Workspaces Morph from ‘Me’ to ‘We’

Mar 1, 2018Architecture, Education, Telecom & Tech

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Retooling the modern office to increase efficiency, employee collaboration, and cost efficiency

The once-typical office landscape composed of cubicle mazes, closed spaces, and those coveted “executive” corner offices are becoming a thing of the past as companies look to increase collaboration, improve workflow, and create cost-efficiencies through open-space floor plans, say design experts.

Design Trends in Play

A top trend is the replacement of the “Me” work environment with a “We” work environment, says Alisha Weiss, design director at Capital Office in Anchorage.

Alaska companies are facing higher real estate costs as well as increasing construction costs and operational costs, so there is a greater push to be more efficient, she explains. Technology use, employee retention, and attraction of new employee talent are also impacting workplace design.

“Me space is considered an employee’s home base, their dedicated work area, and square foot allocation has been greatly reduced for individual work space,” says Weiss, as companies strive to reduce expenses and free up floor space to lease to more tenants.

“When individual workspaces are reduced in size, more We space, as an amenity, can be provided for employees,” she says, adding that We spaces include work lounges, living rooms, coffee bars, phone booths, and collaboration areas.

“These areas are considered work area options for employees to have a choice when considering how they need to accomplish their tasks,” says Weiss, who notes that having a choice in the workplace “allows people to change their posture throughout the day and encourages interaction with their peers to exchange knowledge or an impromptu meeting.”

That is enticing to the young workforce generation—who want as much mobility in their work environment as they have when it comes to social connectivity.

Natasha Schmidt, principal at RIM Design in Anchorage, is also seeing the transformation from Me to We, especially within companies where collaboration and knowledge sharing are valuable assets.

“A deeper look is taken to determine the needs for each space based on type of work being done, type of space, and other factors,” explains Schmidt, who serves as communications director for the Alaska Chapter of American Society of Interior Designers.

“When individual workspaces are appropriately sized, shared spaces such as conference rooms, breakout or collaboration areas, respite rooms, phone enclaves, [and] fitness or lounge-style break areas can be added and utilized by everyone. This approach maximizes the usable space, allowing for more staff and a variety of amenities,” she says.

But We to Me space isn’t the only trend taking place. Not only are companies opening up areas to save money and boost collaboration, they’re also taking advantage of the decreasing need for paper and document space: there are fewer file cabinets and less shelving and desk space needed, which means workstations can be smaller.

According to Dana Nunn, interior design director for Bettisworth North, “We also see more benching solutions as telecommuting becomes more common than ever before; work zones are complemented with a variety of space types to support the many ways folks work alone, as well as in small or large teams, and often only part-time in the office with the balance on project sites or from home.”

Today’s office landscape is dotted with a wide variety of work areas, from small meeting rooms and semi-private alcoves to flexible meeting rooms that support everything from large staff meetings to technology teleconferences and training programs.

The workspaces are supporting several generations of workers, notes Melissa Pribyl, an interior designer at McCool Carlson Green in Anchorage. There are shifts in workplace dynamics, she explains, such as employee engagement playing a more critical role and employees having a greater say in the workplace setup.

Immersive Planning Invites Interaction, Collaboration

These shifts, Pribyl says, are driving “immersive planning” when it comes to interior design. Employees want privacy and to be free from distractions when necessary yet have access to collaborative and community spaces.

“These changes are starting to define the workspaces by individual’s actions rather than their job function by providing immersive planning techniques that create spaces that invite interaction, collaboration, and private heads-down work,” Pribyl says.

Nunn says her firm is hearing requests for amenities such as coffee bars, expanded breakrooms, shower and dressing spaces, storage areas for gear such as bicycles or cross country skis, and more casual drop-in meeting areas. Pribyl notes there is a trend showcasing hospitality and residential influences.

“However, as Alaskans, we love our connection to nature and inviting, warm environments,” she says.

Weiss says clients want their space to relate to their brand or culture. “Companies are asking their staff to not personalize their own space. Companies want their work environment to reflect the company not the individual. The result is a professional, less cluttered work environment that reflects the company mission and values,” she says.

A New Look for Private Office Spaces

Though the walled office is fast disappearing, there remains a need for private and secured spaces, says Pribyl. Providing privacy and security can be done in multiple ways, and one approach is the private room.

“We often call these focus rooms, group rooms, or writing rooms. While the main workstations may be in a more open environment, there are ways of implementing privacy with mobile partitions, sound masking systems, privacy screens, and orientations of desks,” she says.

The administration office at the Anchorage Museum.

Designers also acknowledge certain job roles and positions require a more secure workspace, such as the Human Relations department.

“In this scenario we could recommend an enclosed room for those individuals to share that is supplied with an additional private room to share for focus work and private meetings,” says Pribyl.

