More Than Just An Open Office

People-centered design and new work habits and attitudes shape evolving office plans.

In a recent 15,000-sq.-ft., primarily open workplace for brokerage firm The Corcoran Group, CetraRuddy included privacy-enhancing features like a meditation room, private break spaces, lounge-like “telephone booths,” and a custom glass-tile screen. Glass walls were used for all the conference spaces and private offices, allowing sunlight to penetrate the entire office space and helping form a sense of trust and transparency. Photo: Alan Schindler, courtesy CetraRuddy

By Kenneth W. Betz, Senior Editor

Private offices and cubicle farms are rapidly becoming relics of past office design. Even open offices, a relatively recent phenomenon, have evolved since its introduction. Elements of flexibility, wellness, and employee satisfaction have been added to the open-office concept. Privacy and quiet spaces for “heads-down” work are recognized as important as well. Equally significant is the recognition by progressive architects that design should mesh with the corporate culture and that it should be people centered. Following are the thoughts shared by several architects deeply involved in current office creation.

Question: Open offices, flexible workspaces, and collaboration have been buzzwords in office design in recent years. Are these still current trends or have they been replaced by other design considerations?

• Open plans, flexible programming, and collaboration spaces remain important in the current workplace design market, but new trends are emerging as equally or more important. Amenity spaces and programs are increasingly important, as are co-working offices and designing for wellness-oriented workplaces. All together, these trends signify the end of the age of the corner office. The era which follows emphasizes light, air, and health, leaving the tall cubicles of the 1970s and 1980s in the past. Going forward, designs will increasingly focus on creating flexible, open workplaces supported by amenities, spaces, and experiences that executives and employees can leverage to increase productivity and job satisfaction.—Joshua Zinder, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C, founder & partner, Joshua Zinder Architecture + Design (JZA+D), Princeton, NJ (joshuazinder.com)

• The trend toward more informal work settings continues. The drive to produce open, flexible, collaborative workspaces has begun to extend outward into the amenities and community spaces. The result is that the workforce is rarely confined to what I’ll call the “defined desk setting.” This trend is a direct result of the rise of mobile tools, as well as increased demands for collaboration and a renewed commitment to healthy workplaces and workforce.—Mark Sullivan, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP, partner, Joshua Zinder Architecture + Design (JZA+D), Princeton, NJ (joshuazinder.com)

• After more than 20 years in workplace design, I’ve concluded that these trends tend to morph from one thing into the other without easily identifiable beginnings and endings. A review of articles published over the past few years that are critical of open workplace settings focus on employees unhappy about diminished personal space or distractions resulting from open-office acoustics and reduced visual privacy that they claim negatively impact their productivity. But this doesn’t mean that the open workplace is dead. I believe this is a challenge to designers to learn, to adapt, and to implement new tools and solutions in order to deliver workplace designs that support the needs of end users.—Brent Zeigler, AIA, IIDA, president/director of design, Dyer Brown, Boston (dyerbrown.com)

• These are all still relevant “buzz words,” but what’s changed is that we now have a better understanding of what it takes to design primarily open spaces so that the end users actually benefit.

This user-focused approach could include addressing both ergonomics and staff well-being with sit-stand systems, planning adjacencies to ensure that workstations receive natural light, or providing spaces that address social, educational, and collaborative needs in addition to individual focused work.

In my opinion, a workplace can be spacious, have ample natural light, and certain luxuries such as a game room, but if the CEO is not clearly communicating his or her vision to staff, staff will not be happy.—Elisabeth Post-Marner, AIA, LEED AP, principal, Spacesmith, New York (spacesmith.com)

