Innovative office design: What works and what doesn't?
June 16, 2009 3:15 PM   Subscribe

Innovative Workspaces: What works and what doesn't?

I work for a big and quite old company, in a department that does financial and operational analysis. We're all holed off in offices on the edges and 6 ft cubes in the middle. It's grey and taupe. One executive called our floor "the morgue" because of the lifeless atmosphere.

So the boss got a budget to liven up the space.

Three others and I were put on a somewhat secret committee to redesign the office. Here are the parameters as I understand them.

- Encourage more interaction and creative problem solving.
- Create a money-is-no-object concept and design. No constraints except the outline of the floor.
- Create an ultra-frugal version.
- Create as many versions as we want.
- It may amount to nothing. There's already a folder - that we can't see - with ideas (from the boss? a pro designer?).

I'm no designer, but I've been researching innovative office spaces. It looks like design trends have moved towards reduced barriers, sofas instead of conference tables, lots of shared space and privacy/quiet rooms on the sides.

A few questions:

- Have you worked in this more communal, innovative style? What made you happy and effective, and what are the empty gimmicks?

- Have you converted from a conservative, cubicle world to something more forward-thinking? What changed?

- More generally: suggestions welcome. Concepts that work/didn't work for you, colors, furniture, wall dividers, floor plans, blogs, books, experts, photos of your awesome workspace, anything.

I'm having so much fun just being a part of this project, and I'd like to hear your point of view.
posted by degrees_of_freedom to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a software developer and prefer to be isolated sometimes, so when my company switched from big cubes with high walls to a communal "open layout" with a few short walls, I got distracted and annoyed. If you've got people that need to tune other people out to concentrate, they may react the same way.
posted by ignignokt at 3:53 PM on June 16, 2009

Have a sitting area. A place where people can go with their laptops or notebooks (as in paper notebooks). Sometimes when you want to solve a difficult problem, it helps to get away from the desk. Even for people who don't use the sitting area, they'll feel better just knowing that it's there in case they need it.

NOTE - this should NOT be a breakroom or kitchen of some sort. Although people should be able to bring snacks there if they want them, the purpose should be for relaxed, contemplative work and possibly discussion.
posted by Afroblanco at 3:56 PM on June 16, 2009

I work at a place with a reasonably modern design
and another picture coincidentally taken from a very similar location years later.

The place is divided by half walls. Essentially, you have what we call "pods" of desks separated by hallways. In a larger, more corporate environment, the pods might house functional teams, in our situation, they house entire companies. The image there shows a hallway and what the walls look like.

The desks are door blanks sitting on two half filing cabinets (very cheap and very configurable and movable).

The "conference" rooms are plexiglassed off from the main spaces, so you can see, but not hear what is going on. The image I linked above shows two such conference rooms on the left (the source of the mirror-like glare). There are open, more social areas, and other more private areas.

Some of the other perks that can influence this kind of culture are things like subsidized lunches, free fruit at the "coffee bar", and a quiet room with blackout curtains and super plush chairs to relax or take a nap if you just pulled an all-nighter or something. The idea is to get people up and out of their desks occasionally and to have them talk amongst one another in a way that makes everyone a little happier.
posted by milqman at 4:00 PM on June 16, 2009

Heh, as an undergrad I worked on a project with a professor who had an interesting setup. There were no chairs in his office. His main desktop computer was in the corner at a standing-height desk, though he would often bring his laptop out of his office to the sofa outside and brainstorm with everyone (where there was a big whiteboard).

Also, inside his office there was a little desk people could sit at when he had meetings, but the only seats were exercise balls. First my professor, and then his guest, would inevitably bounce on them while sitting there, at first synchronized, but gradually falling out of phase. It was fun, if a tad distracting.

The area all around had colorful carpets and chairs and sofas, and was in general an interesting place to work, even if the building looked like something out of a Dr Seuss story.

The guy is incredibly productive, so it clearly works for him, though I was happy and productive enough just sitting at an ordinary table. And the exercise balls never really did it for me. But big, open, colorful spaces kept me happy to step off the elevator every day.
posted by losvedir at 4:02 PM on June 16, 2009

I'll counter ignignokt and say that I am also a software developer and while I work perfectly well in an isolated, quiet, low traffic area, there is a lot to be said for working in a more open, stimulating, high contact, collaborative environment. We still have a room or two where you can have some privacy for personal conversation or for client comfort, but we've had a lot of success with getting rid of the walls. If you want people to disappear and do work on their own, more power to you, but I like to have more transparency in my organization.
posted by boba at 4:03 PM on June 16, 2009

Have you converted from a conservative, cubicle world to something more .....?