On the security side, Nunn says lock and access control systems are a good approach, adding that the increasing “paperless office” is easing office security needs since documents are protected by logins and passwords rather than locked file drawers. In fact, a secured office space often isn’t necessary.

“Of course, no industry has gone completely paperless, and some businesses still rely heavily on paper for the type of work they do. In that case, lockable storage [keyed, keypad, or card key] helps secure the smaller items in open workstations. For larger secure storage needs, which often tend to be team-based, access-control locks on designated small ‘team rooms’ can supplement the open workspace,” Nunn says.

Privacy, despite the push toward a collaborative and open room work space, remains important, say designers, who note that putting employees in a private room with a door does not necessarily provide true privacy.

Nunn says that without appropriate ceiling treatments, door hardware and gasketing, and treatment of the walls (including over the wall), conversations in a “private” office may actually be more easily heard and understood than amongst open workstations, where the din of daily activity helps to disguise the content of a conversation.

The first consideration when establishing a private space is speech intelligibility, says Nunn. If an employee can hear the murmur of the phone conversation at the station or office next to them, but cannot discern what is being discussed, the noise is not distracting and the discussion can be considered private.

Designers rely on appropriate acoustical surface treatments on ceilings and walls and smaller panels between workstations—as well as technology solutions like sound masking systems—to ensure an open work area supports the needs of the employee.

Critical Lighting

While lighting is critical in any interior design, it takes on a greater importance in Alaska given seasonal characteristics. Alaska’s northern daylight conditions impact energy efficiency, employee health and wellbeing, comfort, and aesthetics.

“We design in flexibility with the use of dimmable light fixtures, grouping lights together on common switches for daytime and nighttime settings [more commonly known here as summer and winter], and providing task lighting to the individuals of the space to supplement when needed for those heads down focus tasks,” she explains.

Nunn says her firm’s interior designers prioritize access to views and daylight for occupied spaces, which directly impacts space planning.

“The one aspect of northern light that Alaskans are quite sensitive to is the color of the light. Daylight shifts color through the day, and at our northern latitude the shift is exaggerated,” Nunn explains, adding daylight in Alaska is distinctly cool and blue in nature in the winter months, when residents are most often indoors.

One trend relating to lighting is the integration of automated circadian lighting systems.

“So much of our health and wellbeing, outlook and mood, efficiency and effectiveness, both in personal lives and at work, is impacted by our circadian rhythm. Artificial circadian lighting, which varies in intensity and color through the course of the day, can entrain an individual’s circadian rhythm, thereby restoring natural cycles, resulting in improved health, wellbeing, and performance,” Nunn says.

Schmidt says her goal in relation to lighting design is to provide everyone in the workspace regular access to natural lighting through strategic placement of enclosed spaces and use of interior windows.

“This facilitates deeper penetration of natural light into the building. We all know how Alaskans love the sun; a well-planned space with plenty of access to natural lighting supports a healthy working environment and promotes employee well-being,” she says.

Embarking on Design

Designers advise clients to not jump into changing wall colors and rearranging furniture, instead recommending they map out a full strategy before any decisions are made.

That’s where the experience of a professional interior design expert will prove valuable as most company leaders are not knowledgeable in all the aspects that come into play. In fact, many companies view an interior designer as being an interior decorator, notes Weiss, and that’s not accurate.

“Designers hold a National Council for Interior Design Qualification and are included in the beginning, starting with the programming phase and moving through space planning as well as construction documents, permitting, and construction administration,” she explains. “They coordinate with mechanical engineers and electrical engineers. It is important to hire the designer that will successfully meet your project goals and vision.”

A good first step, says Weiss, is to identify what triggered the project and investigating project goals, vision, schedule, and budget.

“Clients should share business goals with the design team. Design impacts employee well-being, recruitment, and retention as well as the energy shared by the staff,” she says.

Pribyl recommends taking a holistic approach to design, considering both the bottom line of the company and the return on investment the company will receive by supporting their employees with a healthy, happy place to work.

“Spaces that are designed with health and wellness in mind increase productivity, improve staff retention, decrease absenteeism, and reduce healthcare costs to name a few [benefits]. These cost [reductions] can dramatically increase your return on your investment,” she says.

A big part of a design effort is cost, and providing pricing insight is dependent on dozens of variables, say the design experts. Weiss recommends sharing the budget with the design team at the very start so the team can work “into the budget,” thereby saving on design costs through fewer redesigns.

Pribyl concurs, noting costs are rapidly changing today to reflect the unique Alaska environment.

“Assigning a number is very hard to do without knowing the construction type and the existing conditions, if any,” she explains.

Additionally, company leaders should involve staff and employees since they’ll be working in the redesigned space, notes Weiss. “It is always important for leadership to communicate with the staff by identifying the vision, goals, and schedule of the project,” she says. “Keeping a positive outlook and building excitement is important for a successful project.”

Judy Mottl writes about important issues country-wide with an affinity for Alaska.

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