• Amenity and collaboration spaces are still prime considerations in the workplace world. High-value shared spaces are key, and outdoor areas, like terraces and roof decks in particular, are some of the most desirable amenities. For example, we’re designing a new office tower at 412 West 15th Street in Manhattan’s Meatpacking district, and communal indoor/outdoor environments are a fundamental part of the project. By incorporating six terraces, we were able to maximize views of the city and the Hudson River and provide multiple tenant-specific outdoor conference and lounge spaces. Everybody wants to be outside, and everybody wants great views. If you can activate a roof, or leverage a setback, you’re creating real value.—Eugene Flotteron, AIA, principal at CetraRuddy, New York (cetraruddy.com)

The heart of The Corcoran Group office is an open, multifunctional gathering space that encourages employees to meet informally and interact throughout the day. The Soho loft was designed by CetraRuddy with additional public and private spaces for work, meeting, and mediation. A communal café space, adjacent to the 250-sq.-ft. open lounge area, offers ample opportunity for casual meeting and collaboration among employees. Photo: Alan Schindler, courtesy CetraRuddy

Question: Regarding open offices and flexible workspaces, has there has been pushback from workers about distractions and lack of privacy? What steps can be taken to deal with these complaints?

• The success of an open-office plan often depends entirely on the corporate culture of the firm occupying it. Open plans don’t fit every kind of culture and can be at cross-purposes with the typical work mode leading to lost productivity. However, millennials (currently the fastest-growing segment of the workforce) tend to favor a more collaborative and socially energized workplace atmosphere, far more than previous generations. The same appears to be true for the post-millennial generation as well, which is just beginning to enter college and the workforce. These demographics appreciate well-designed open office plans.

One solution for dealing with distractions and privacy issues is to subdivide the office plan—an area for marketing, another for accounting, and so forth. Also, the furnishings might include a mix of desks, lounge chairs, tall tables, and other workstation options. This offers employees choices to suit their work styles, or even to suit their preferences for different times during the working day.—Joshua Zinder

• The workforce of today continues to demonstrate a mobile and flexible mindset, and is capable of finding, creating, and making the space it needs to work. While “four-walled” privacy still has its place, space-sharing is well within the current norms. It’s more common for people to establish a sphere of perceived privacy, even momentary, within the bustle of the world’s various open settings. The emerging workforce often makes its own space, whether in a coffee shop, on a park bench, train, or within an open office plan.—Mark Sullivan

• It’s important to the success of any workplace design to avoid knee-jerk responses to perceived trends and backlashes to those trends. Some may not be happy in their open offices, but responding by putting people back into cubicles and offices only creates other issues. We need to lean in to the problem and understand exactly what is going on, and why.

Workplace design and strategy is an ever-evolving field, but there is one constant: the right approach is the one that is tailored to the individual organization. There’s a lot of chatter, and we’re bombarded daily with various statistics and benchmarking supposedly telling us what determines an ideal workplace. I would caution designers to be selective about these influences, since the data may confuse or mislead even when it is intended to help. Design, like good listening, is an art and not a science. I would urge every company or client looking for a workplace design firm to be wary of the ones that rattle off the latest stats or data. Look instead for a firm that has perfected the art of listening. The firm that listens well is the one most likely to craft a workspace that will support your employees’ day-to-day tasks and overall productivity, not to mention their on-the-job satisfaction.—Brent Zeigler

• At Spacesmith, we have found that it’s helpful to provide areas for working, collaborating, or socializing away from the individual workspace. For example, creating phone rooms or lounges that can also function as lunch or meeting spaces makes a huge difference in an open-plan environment. In a recent project for publishing house Abrams Books, New York, we created “nooks,” where people can relax or have informal conversations and meetings with colleagues. This had a huge impact and helped staff make a smooth transition to their new headquarters, which in this case involved a shift from private offices to a 90% open-plan space.—Elisabeth Post-Marner

• Traditional cubicles and hard-wall offices create effective private workspaces, but they also lead to isolation and reduced teamwork. Open benching systems encourage the collaboration and community that today’s companies value. Incorporating banquettes and movable seating so staff can adjust their environment for their needs is a good way to address concerns about distraction or reduced productivity.