Fishbowlish. One of my previous workplaces put us in a "fishbowl", in essense, they took away the cubes. Then, rather than concentrate on work, you would focus on everything else...watching coworker A, B, or C walking across the room, or watching another coworker play solitaire on their computer. This new setup contributed to our productivity.

What changed?

I quit, as did the entire team.

Someday I hope to write up that experience in a humorous "how not to rearrange the workplace"

More generally: suggestions welcome. Concepts that work

Okay I'll give a more serious answer. People have different working styles, and some jobs require concentration. My next workplace had a room or two setup that had a computer, a door, and you could work from that room whenver you needed (basically an office that you could use when needed) . That helped me survive and increase productivity until I quit my job and now work from home, in a normal quiet environment all the time.

I am suggesting that if you have things that contribute to a communal workplace, also have things that enable workers to work alone if needed.
posted by Wolfster at 4:05 PM on June 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

You could try and ensure you get as much natural daylight into the space - this has been shown to improve productivity in addition to reducing the cost of running the building.

Light colored surfaces, light_shelves, mirrors are all approaches that help with this. Also, (it being Florida) external shading is a good approach to reduce glare, as well as preventing unwanted heat from ever entering the building.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 4:17 PM on June 16, 2009

Please don't just follow the latest trend in workplace design. And you should probably give up the "secret" nature of your task... why in the world would you want to foist some glossy magazine's idea of a workplace on unsuspecting coworkers without even asking them what they want?

Rule number one of architectural programming is investigate what the user says they need. What they say they need isn't always what they really DO need, but you can't presume to find the ideal solution without knowing your users. So ask them.

Rule number two is research all possibilities. You're doing that, more or less; the goal is not to try the latest thing, but to find the pattern that best suits users' underlying needs.

Rule number three: you can't please everyone, so don't try. The wrong kind of compromise can mean death to an otherwise successful design. If you have distinct sets of users with distinct needs, segment those groups out and address their needs individually.

I'm sure your budget isn't enormous, but a professional designer would really help you to approach this problem in the right way. Even if you can't afford someone, at least you're INTERESTED in what design can mean for your environment, so good for you -- don't take my critique too strongly, and definitely take your best stab at a solution.
posted by Chris4d at 4:27 PM on June 16, 2009

Survey the people who're going to be working in this environment.

I work in an "open plan" office (just tables, no cubes, no dividers, nothing) and I really dislike it. I'm in what other workers in the same space called the "optimal position" - in the closest thing we have to a back corner, where I've at least got no people moving *behind* me (on one side at least), and when another "room" got added to the mix the guy who got first pick of where he wanted to sit chose that room's equivalent. It still sucks. Nobody wants to not have any privacy. I'm so easily distracted by everything that I'm sure I'm less productive than I would be if I had my own space. I've seen work done on this, and this is common with information workers: we do better in our own offices where we can confer with co-workers as necessary and then knuckle down and get into uninterrupted "work mode" the rest of the time. YMMV, depending on the kind of work your co-workers do.

When it looked like we were going to get to design our own office a couple of years back, like someone mentioned above I and everyone else here all seemed really into the idea of a multi-function lounge area that (depending on how it was being used at the time) you could retreat to to get some work done, have a meeting or a chat with co-workers, or play old Atari games in if you needed a mental break. I still think that woulda been cool... though can't say for certain because it never happened.

But I'd reiterate that you should ask your co-workers what they want - what their problems are with the current set up and how they imagine they could be solved. My boss originally thought open plan was good, and thought laptops (portability! ability to go sit next to co-workers! all sounds good, right?) would be great; turns out everyone hates open plan, and laptops frustrate both designers and programmers because everyone wants more screen space and less fiddliness, not to mention just a general sense of stability that this setup can't provide. People like to sit in the same space and mark it with their stuff (family photos, toys, whatever).

