There have been numerous studies recently claiming the open office is a design trend that might be headed out the door, with workstations as the main suspects behind this trend. Mention the term open office and you get a flood of concerns including lack of privacy, too much noise (we get it, no one wants to hear their co-worker have a personal conversation), and dropping productivity.
From a designer’s point of view, it might not quite be time to close the case on workstations and open offices just yet, at least with our own clients. For us, at the end of the day, good design, whether that’s using community desks, or open offices with workstations, is what matters. If the thought of workstations make you think of cube farms or boiler rooms where worthless swampland in Florida is being sold as premium real estate over the phone, think again. Here are four ideas to consider to improve the workplace with workstations and through good design.
Installing workstations can save space, but not as much as you may think
The common perception with many decision makers is that installing workstations will save money on the amount of space you rent. If you replace ten 10×15 private offices with ten 6×6 cubicles, you don’t save 1,140 square feet of rentable office space. You have to replace some of that private space with phone rooms and small conference rooms in what used to be office space. The upside is that employees now have private spaces for a phone call or to do some heads-down work—basically go to a room and shut the door. Sure, there will be rented space savings (from 30-40%), but the main reasoning behind going to workstations shouldn’t be a financial one.
Workstations increase collaboration
Will staff hate those sparkling new workstations? It depends on how they’re used and how much effort goes into the design of the space. Here’s a real-world example of how we worked to ensure employees were happy and productive while increasing collaboration.
A tech client wanted to make more room for its engineering employees who were used to the typical six-foot tall, 8×10 cubicle. After planning and designing, we moved the engineers into 6×8, low-wall cubicles. The result? Well, initially they howled. However, within a year, everybody seemed perfectly fine and had no desire to go back into the taller cubicles.
Their complaints were completely justifiable, with the biggest concern being that the new low-wall cubicles were going to make the office too loud. What we discovered with the lower walls was that people talked softer. What we also realized is that when sitting in your chair, and all you see are four tall fabric walls, we all tend to act like we’re in a private office. However, the new space and lower walls made employees increase their respect for each other’s space—and that included keeping their conversations down to a murmur. Beyond the lower wall height and increased collaboration, other advantages included increased comfort, the ability to sit or stand while working at adjustable desks, and more storage space for large plans, paper, and equipment.
Good design makes spaces work harder
This same client has since grown and is moving into a larger space, which is an old warehouse buried into a hillside. There are no windows in the deep space, except for a large expanse facing north. Although that sounds like it could be oppressive, good design ensures it’s not.
We designed the space to accommodate a large number of low-walled 6×8 workstations, but to keep the space from feeling like the ocean of cubicles you often hear about, we created “neighborhoods.” Each neighborhood consists of workstations in short rows, with each station having at least a partial view of the daylight to the north. Each neighborhood is surrounded by private and shared conference space made up of small, medium, and large-sized conference rooms or boardrooms, all using sliding walls, so they can completely open up or completely close down. Even when the doors are closed, light still shines in since the movable doors are glass.
We also included open collaboration space with free-standing lounge furniture and multiple technologies to accommodate different user groups. These spaces are used for brainstorming sessions at the beginning of a project or troubleshooting mid-project issues. In addition, we incorporated dimly lit small-scale soft-sided booths for employees that need privacy or silence when working on a project.
Lastly, we placed a large break room close to a large bank of windows, doubling as a communal space. Yes, there are workstations throughout, but there are numerous places to meet, gather and collaborate with the team, with natural light complementing the space.
Collaboration happens, naturally
An open office environment encourages collaboration. It happens in our own office. From asking a question, getting an answer, to telling a joke, it’s not wasting time; we see it as team building. People want to be part of a team on a project, have a voice and work together toward a common goal.
People want to be able to feel like they have ownership in a project—and be in an environment where they can talk and joke with peers and not worry about being penalized for it. Don’t let the words “open office” cause anxiety. There are numerous ways to still have plenty of light, privacy, and room to breathe, even in a space were the staff work in workstations. Good design ensures this.