In a recent 15,000-sq.-ft., primarily open workplace for brokerage firm The Corcoran Group, we included privacy-enhancing features like a meditation room, private break spaces, lounge-like “telephone booths,” and a custom glass-tile screen. We also used glass walls for all the conference spaces and private offices, allowing sunlight to penetrate through the entire office space and helping form a sense of trust and transparency.—Eugene Flotteron

Question: Start-ups, particularly tech companies, have placed emphasis on “fun” workplaces and quirky design. Has workplace design retained this sense of informality, but with perhaps a greater sense of maturity?

• It depends on the individual corporate culture, but the trends suggest that maturity is out the door, a relic. Every day is “bring your inner child to work day.” These days it’s common in all kinds of work settings to find video games, skee-ball lanes, and tabletop games in amenities spaces or even adjacent to or within the workspace.—Joshua Zinder

• Employers are coming to realize that the maturity of the workforce is inherent, and not something to be policed or monitored. Encouragement of creativity is more commonly associated these days with innovation and productivity, which is naturally supportive of the business plan or goal. We don’t design workplaces in the pursuit of informality per se, but rather to encourage discourse and collaboration as a means to achieve the stated desired goals of the business.—Mark Sullivan

• Recruitment and retention of talented employees is a critical issue for almost all of the client organizations we interact with, not just the tech firms but from every sector. The executives and directors who oversee staffing nearly always express a desire for a workspace that will “wow” new applicants coming through the door. We talk about this a lot in terms of differentiation. While the current “fun office” trend is great for recruitment, it can come with downsides for employee retention. Consider a fun and unique office design that is out of sync with the company culture: if the staff rarely engages with the fun, then new recruits will quickly realize that the hiring department presented an inaccurate or inauthentic picture of the firm culture. —Brent Zeigler

• I think this really depends on the client. A huge part of our services these days includes branding. Currently we are working with a financial-technology firm who competes with Google for hires, so we made sure to incorporate many of the amenities Google has (such as coffee bar, lounge, and game areas) but with an aspect that reflects the banking environment they came from. Overall, I would replace the word “fun” with “social.” What’s important is providing a lounge with natural light, where people can gather for different purposes; whether it has primary colors or quirky colors is less relevant.—Elisabeth Post-Marner

• For TAMI-sector (technology, advertising, media, and information) tenants, gathering space and social space is critical. Going to an office isn’t just about going to work anymore; there’s a whole social experience involved. In response, workplace design is evolving with a more deliberate and intentional approach to these elements. There’s a growing trend of making office environments more like “home.” It’s a consideration that comes directly from the hospitality and multifamily residential worlds where the live-work-play mentality has taken hold. For office design, this means going beyond just providing amenity spaces, for example, and working to activate and curate them with tenant-focused services or with events where tenants can gather. If you give people a reason to hang around the office, they’re more likely to stay after hours.—Eugene Flotteron

Question: How is workplace design evolving and what might we expect for the future?

• Dynamic workplaces containing a variety of experiences for occupants are the future of office design. Recruitment and retention of talented employees will increasingly depend on amenities, support of occupant wellness, and supporting choice and flexibility in work style. Employers who are expanding or moving will do well to consider these trends, and select a design team accordingly. — Joshua Zinder, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C, founder & partner, Joshua Zinder Architecture + Design (JZA+D), Princeton, NJ

• The evolution of workplace design will be greatly influenced by the perceived value of literal walls when compared to the perceived or imaginary walls that the digital age has created. It’s possible that defined, dedicated workspace will increasingly be replaced by community space, co-working space, gathering space and the like. — Mark Sullivan, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP, partner, Joshua Zinder Architecture + Design (JZA+D), Princeton, NJ