There's a book out there about cube decoration with some really extreme stuff done (cubes carpeted and walls covered and so on to look like olde Englishe offices, beaches, tiki themes, etc - crazy shit); if I had a budget to spend on office decorations I reckon I'd buy everyone cubes and put together an eclectic "props" department (different lamps, mats, differently styled chairs, and other small desk decorations) allowing us to decorate and re-decorate our cubes in themes and change 'em up every couple of months - and offer prizes for best-dressed cubes! But that's me and I bet everyone'd have other ideas if I asked 'em! :)
posted by springbound at 4:35 PM on June 16, 2009

There are lots of good org behavior studies on this very topic. Some of the articles that come up if you search "open office design" in Google Scholar look promising.

My personal experience: I have done the opposite of what may happen to your office -- I moved from one job where there was a relatively open design, lots of "team rooms" and even a game room (with a foosball table, etc.) to my current job where we have an ocean of cubicles sandwiched between offices.

I liked the first design MUCH better, but it wasn't totally "open" -- it wasn't open concept like a bunch of desks all in one huge room, rather a bunch of offices that had floor to ceiling glass "walls" on one or more sides, so you could see everyone. While it was a bit distracting to see people walking by all the time, I could always close my glass door and while that didn't make my office sound proof, the noise was muffled enough that I could concentrate and still felt like I had some level of privacy. To give everyone an office, we compromised on two things: 1) offices were small-ish and 2) you shared an office with one or two office mates. The fishbowl feeling wasn't fabulous, but it was actually helpful to see who was in the office, busy on the phone, etc., in case you wanted to ask them a question.

The team rooms were great, we used them a lot. They were basically just rooms with a conference table, a white board and a projector. It was so much more productive than this cube environment I work in now -- this organization I work for is notoriously silo-ed and I blame it on the fact that there are virtually no conference rooms and no common space whatsoever, which is really a barrier to collaboration. Instead of "Hey, let's talk through this problem, we can step into this room right here," every time we want to have a meeting with more than two people, it requires at least a week of planning to book time in the one available conference room.

However, the game room? Awesome idea, total waste of space, we never really used it. I think the money would be better spent on creating a better kitchen/eating area.

Oh, and if you decide to have big windows / a lot of glass combined with lots of natural sunlight, make sure the windows open or there is a good ventilation system. In the aforementioned glass office, we had tons of sunlight streaming in in the afternoon and not very good ventilation, very greenhouse like. I always drank tons of coffee in the afternoon so I wouldn't fall asleep.
posted by booksandwine at 4:50 PM on June 16, 2009

Response by poster: Wolfster - I was LOLing and "yes!"-ing at your fishbowl thread. That is exactly what I fear - I (for one) am very distractable and imagine I would have all kinds of troubles in an open floor plan.

womble - I've never heard of light shelves, but I'm fascinated. Thanks for the tip.
milqman - is that mirror for increasing natural sunlight?

Chris4d - good call on the secrecy aspect. I didn't really think about the strangeness of it. Three of us were recruited by the team leader. I'm guessing that our little sub-committee is an attempt at getting the voice of the floor without becoming design-by-committee. I'm also guessing that there is a professional designer in the wings, but we are kept from hearing the details for now in order to let us go through the creative process unencumbered. I certainly hope that they wouldn't let the number crunchers actually design the interiors :)

all others - thanks for the input and the term "open office" design. I haven't been searching on it.
posted by degrees_of_freedom at 5:57 PM on June 16, 2009

You might like this great case-study on out-of-the-box office design over at Chiat/Day many years ago.

Several years later, I worked at a dotcom where Chiat was the chairman, and some of the ideas carried over, although in a muted form. We had an enormous open office in a former warehouse. No private spaces -- just small desks more most folks and pond-shaped tables for particular functional teams. Equality was key: the CEO had exactly the same issue desk, chair, phone, and monitor as everyone else. We had bright orange and yellow walls, strange polygon sculpted nooks for conferences and semi-private phone calls, windows overlooking the city and the river. The wackiest part? Huge painted Futurist quotations on the outer walls. (I vaguely recall there being a company cheer as well.)

All said, the colors were completely stimulating, perhaps overwhelmingly so, but I miss it. I have to post colorful pictures near my monitor in my putty-colored cube now to begin to think creatively.
posted by mochapickle at 6:38 PM on June 16, 2009

That area has skylights and stuff with plenty of sunlight, no need for anymore.

