Designing Better Office

The office of the future may not be about trappings or technology as much as the exchange of ideas, with a focus on employee engagement–what some experts are calling the “new sustainability.”

You can thank the open office movement for starting that conversation, turning concepts such as collaboration and transparency into convention. But the new buzzwords on every workplace designer’s tongue are incubation, cross-pollination, symbiosis and co-working–concepts that are causing even more walls to come down and hierarchies to flatten further. In today’s parlance, the corner office is no longer seen as a prize.

“It’s certainly not as critical as it once was,” says Bruce Fisher, an architect in the New York firm Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates. “What’s becoming more important is the breadth of the floor, and as much visual continuity as possible so you can see someone all the way across the floor. It’s not about Big Brother, but more about staying involved and knowing what’s going on.”

The open plan isn’t a new concept: Frank Lloyd Wright used the scheme in the Johnson Wax headquarters building in Racine, Wis., to group employees of similar functions (in this case, secretaries). But over the decades, as corporate workers increasingly performed isolating tasks, they were insulated in offices and cubicles, working their way up to bigger and better spaces that signaled their rising status within the firm.

In today’s young, technology-driven workplace, however, “all that’s been turned on its head,” says Brad Lynch, principal of Chicago’s Brininstool + Lynch. “In my mind, it’s led by a generation that starts out not knowing what an office environment is supposed to be as a real-estate model.” Today’s young workers, he explains, consider the office more in terms of “what it needs to do for them.”

Tech firms lead the way

What works, industry experts say, is a space that fosters transparency, offers multiple choices as to how and where to work and an environment that imitates life outside the office.

And, of little surprise, technology companies set the mold and lead the pack, says Sonya Dufner, principal and director of workplace strategy at Gensler, a global architectural planning and consulting firm.

Last year Gensler randomly surveyed 2,035 knowledge workers for a study on the relationship between workplace design and business performance. “When we looked at just the tech companies, we found that people reported they were more satisfied with their work environment than in other business sectors, and when we asked why, we found that ‘choice’ was the key differentiator,” Dufner says, noting that techies are more likely to have a say in when and where they work (41 percent, vs. an average of 32 percent in other sectors). In general, she says, employees who are able to make such choices are more likely to report high levels of workplace satisfaction.

It’s a trend born of Silicon Valley and creeping eastward. In New York City, it’s often combined with the sensibilities of Brooklyn’s DIY maker movement, which has flourished in incubators such as the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s New Lab and Industry City.

But it’s also apparent in places like the midtown Manhattan office for internet music-streaming company Pandora, designed by Andrew Bartle’s abastudio.

“Our design strategy played the new against the old,” Bartle says. “The kids that work in those places all live in Brooklyn, and it works with their lifestyle and what they wanted to be a part of. Their separation between work and life is probably less so than in our time.”

Pandora’s office interweaves lifestyle amenities such as Ping-Pong, stocked open pantries and a yoga room with work areas that reflect the company’s dual needs for interaction and privacy. Abastudio designed a series of chat rooms in the form of phone booths, banquette and benched seating, huddle areas and conference rooms, and a grand staircase between the two floors that doubles as seating for “all-hands” meetings. In this way, Bartle says, the plan accommodates up to 150 employees per floor, more than the typical capacity for similarly sized floor plates.

The elastic design allows the company to expand and contract as needed. When Pandora has a full house for events such as music performances or town hall meetings, employees utilize an amphitheater or other large assembly spots in the office.

“This is a body of workers that sees themselves as a whole social unit, and that’s kind of a different thing,” says Barry Fries, a construction executive and CEO of B.R. Fries, who worked with Bartle on the Pandora office. “Normally, companies would go on a retreat to see themselves as a whole, but I think [here] there’s a greater level of awareness of belonging to something–more like the model of a college or loyalty club.”

Adds Bartle: “It was fabulous fun for us, because we saw a culture and helped them develop forms so they could be productive. It was very daunting in some ways, but … you can feel the love in the space.”

Traditionalists open up

More than 75 percent of U.S. offices have open plans, say researchers from Kahler Slater, an experience-design firm based in Milwaukee. Once the domain of creative services, the studio model has trickled into professional services such as real-estate agencies and financial firms. Last year real-estate brokerage firm CBRE adopted a “free address” open plan in its 200-person Los Angeles office, doing away with assigned desks in favor of work “neighborhoods” with couches, “hot” desks (those that are not assigned to a specific employee but can be reserved for mobile workers or whoever may need it) and even treadmill desks.

Other white-collar businesses are following suit, mimicking the strategies of technology firms in order to attract and retain young employees. Financial giant Credit Suisse has started converting its European offices to “smart working,” offering a series of touchdown focus and collaboration spaces, work areas styled after cafes–even greenhouses.

“Financial firms are losing employees and not able to attract MBAs who are going from school to technology companies, and that’s making these pretty traditional organizations rethink the future,” Dufner says. “They’re looking at what some of those technology firms are doing and asking how they create culture within their workplace and what are those things that attract people. Financial firms are starting to talk about themselves as technology firms … their business is really changing, so their space needs to reflect those changes.”

In Chicago, Lynch re-created office space for two financial companies: online lender Enova and private equity firm Sterling Partners. For Enova, a technology company and prominent employer for emerging talent, the project was an upgrade within a culture predisposed to open design. “They wanted an exchange of ideas between people that wasn’t happening before because of the way they were set up,” Lynch says.

