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Let’s Just Design Offices Like Libraries and Be Done With It

We’ve waxed poetic about offices a lot. Different theories about what the future of office design will look like after the pandemic have bounced around the echo chamber. 

“The ideal office features an open-concept layout…”

“No! It needs to be rigged with digital twin sensors to be smart!”

“NO! IT MUST INCLUDE SOUNDPROOFED PODS!”

It seems that almost everyone is obsessed with theorizing about what will be the next big thing in office layouts, while others will shrug, thinking that layout won’t bear much weight to overall productivity. Nevertheless, office life is creeping back as employees get vaccinated and return to work in droves. However, the hybrid work model is unlikely to alter anytime soon, which begs a new design vision for the workplace, as offices in general are trying to lure their employees back by being attractive places to work. That said, offices may want to take a page from libraries.

Give a shh! 

Outside of bedecking the space with bookshelves, library buildings frequently feature peaceful and conducive study places and common areas for group study and collaboration. Libraries can also serve as community hubs, where people can attend programs and engage in lifelong learning. “If you think about the language of a library, what does that get you?” asks Elizabeth von Goeler, a principal interior designer at the architecture and design firm Sasaki. “It gets you protocols that everybody understands for quiet and focused work.” 

If the optimal goal of an office is to increase worker productivity, it seems like designing an office with designated quiet and collaboration spaces would be an easy sell. After all, there’s a natural process when it comes to collaboration: people need to concentrate, usually by themselves, to come up with ideas, then get together with a group to expand on those ideas to generate a shared point of view together. Then the group breaks apart again once the next steps have been decided. That process flows naturally in a library, but it’s also exactly what is expected to happen in an office. However, one of the more popular design fads has actually hindered work output because it provides the exact opposite.

The open-concept gambit

The open-concept design craze that swept residential architecture in the 1970’s (and early 2000’s HGTV) caught office design in its wake years later. The idea was supposed to provide the illusion that the space was bigger than it actually was, allowing a full view of the interior, while enabling people to flow freely from one area to another. It seemed so utopian on paper, a true democratization of space. Clive Wilkinson Architects popularized the open office design for massive tech companies like Microsoft and Google. But now, those same architects envision something radically different now that the pandemic has caused a big redesign of professional life. One of the associate architects who championed the open office concept, Amber Wernick, openly declared that “the open office is dead,” since open-concept spaces can get overwhelmingly loud thanks to a lack of acoustic barriers (unlike, you knew I was gonna go there…a library).

But does the open office deserve the shift in attitude? It seemed like a sound strategy to take advantage of as much square footage as possible while allowing everyone to be in full view of one another. In fact, improved optics was the biggest sell of the open office concept. However, it’s also proving to be the design’s demise. A study done by a Harvard professor that used wearable devices to understand how people reacted to open offices revealed that a frequent complaint of open offices is that the enhanced scrutiny from co-workers actually creates a need to look busy, at the expense of work getting done. Thus, cordoning off the workplace into designated collaboration spaces while allowing employees some semblance of privacy (away from the distractions of a collective noise) fell back into favor. 

A more productive working environment doesn’t seem to involve a wide open floor plan with assigned desks like we once thought. At the end of the day, the trendy open office is too noisy for anyone to optimize their workflow. Taking a page from traditional library layouts and providing a communal working space that features wide communal work tables may seem counterintuitive at first, but libraries actively use sound barriers like individual nooks, acoustic panelling, and, of course, at least a few strategically placed shelves. Plus, enforcing the classic no-talking guideline helps avoid distraction.

Modular craze 

So what if you’re stuck in an open-office floor plan but want to incorporate library design by limiting all that commotion? Prefab booths seem to be another trend that’s transforming workplace layouts. Office booths are modular rooms that can be put within an office’s shared spaces to provide a basic amount of seclusion, allowing employees to exchange ideas and hold short briefings with coworkers and clients. This flexible space concept assumes that informal areas, rather than traditional meeting rooms around a table, provide a better environment for focus and creativity. 

A common thread in the office furniture industry is the adaptability for a plethora of different office spaces. These modular constructions do precisely that. They’re designed to be positioned in various places throughout the office or even moved to a different location altogether (like when larger offices decide to downsize). Office booths also provide an acoustic boundary from big, forced social spaces (i.e., an antidote to the open office design).

The takea-layout

The general rule of thumb when it comes to designing office layouts is that common area spaces should be proportional to the density of the office space. The bigger the office, the more common areas and collaboration spaces there should be. But orchestrating an office layout to mimic that of a library doesn’t necessarily mean propping up rows upon rows of bookshelves to scale and enacting a strict Dewey Decimal System (granted, no one is stopping you). But, it does point designers into the right direction of providing a calm, quiet space that’s favorable to get work done.

Thinking about workplace architecture via the lens of a library also reflects the changing nature of work. Workers aren’t seeking the same office set-up that awaited them before the pandemic. Many companies used to flout their recreational amenities like ping-pong tables and dart boards for employee downtime to seem attractive in the marketplace. But the pandemic posed a dramatic shift in workplace attitude. People want to come to work to get away from distractions elsewhere and collaborate effectively, just like you would, say, at a library. 

Staff Writer
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