Designing an Open Office That People Want to Be In

With rising commercial real estate costs in urban areas across the U.S., companies looking to establish an office space are facing a challenge: how can they create a workplace that meets employee needs while working within a restrained budget and shrinking real estate space? At ROOM, this was the issue that we faced when searching for the space that would become our headquarters in Manhattan, New York. 

Since we launched the company in May 2018, we started as a team of just a few and grew fast to a team of 40 today, and we are projecting to reach 70 by the end of the year. A few months ago, it became apparent that we were outgrowing our original space. We needed a new work environment to accommodate our growth, but one that was cognizant of the space and budget constraints that comes with the Manhattan real estate market. It was very clear to us that we needed to implement an open plan layout, as it becomes clear to most companies at similar stages of growth.

There’s been plenty of talk within the past year around the negative impacts open offices have on the people who work within them. Exclusively open-plan layouts are filled with constant distraction, leading employees to look for a respite from the noise. That said, open offices actually have a ton of potential—they just need to be properly implemented. 

In order to make an open office work, there are a few considerations that companies need to make. Think about the open office as a blank slate, it’s an opportunity to divide a space into different environments for human interaction, whether it’s a formal meeting, a casual brainstorm or individual, focused work. To better visualize this, I like to draw a heat map over your office floorplan. Areas for collaboration are “hot,” they’re lively and meant to invite conversation, while areas for individual work are “cold,” they are calming spaces designed for quiet, focused work. 

With this in mind, I argue that there must be at least these five baseline environments in any workplace, in order to get the most out of an open office. One of the first and most important types of environments is one that is centered around community, spaces that are designed to nurture creativity and collaboration and foster employee belonging. Casual in nature, community environments should function like a coffee shop, inviting casual conversation within your office. This is the area where ping pong tables and spots for eating lunch should live, too. 

Two other key types of environment are centered around collaboration—teamwork and meeting areas. Teamwork areas should be islands assigned to particular groups or teams without assigned seating. 

Each seat at the island should have the same amenities, including chargers, monitors, etc. That said, you should have personalized lockers or storage spaces so that employees can have their own space set aside within the office. On the other hand, meeting areas, which are somewhere between a “hot” and “cold zone,” have more privacy than the community spaces but are meant for collaborative work. As such, open offices should all have at least one classic conference room.  

To balance the “hot” environments, offices should have two types of “cold” spaces, too—focus and privacy areas. Outside of the bustling community and teamwork areas, there should be shared quiet space where employees can do heads-down work. Much like a library, this environment should discourage conversation and the use of phones. Zeroing in on the “focus areas,” privacy areas are meant specifically for the individual. These are enclosed spaces that are soundproofed, ventilated and private, they’re designed for employees to do work with zero distraction, or to take a phone call or video conference.  

As long as a workplace has these five flexible environments, companies are setting their employees up for success whether they have an office of 100 or 1,000. 

Making Our Headquarters Flexible

Images courtesy of ROOM

As a startup with a projected sales run rate of $40M, we found a 6,660 square foot space in Manhattan that was within our budget and appeased our investors and board. Let me walk you through our office, which I’ve designed specifically to put the needs of workers first, starting with an open plan layout, I’ve designed our headquarters with at least each of the five critical environments in mind. 

We’ve created a range of unique environments within the whole space with the assumption that employees will flow and rotate through the office throughout the day. There’s no assigned seating, so everyone can move throughout the space to find an area that best suits their needs. When designing the layout of an office, it’s all about creating diversity in environments. Nobody does their best, most creative work planted at the same desk for eight hours a day.

When I sat down to design our office, I knew that I had to carve out space for each of the five environments outlined above. Because “community” environments are often the heart of a workplace, I started my floorplan here, building in a coffee shop. Created to seat at least 20 people, this space is lively and bustling. We also incorporated music design into this environment, using upbeat music in the afternoon to keep employees energized. 