On the other hand, the change for Sterling Partners was a “huge risk.” The 60-plus-person firm radically changed its model, moving from the suburbs to the city. New furnishings included stand-up desks and lounge chairs with 360-degree views of the city, to be enjoyed by all. The reception area was reimagined to facilitate interaction and mobility among support employees, who could act more like concierges than secretaries.

“When people came into the space, they didn’t want to seem hierarchical. They wanted to seem welcoming and that [everyone] was part of the experience,” Lynch says of Sterling Partners. “They created an increased opportunity for collaboration, and they really treat the space as an opportunity for mentorship.”

Great minds think alike

Mentorship is also the idea behind Startup Box: South Bronx, an incubator case study that aims to combine co-working space for startup companies and individuals with after-school programming for high-school students. Conceived by Ennead Lab in partnership with a community-based economic development engine (but not yet executed), the 5,000-square-foot warehouse would provide 24 flexible workstations, a fabrication lab for prototyping and testing and space for classes or meetings.

Ennead Lab director Andrew Burdick says the program was the result of a cross-pollination of ideas between two like-minded groups: startups and students.

“Essentially, they’re asking the same questions and need the same types of spaces,” he says. “It starts to create an interesting overlap where the incubator businesses start to be mentors to the students, and the students become mentors to the startups because of the technological levels of abilities that youth bring to the table.”

Burdick says the Ennead team studied co-working organizations like The Hatchery, General Assembly and WeWork, and consulted with educators in the maker movement.

“They get this era we’re living in, and they have become a boon to these startups as a hotbox for ideas,” Burdick says, adding that Ennead’s designers believed “the users might do well if we created a symbiotic relationship in one space where the two populations could mix and, in fact, be the better for it.”

Architect Andrew Franz is operating under a similar concept for a space he’s designing for a financial company in New York. Moving for the first time in 40 years, the 70-person firm opted for an open plan that it hopes will one day accommodate like-minded businesses.

“The aspect they’re trying to create is to foster and nurture other companies and individuals, so if they believe in another company, they can offer them desk or work space,” Franz notes. “It’s the sharing of ideas as they’re being developed … trying to act like an incubator so they can see what the next ideas are.

“I think there’s a lot more overlap and more sharing going on with businesses developing together like a village economy, but in a more white-collar urban way,” he adds. “They’ve been forced to concentrate on what kind of changes they really want, as well as what kind of continuity they want to preserve.”

Law offices catch up

As financial firms nudge toward the great undivide, some business sectors, such as law firms, are still firmly entrenched in the traditional office layout, according to Doug Zucker, a principal at Gensler’s San Francisco office. “It’s really a profession that’s bound by tradition and precedent, so people are loath to be the first to do something new,” he explains.

However, since the recession, law firms have restructured their fees and workloads, looking more keenly at the competition. This shift, Zucker says, will translate into real estate and how it’s used. Gensler’s research predicts similar changes for legal offices as those already happening in other sectors–smaller, flexible, more collaborative–but Zucker cautions against too many changes too quickly.

“We’ve swung the pendulum toward the collaborative work environment so far that we haven’t paid attention to the balance between focus and collaboration,” he says, noting that open offices could be problematic for lawyers, who spend an average of half their time–more than any other industry Gensler surveyed–on work that requires sharp focus.

Indeed, Gensler’s survey of knowledge workers showed a 6 percent drop in workplace performance in open offices when collaboration and focus were weighed, with 53 percent of respondents saying they were disturbed or distracted by co-workers. It’s an issue even at the most forward-looking tech companies. Bartle says acoustics played a large role in Pandora’s design, and careful attention was paid to balancing audio and visual privacy. “It tries to look casual and is, in fact, very casual, but the efforts that go into it are extremely detailed,” he notes.

Zucker says that when workplace changes do occur in the legal sector, offices may end up resembling consulting firms, with Gen Xers and Millennials driving the changes toward collaboration and “soft” amenities like flex space and work that is creative and mission-driven over entitlement amenities like the corner office.

Wellness is the new amenity

Sustainability has taken on a new meaning for the office, shifting from a focus on the environment to one on the whole being. Reclaimed materials, toxin-free substances and energy efficiencies are “nearly automatic now,” says Chicago architect Lynch, while the new sustainability is human-focused, paying attention to body and soul, thanks to growing evidence that a happy employee is a loyal and productive employee. To that end, pantries are stocked with healthful food, assembly spaces double as yoga rooms, and in-office kitchen events enable employees to prep food and dine together.

Furniture is more active, too. Gensler’s Dufner says orders for sit/stand desks are on the rise, in recognition of the notion that “sitting is the new smoking.” Many offices are adding treadmill desks to the mix. Also trending: the addition of outdoor spaces as areas of respite.

“In suburban locations or other parts of the world, you see more offices located near walking trails, and teams are using this during the day to refresh and get out and walk and talk,” Dufner says. Even in space-challenged Manhattan, advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy commissioned an outdoor terrace as part of its recent redesign.

In Brooklyn, Eric Benaim, founder of Modern Spaces, a boutique real-estate firm with five offices and 70 employees, created a hybrid office with an artisanal coffee shop opening out to the street. His agents conduct business at either a desk or over communal tables in the shop. Benaim says the connection feeds the soul and helps business.

“It helps them more creatively, they’re not distanced from the world, and they’re happier when they come to work,” he says. “When they’re happy, they’ll relay that to their clients. When our agents are happy, our clients are happy.”