That is the founder standing next to a prototype. The mirror is actually a mock up of a reflecting panel for a solar concentrator.

To discuss what some of the other folks are saying:
-It takes some getting used to
-There are plenty of people that don't like it
-The pill goes down a little easier when everyone is in the same boat (everyone is in the open, not just the peons)
-There are optimal seats, oddly, folks don't always grab them first
-Having people out in the open cuts down on some uh . . . time wasting activities . . COUGH-AskMefi-COUGH.
-If people get distracted, they put in headphones

This is a side note, but this type of desk plan (for better or worse) can result in a much higher worker density. That can crowd people, or it can open up room for other things (sometimes both).
posted by milqman at 6:46 PM on June 16, 2009

-If people get distracted, they put in headphones

As much as I like music, I really resent having to listen to loud (it's gotta drown out even the loud conversations) music pretty much all day.
posted by ignignokt at 7:47 PM on June 16, 2009

The latest trends leans towards "big-ass tables". The workalicious blog has some recent entries about the idea. Personally, I love huge tables. On top of that, I often work in coworking type locations. (Wide open, your laptop bag is your work container, collaborative spaces, etc etc.)

But, as many have pointed out, what works for me or you won't work for everyone. You can try and find a happy medium and piss off everyone, just piss off the outliers, or have something available that fits the range of working styles.

It helps that my industry (internet, tech, web development, software, etc) lends itself towards a high level of mobility. But in our space we have single person desks, huge tables, a couch and lounge chairs, separated conference rooms, and closed-door work offices. The key is that although you might gravitate to one style or another, nobody really owns any of the spaces. Want to work with a designer or fellow coder -> table. Don't mind the space & chatter -> desk. Need to go heads-down -> grab an office for the day.
posted by whycurious at 8:40 PM on June 16, 2009

Best answer: There's already a folder - that we can't see
So you want to create a new environment more open to ideas, and the boss won't let you see the new ideas?

Ain't gonna work.
posted by devnull at 12:55 AM on June 17, 2009

Response by poster: devnull, it's not so malevolent. Working for a big, old company, you hear a lot of "Because that's how it's always been done." It's pretty wonderful to be given a blank slate free of expectation. It's more 'restraint' than 'witholding'.
posted by degrees_of_freedom at 5:05 AM on June 17, 2009

Look at the research done by Herman Miller, particularly the case studies.

My personal experience has indicated that the best workspace depends upon the work being done. If the work is mostly collaborative, a mostly open workspace may be best. On the other hand, if most of the workers spend most of their time concentrating on individual computing tasks, they'll do better with more privacy.
posted by paulg at 9:35 AM on June 17, 2009

One specific thing to consider is phone usage. I've encountered a few places where open plan worked really well (nice balance between concentration and collaboration)... until a heavy phone user was placed near to phone-avoiding developers. Hearing constant ringing and half-conversations is far more annoying than the tapping of keys and occasional chatting.

Do everything you can to give everyone a decent environment in terms of light, air, temperature and comfort. Companies underestimate the importance of these basics, and many people are timid mice at work when it comes to complaining about such things.

Ideally make sure the working spaces are flexible and don't impose any fads/structures/methodologies. So have private areas, communal areas, etc., and preferably have ways to easily transform some areas between uses as things evolve.
posted by malevolent at 9:46 AM on June 17, 2009

Natural light is huge, as is good climate control. I personally HATE open plan stuff - Ideally, you have private or semi-private work spaces (yes, even cubes if need be) and then a nice variety of team rooms - projector, table, internet hookups, whiteboard - where a project team can work together in short bursts. Also helpful: telephone rooms with real walls and doors that shut.

I once had to share a conference room with three other people. The conference room was too cold when you closed the door, and when you opened it everyone who walked by felt like they had to stop and say hi, and a lot of people walked by, because the room was next to the bathrooms. There was no space, no privacy, tons of distractions, and no space to call my own - I couldn't even leave a coffee mug there. I hated that so much I would get physically ill walking into the building. If I hadn't wrangled a transfer I'd have probably quit my job.
posted by oblique red at 2:56 PM on June 17, 2009

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