As we’re seeing the lines between life, work and the community blurring, offices need to reflect this changing reality. Employees want to do work in spaces that don’t always feel like “work.” The younger generation of employees seeks greater flexibility in their working environments, they want to work from home or from their favorite café and not feel stifled by the idea of sitting at the same desk every day from 9 to 5. With laptops, cell phones and other technology, employees are increasingly mobile and should be encouraged to move around through the work day. As such, I wanted to bring a space that we inhabit in our daily lives, a coffee shop, into our office to bring a livened, playful energy into the space. 

In addition to the coffee shop, we have a lounge space which was designed to be comfortable and informal, meant for casual meetings or personal work. There are couches that face one another and plenty of plants and greenery, which I find offers a visually-meditative experience. Overall, these community spaces are comfortable and inviting with a variety of seating arrangements and vibrant colors to make the space dynamic and lively. 

When the morning coffee catch-up is over and it’s time to get down to work, our employees make their way over to the “teamwork” environment. Unlike many open offices, we don’t have assigned seating. I find that it’s limiting, especially if employees are constantly working with different team members throughout the day. Rather, we have pods of desks which are assigned to different teams. Employees can move around these pods and easily collaborate with members on their team. That said, we incorporated personal lockers to help our employees feel like they have their own space within the office and to keep the desks tidy. 

Sometimes team members need to collaborate on projects without distracting other teams around them, which is why we implemented conference rooms. A traditional staple of the open office, we have conference rooms that accommodate 4, 6 and 14 people, which are used for more formal presentations or meetings. For transparency’s sake, I personally recommend building these rooms with clear glass. 

That said, conference rooms aren’t typically places that inspire innovative, creative thinking or hands-on experimentation. To meet those needs, I designed a “lab” which is a creative space dedicated to brainstorming activity and exploring new ideas. Our team of engineers uses this space to test out and build new concepts. We even have a 3D printer to create prototypes. This space also includes large whiteboards to help facilitate team brainstorms. 

Equally as important as all of these “hot” spaces are the “cold” areas that I’ve designated within our office. First, I built out a “focus” room, which is a quiet, comfortable shared space for uninterrupted work. This is the perfect space for doing hours of non-distracted work, like working on a presentation or writing, as we encourage employees to avoid talking while working in this space. I wanted to create this space because quiet work doesn’t always have to be private, and in fact in can be nice to have company—plus, it’s a great place to go for heads-down work if all of our phone booths are being used. In this room, we have large windows and high ceilings that let in plenty of natural light. To create a calming effect, this room is neutral in tone and incorporates natural textures.

Of course, there are times when employees truly need individual, private spaces to work, which is why throughout our office we have phone booths, which employees use to take private phone calls or video conference throughout the day. These spaces are critical for giving employees a respite from the noise and free up conference rooms to be used for group work, as opposed to a single person taking a private call. While we use our own phone booths in the office, there are a number of ways that businesses can introduce individual, private spaces into their office, whether they choose a pre-fabricated option or decide to build their own.  

Throughout the space as a whole, I used our brand’s color palette, which is fresh and inviting. While shades of earthy greens are used everywhere, the “hot” spaces have slightly warmer tones, while the “cool” areas rely more heavily on cool grays and natural textures. The “hot” spaces are also more visually dynamic, making use of patterns or funky lighting. 

In order to refine my theory, we’ve placed sensors from Density throughout the office to better understand where our employees are spending their time throughout the day—we’ll use this data to ensure that the office is truly meeting their needs. Ultimately, we want our employees to feel that our space supports and inspires them. By applying this design theory, companies of all sizes can create open-inspired offices that work, too. When making the most of your open office, remember that it’s all about creating a variety of both “hot” and “cold” spaces to create the ideal environment for your employees. 

Providing a great work environment is an important way for companies to show appreciation to their employees, and attract and retain great talent. By using an open floor-plan as a canvas, designers can create multi-functional spaces that not only meet a company’s need for rapid growth and maximization of space, but can impact how employees feel about their workspace, about the company itself, and their personal performance. Investing in a thoughtfully designed workspace is more important than ever before, and it’s rapidly becoming one of the key things taken into consideration during the job search. 

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