Anyone who’s been in the workforce for a decade or two has witnessed a sea change in the way we work — and the types of environments we work in.
It’s been almost 50 years since the unveiling of the “Action Office” – Herman Miller’s uber-modern cubicle design – and almost 30 since the same design was mocked as contributing to the “soullessness” of American corporate life. Beginning in the 1990s, the backlash against cubicle culture gave rise to large, loft-like workspaces favored by many early tech start-ups; ping-pong and foosball tables dotted the landscape of what we’ve come to think of as the “open plan office.”
The open plan office was not a new idea. At the beginning of the 20th century, a mechanical engineer named Frederick Taylor introduced the open plan as a way of reducing costs while increasing workplace productivity; employees sitting side by side at long rows of desks ensured the maximum number of bodies would fill the allotted space. With the return of the open plan office (which has more or less dominated our 9-to-5 lives since the beginning of the current century) the intention has been focused more on encouraging collaboration, sparking innovation, and generally improving worker well-being. The thinking makes sense: good physical workplace design should make employees happier and thereby motivated to produce their best work.
It turns out, however, that open plan layouts don’t always exhibit good physical workplace design. A poorly designed open plan office can be distracting and noisy; co-workers become hyper-aware of their lack of privacy, which in turn may make them reluctant to interact with colleagues sitting right next to them for fearing of disturbing their concentration. Collaboration and innovation may be stifled – the direct opposite of the desired outcomes. And when it comes to employees’ health and well-being? A number of studies concluded that employees working in open plan offices take 60-70% more sick days than those working from home.
So what’s the solution? How can employers strike the right balance between privacy, productivity, workers’ health, and job satisfaction? What sort of workplace empowers employees to work, think, and collaborate naturally? According to Susan Cain, author of the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, “A ‘best office’ is one that would give people a choice of how much stimulation is coming at them at any one time. I would create an office that has lots of nooks and crannies, lots of zones of privacy, but also lots of zones where people can come together and schmooze and hang out.”
While earlier iterations on the open plan featured vast expanses of individual desks and/or common work tables with small break rooms or kitchens to break up the space, today’s designs seek to change things up by offering a variety of environments for employees to avail themselves depending on their mood or the task at hand. Companies like Knotel are making their mark by crafting flexible workspaces that strategically address their clients’ unique company culture while trying to provide a more home-like environment for employees. For Good Apple, a New York City-based advertising agency, Knotel integrated a diverse range of work areas within the 14,500 sq. foot office space, including communal bleachers seating for both casual meetings and group events, tinted-glass conference rooms, a library, and a meditation room.
Office space designers are also increasingly embracing the WELL Building Standard™, the first standard to focus on human well-being in the design, construction, and operations of interior spaces. To be considered WELL Certified, businesses must adopt concepts around air quality, access to natural light, providing ergonomic workstations, and a host of other factors intended that address employees’ comfort.
One shining example of where flexible workspace design is headed can be found at The Wing, the fast-growing co-working franchise that features high ceilings, ergonomically designed furniture, cafes, and communal lounge areas, quiet zones, a lactation room – amenities specifically meant to serve its core community: women. Architect Alda Ly and interior designer Chiara de Rege, who together collaborated on six locations for The Wing, see their flexible space approach as an indication of things to come.
“My mission was like, ‘Let’s create a great living room—a place someone is going to want to hang out and be inspired by the furniture and finishes while also wanting to get work done,’” de Rege told Metropolis magazine earlier this year.
Forward-thinking employers are starting to prioritize design features that have been shown to positively impact workers’ well-being and productivity, and flexibility may be the key, says Ly. For another client, Ly included open seating, but also a substantial space devoted to a café-style lounge meant to foster creative, collaborative work, as well as quieter, more focused spaces such as phone booths and a library. “The expectation is that employees will move through different environments throughout the day and not be confined to their desk chairs.”
Resource Furniture and the IFDA hosted an exclusive panel discussion on our ever-changing home/work lives. “The Future Is Here: How We Live and Work Today” looked towards the future of residential and workplace design, explored the drivers enabling change, and discussed growing trend towards blended home/work life in the twenty-first century.
The discussion featured panelists Joseph Muscarella, Head of Design Strategy at Knotel; Challie Stillman, Design Director at Resource Furniture; and Michael K. Chen, principal at MKCA Architecture. Annie Block, Executive Editor at Interior Design Magazine, will moderate the panel.
“The Future Is Here: How We Live and Work Today” was hosted at the Resource Furniture NY flagship showroom on Thursday, January 16, 2020, from 6:00-8:00 PM. Click here to read the event coverage from Interior Design Magazine.