The Latest in Office Design
Trends in modern office design
by Robert McGarvey October 2008
From yoga rooms to collaboration spaces, how to get the most from your workspace and your teams.
Mobility, flexibility, sustainability—these three key drivers are utterly reshaping offices. The headline news from leading interior decorators and designers? We have only just begun to see workplaces that reflect the needs of the 21st-century workforce, as well as the impact of spiraling real-estate costs in many city centers and the growing realization that high energy costs are here to stay. But an even bigger underlying change may also be prodding companies to rethink their office spaces: “Offices are no longer seen as simply a liability,” says Frank Pettinati, regional discipline leader in the Chicago office of national design firm Perkins+Will. “Offices now are emerging as key branding tools.”
Workspaces are also “crucial in employee retention,” says Karen Daroff of Daroff Design in Philadelphia, Pa. Who wants to return to an unpleasant office day after day? Organizations have begun to realize that employees are much more likely to stay at a job when they like where they work.
Until just a few years ago, offices were widely viewed as money poured down a sinkhole. Now, as leading companies win cascading recognition for maintaining cool, fun offices—consider Google, whose Mountain View, Calif., headquarters offer bike paths, gourmet cafeterias and a yoga room—others want to hop aboard this trend.
Offices are no longer just about where we work, explains Tobie Nepo, a commercial interior designer for DRS Architects in Pittsburgh, Pa. Today, they also reflect something important about who we are—and that means clear thinking has to go into creating tomorrow’s workspace.
Less Privacy, More Collaboration
So what does all this mean for your workspace? First, the bad news: Private, enclosed offices are disappearing, and cubicles are getting smaller (“Most now are 7'x7', down from 8'x8',” says John Hamilton, a designer with Grand Rapids, Mich.–based Steelcase). In addition, “open sight lines will predominate,” says Hamilton, and that means partitions are getting lower, because research shows that cubes feel bigger when they offer a panoramic view. What happens to the freed-up space? “We are seeing bigger common spaces, more places for collaborations,” explains Hamilton.
This trend has grown from the awareness that fewer of us are genuinely solo workers. More of us work in teams and informal small groups. As a result, effective workplaces will feature places where two, four and six workers can settle in on the fly for a 20-minute discussion, without the formality of reserving space. These spaces are there, waiting to be used—and in the 21-century office, designers say, we will use them.
Shared ownership of “private” office spaces also is becoming common as a mobile workforce sees more employees on the road more often, says Diane Taitt, a partner at Bethesda, Md.–based GTM Architects. Each employee will have a private pedestal—meaning a secure place to stow personal belongings—but the basic office space (chair, worktop and so forth) will likely be shared at businesses seeking to maximize their real-estate spending.
Great Chairs Pay Off
Roy Huebner, a senior account executive at Wolcott Architecture Interiors in Culver City, Calif., says that “great chairs” are emerging as an office must-have. The Herman Miller Aeron chair may be the category leader (in both comfort and price, at retail costs of $700+ per chair), but there are many competitors at similar price points. The payoff of a good chair, designers say, is that workers put in their longest hours just sitting. A comfortable, ergonomic chair lets them work smarter and longer. Adds Huebner, “It’s money that delivers a return.”
Offices also reflect new business realities. Fewer have guest chairs, says Huebner, in part because workspaces are smaller, but mainly because collaborative spaces have multiplied. In the meantime, he adds, desk space is shrinking, because small-footprint flat-screen monitors have largely dislodged enormous, old CRT monitors. Slender desktops also mean that offices can shrink without the occupants noticing much of a difference.
Flexibility—for instance, setting furniture on casters so it can be rolled out of sight, and building workstations with desktops that adjust for height—is another critical element in the 21-century office, says Nepo. When two, three or possibly more workers share a workspace, it must be able to meet each individual’s needs.
Plan for Amenities
Do smaller, more flexible offices and cubes mean the loss of individual privacy and comfort? Well, yes and no. Companies are working furiously to use freed-up space to deliver sweeter amenities. Pettinati, for instance, says that more clients are asking for “prayer rooms”—sometimes called meditation spaces—mainly because “they were finding employees praying in stairwells.” In today’s diverse workforce, with a multitude of faiths, savvy companies are responding. The upshot is that small spaces have begun to emerge as private niches for employees to pray, meditate or just take a few minutes of downtime. Furnishings tend to be simple—a few chairs, some cushions on the floor—but even sparsely equipped rooms are proving popular.
Other new amenities, says Tom McWalters, managing principal at Gary Lee Partners in Chicago, are shower rooms, game rooms (with a pool table and maybe gaming consoles) and even rooms for yoga. As many workers put in longer days at the office, the company tries to reciprocate by providing more of what employees want. Small amenities may make the difference in how any given employee feels about his or her workplace and organization, says McWalters, so companies are keen to provide special comforts that make staff feel appreciated.
Make it Green
Then there’s the environmental aspect. Suddenly, “green is the new black,” quips Yalmaz Siddiqui, director of environmental strategy for Office Depot. More businesses want sustainable, environmentally sensitive offices, and so do their employees, he says, adding that office furniture and supply stores are now awash in green goods. Furniture made from recycled content, low VOC (volatile organic compound) paints that emit fewer greenhouse gases, organic fabrics and Energy Star business equipment that uses less electricity have become commonplace. In most cases, they are price competitive with ordinary, non-green counterparts, says Siddiqui. This trend won’t just blow away—green is here to stay, says Siddiqui, who emphasizes: “You can even save money when you go green.” The old price disparity no longer holds, as more manufacturers rush to produce green goods.
Finally, just when you think your redesign includes all the latest and greatest strategies, here’s the next item on your to-do list: Get ready to start all over again. A redesign “every 10 years is typical,” says Taitt. Designers admit that sometimes they come across an office that hasn’t been redesigned in 20 years or more, but the industry rule of thumb says that every 7 to 10 years (roughly as long as most leases) is about right.
ROBERT McGARVEY is a freelance writer in New Jersey.