Three Trends in Office Design

Jennifer Busch

It’s hard to define precisely what the “office of the future” will look like, but top corporate designers from around the country agree that it will look nothing like our traditional (and quickly fading) concept of the corporate workplace. Branding—expressing organizational personality, culture, and mission through design—takes center stage as we move forward, so the visual cues, colors, materials, and textures that work for one kind of company—say, an internet startup—might be totally inappropriate for a more established Fortune 500. But variety will be a constant in all of them, from the types of functional spaces found within the workplace to the multi-ethnic, multigenerational workforces that populate them—or not, as mobile working becomes as much the norm in the 21st century as cubicles were in the 20th.

AOL in Palo Alto, designed by Studio O+A. Photography by Jasper Sanidad.

“We try desperately not to use the word ‘corporate’ says Thomas Krizmanic, a principal in the New York office of Studios Architecture. “It’s bad word #1 in our office. It evokes a ready image in our clients’ minds of standards, homogenization, past ways of doing things—all concepts that our clients don’t want to be lumped in together with. A rotary dial phone is corporate. An iPhone with personalized apps is the future space model of the office—flexible, user-defined, programmable, mobile, connect-ready, multifunctional, and cool.”

Mobility

“We are having a dialogue about mobility programs with a cross-section of clients,” says Nila Leiserowitz, a Managing Principal in the Chicago office of Gensler. “It is a viable way of accommodating real estate challenges, new workstyles, work/life balance,” made possible by virtual tools. Nevertheless, designers and their clients are still evaluating what this means with respect to space, human resources, and project delivery

In the Los Angeles office of HOK, Senior Vice President Pamela Light says that there is a real push among clients to support remote work, to improve work/life balance for employees and reduce real estate costs. Not surprisingly, “The biggest reason is budget,” she notes. “Twenty percent of projects in the last 18 months have asked us for a 20 percent reduction in square footage.” In these scenarios, most of the space savings, she says, are realized through the drop in dedicated workspace.

Early on in the mobility movement—back in the mid-1990s days of the “alternative office”—real estate savings was also the most common, but actually the worst reason to encourage employees to work outside the traditional corporate environment. At that time connectivity was in still in its infancy compared to today, corporations did  not fully appreciate the impact on corporate culture and “connectedness”—not to mention the need for change management—and designers were just beginning to grasp the space implications. But with today’s mobile gadgetry and a workforce increasingly geared toward using it, remote work has become increasingly and intuitively productive—even within the confines of the physical office.

Collaboration

What does this mean? Mobility isn’t just reserved for remote workers. More and more, it is happening within the office space, and it supports new levels of collaboration, another important trend. “We design less individual space and more people spaces, with ready connect power and internet, in the open and linked to each other to make an ‘experience sequence of spaces,” says Krizmanic. “Work is less desk-focused and more collaborative. The new worker is a ‘thinker’ who feeds off of interaction with people.”

Bike-Work-Shop

style=”font-size: xx-small; line-height: 13px;”>Bike Shop at Microsoft Building #4 in Redmond, WA, designed by Studio O+A. Photography by Jasper Sanidad.

Leiserowitz agrees. “Collaboration is fundamental to innovation,” she says. “But people are trying to define it in terms of what it means for their own organization. It is happening more formally than informally, and is defined in a variety of different ways.” For example, designers can evaluate how circulation spaces relate to work areas to encourage chance encounters. Work areas adjacent to open office spaces accommodate ad hoc meetings. Conference rooms that encourage standing rather than sitting create new meeting dynamics. Increasingly sophisticated interactive technology creates opportunities to collaborate with remote colleagues. “We are taking a very fluid approach to collaboration,” notes Leiserowitz. “You have to get people comfortable in the work environment to allow these interactions to happen.”

One way to encourage more interaction is to look at the work environment more holistically. “Office space is more like the home,” says Light. “We have living rooms, family rooms; and everybody ends up in the kitchen.” Collaboration areas are reflecting these residential spaces, with lounge seating or big tables around which colleagues can gather, while private offices are like bedrooms; they are quiet, confidential spaces. “There are also fewer formal conference rooms,” she adds. “And most clients don’t want anything fancy…including simple technology that requires no special programming.”

Primo Orpilla and Verda Alexander, principals of San Francisco-based Studio o+a say, “Workplace is lifestyle. You work there but you also go there to socialize. Today’s workplace transcends traditional office use.” And because transparency and democracy are also driving office design, the wide variety of meeting areas includes tertiary spaces that are permeable and see-through. Lounge furniture may be placed in hallways creating simple, casual collaboration areas. Casual and accidental collision between staff is not only increasingly possible, but increasingly open and visible.

Variety and Customization

If variety in meeting spaces is an underlying catalyst for collaboration, it is also the spice of life in the workplace, and can be pushed even to the point of customization for some clients. “Make it different,” says Krizmanic. “Celebrate the uncorporate. Add something local and community-centered. It can be fun or silly…playfulness counts. Clever is good. Ingenious is better.”

AOL in Palo Alto, designed by Studio O+A. Photography by Jasper Sanidad.

Here of course, is where a designer’s creativity can really be put to the test. Orpilla and Alexander routinely embrace this challenge in their work, rearranging “standards” for new uses, and designing and specifying product mash-ups that are carefully documented so they can be replicated in other facilities. And creative variety is not just a strategy to be used on their Bay Area high-tech start up clients. “Some clients need to get the innovation bug back into their culture,” says Orpilla.

Can design really do that? Just ask Microsoft, now a dowager of the information technology sector, which recently hired Studio o+a to renovate a portion of one of its buildings with the goal of reinvigorating its entrepreneurial spirit. Or, as Leiserowitz puts it, “Designers have a responsibility to help create a vital and energetic work force.”

And—lest we forget—sustainability also has a major influence on corporate office design. But the good news here is, having been one of the first and most committed sectors to embrace green design and building practices, the corporate sector in many ways no longer considers sustainability a “trend”, but rather a given that is more and more just expected moving forward. Energy-efficiency in lighting will be the next great frontier in sustainability in the workplace, so look for an ongoing and growing stream of lighting products based on LED technology to enter the marketplace.

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