorps supports.
Bringing everyone under the same roof enables NextCorps to better attract entrepreneur tenants. The new space is purpose-built to foster interaction and enhance collaboration, providing high-tech entrepreneurs better access to the tools they need to grow their businesses—from lab and maker spaces, to meeting areas and auditoriums for events, to dedicated space for onsite mentoring, legal, financial, accounting, networking, business-plan development, and marketing services.
Similarly, designing a successful workplace also means designing for choice, so employees or tenants have access to a variety of spaces that suit different work needs and styles. At NextCorps, incubator tenants have a variety of workspaces to choose from, depending on their needs and the size of their business. This ranges from open-plan workspace, individual private offices, private office suites (small, medium, and large) and private wet labs.
From a design perspective, the emphasis on increased choice in the workplace also leads design and development teams to include more and better tenant-focused amenity spaces. In many of our workplace and interiors projects, we’re integrating more social spaces for down time, creating community, and encouraging socialization, and casual collaboration. For example, an outdoor roof deck, open kitchen and café spaces, and game areas with pool and ping-pong tables, were linchpin elements of our NextCorps program. Another trending discussion in workplace design is the need for more family space, childrens’ play areas, and lactation rooms and sleep rooms.
The rise in remote working, co-working, and freelancing will definitely impact the look of office space—and not just in commercial workplace settings. On the one hand, traditional office spaces will have to become more flexible and adaptable as the workforce itself becomes more flexible. At NextCorps, for instance, incubator tenants set their own work policies, and the tenant mix will change over time. TAT’s design solution accounts for this with easily reconfigurable bench workstations, flooring and lighting patterns that are not tied to specific layouts, and a neutral color palette that creates a basic level of visual unity, making it easier to alter specific elements as needs evolve and shift.
On the other hand, tomorrow’s office will also continue to extend outside the boundaries of commercial settings and will be incorporated, for example, into multifamily residential communities. The Architectural Team is seeing this in a number of the firm’s recent multifamily projects. A good case study is Alexan 3 North, a 178-unit, three-building development in a suburban setting about 30 minutes outside Boston. In addition to more traditional amenity spaces such as a shared kitchen, fitness center, and game room, key elements of our interior design program also included areas specifically designed for people working at home—reservable conference rooms, open benching systems, and privacy booths. TAT’s recent projects for AvalonBay Communities in Sudbury, MA, include a similar set of work-focused amenities.