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Beyond the Cubicle: Designing Offices That Adapt to People, Not the Other Way Around

When it comes to workplaces, it is hard if not impossible to make everyone happy. We all have our own strongly held preferences on how and where we want to work. Many people prefer the seclusion of working in an enclosed area while others would rather be next to their co-workers in an unobstructed open area. Some would rather have their desk uncluttered with little more than a laptop in front of them. Others, and I fall into this squarely into this category, like to have an array of accessories including split keyboards, ergonomic mouses, standing desks, balance training boards and a wall of screens fit for NASA’s mission control.

This makes the job of an office designer or facilities manager a difficult one. They are tasked with finding the “best” use of office space for groups of people that have widely varying opinions about what is best. Traditionally office layout decision makers would have their “go-to” layout and expect workers to adapt. This was how veteran facilities manager Will Martin used to design office spaces for his company Health Management Systems. “We, like many people in FM, were used to designing things to our standards and expecting everyone to adjust,” he told me.

But his thinking soon changed when he started getting requests for standing desks. “We had a couple of top executives that asked for standing desks. We ended up spending $5-7k redoing the furniture so we could make that happen. We realized that we couldn’t pay this kind of money so we went out looking for a better solution.” His solution was to find office furniture that would be flexible so his workers wouldn’t have to be. He started doing his research and ended up finding what he wanted from the office furniture company Varidesk. One of their most popular items was a standing desk converter that would sit on top of a regular desk. This got Will thinking about how else they could break their mold for office design and create a truly flexible workspace.

“A lot of what we do at Health Management System is crunch a lot of data. We need office space and also call centers. We have offices around the country we have a 2,500 square foot headquarters but we also have offices with five or ten people. We are always dealing with changes in the size of the business and the size of different departments. I have to think about how to build a space for not what we need today but what we will need a few years down the road,” Will said. This meant that he often didn’t have the liberty to build permanent walls for designated offices.

So, like any good practitioner, Will decided to test out some new ideas before implementing them. His headquarters had some empty space that was previously occupied by a call center. He tore out the 3-foot cubicles and outfitted the area with flexible desks and informal gathering areas. Then he asked all his employees to try working there for a week and give him feedback about their experience. “I would tell people, ‘try it for a week, if you don’t like it you can always go back.’ We had a lot of people who had a negative initial reaction that eventually changed their mind after we put them into the test space and let them put things where they want it. Even though cubicles give more privacy they realize that they spend a lot of their time working around the cubicle. Having less wall space and more open space for impromptu meetings created a lot of extra connections,” he explained.

Now he is taking what he learned from this an applying it to an entire floor of their headquarter building. “Before we would group six cubicles grouped together in the middle of the floorplan and put offices around the outside,” he said. “Instead we decided to put our glass-walled offices against the inside wall and put our desks around the perimeter by the window. The corners we use for soft seating and flex space.”

This marks a huge change in how we think of office layout. No longer are there “corner offices” for the higher level execs. “Putting the open desks at the window lets a lot more light into the interior of the building,” Will told me. “The managers’ views were not obstructed and they were a lot more accessible to their team.”

To further increase the flexibility of the space he found a new Varidesk product that would help him adapt to future changes in staff: flexible walls. These allow conference rooms to be set up in minutes and offices to be collapsed down to allow for a large event space. Will knows that his new layout is an improvement over what he had always done in the past but still might not be the perfect way to meet his company’s office space needs. Now he is able to keep his options open and not have to make the dreaded request to rebuild a perfectly function office.

The job of facilities manager is still not an easy one. Conference rooms can be overbooked and no one is ever happy with the temperature of the room. But new technology and forward-thinking design can help those working in the industry increase overall satisfaction and adapt to the ever-changing needs of an organization.

Propmodo is a global multimedia effort to explore how emerging technologies affect our built environment.

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