• Workplace design is ever evolving. The overall shift towards people-centered design continues, focusing on the needs of the individual while supporting the organizational goals. We’ve seen how LEED made sustainable design commonplace, and similarly the WELL Building Standard is promoting design for occupant wellness. I think that design focused on emotional and psychological health will be the next major trend – and it may manifest in different ways depending on the designer and the client culture. For example, bigger offices used to signal prestige and power, but in the future the status indicator for high-performing individuals within the organization may be the amount of time allotted for use of the company meditation room, or preferred access to employer-provided concierge services. This approach is a natural next step in the increasing influence of hospitality and residential designs in the workplace sector. It’s all about creating comfort and emotional well-being. — Brent Zeigler, AIA, IIDA, president/director of design, Dyer Brown, Boston

• Employers are finally realizing that the health and well-being of their staff represent keys to productivity. In our opinion, the three most important things that contribute to a healthy, productive workplace environment are ergonomics (for instance, as sit-stand design products become more affordable, we’re starting to price them in for all of our projects); providing lounge areas or social spaces  (work has become increasing collaborative, and having places to easily meet — beyond a traditional meeting room — makes for productive staff); and incorporating spaces that encourage excellent communication between the leadership team and staff members. Successful companies have leadership that shares information and values staff, and good workplace design can help make that communication happen. — Elisabeth Post-Marner, AIA, LEED AP, principal, Spacesmith, New York 

• The goal now is create office space as a social campus, and commercial buildings as vertical communities. It’s about forming opportunities to see and be seen, to collaborate and work together. Whole buildings are taking on a brand identity and a social identity, just like in the condo world. The lines are blurring between workplace, hospitality, and residential design, and they’ll continue to converge. — Eugene Flotteron, AIA, principal at CetraRuddy, New York

An Office For Office-Furniture Firm

A highlight of OneWorkplace is the central form of two stacked boomerang-like C-shaped structures created by Blitz that house an elevated conference room and observation platform for a bird’s-eye view of systems solutions. Photo: Bruce Damonte, courtesy Blitz

One Workplace, Santa Clara, CA (oneworkplace.com), hired Blitz, a San Francisco architecture and interior-design firm (designblitzsf.com), to combine an existing stand-alone, mid-century office building and warehouse into a 35,000-sq.-ft. space accommodating an office and showroom for the Bay Area workplace furniture dealers.

As an adaptive-reuse project, the company’s headquarters invigorates a previously overlooked industrial area and gives it new life. A highlight of the interiors is the central form of two stacked boomerang-like C-shaped structures—representing “collaboration” and “creativity”—that house an elevated conference room and observation platform for a bird’s-eye view of systems solutions. The boomerang concept also shapes the user experience, which assures that customers are guided through the entire showroom, stopping at a series of mapped touch points showcasing a variety of furniture vignettes. The meandering path ultimately brings customers back (boomerangs them) to the front of the showroom. The installation of mobile and flexible work systems improves employee effectiveness across all parts of the business, while sustainable features provide energy efficiency throughout the building.

Upon entering the building, one is immediately presented with the work café—an area to meet and eat. Leading with this hospitality function ensures that customers and users encounter a warm and welcoming atmosphere, embodying One Workplace’s mission to transform the furniture-specification process into a more collaborative endeavor. The break room is located at the intersection of the buildings and serves as the first introduction to the space. It serves as the central hub to celebrate the familial and communal quality of the company and create a programmatic connection between the two buildings.

The workspace encourages movement, dynamic thinking, and efficiency. By housing an elevated conference room and observation platform in the C-shaped structure, Blitz created a way for members of the sales team to quickly survey the floor and show customers how the furniture products can be intermixed to create a unified, flexible, and layered approach to workplace layouts.

Given the raw nature of the existing warehouse and office building, Blitz determined that the design vernacular would celebrate the site’s industrial history. The building’s tall ceilings, concrete-block walls, and concrete flooring were preserved and integrated into the project. Artifacts from the original buildings, such as fire doors, space heaters, and a chimneystack, were painted and re-installed to add context to the raw, energetic atmosphere.

To coincide with One Workplace’s approach to sustainability, the workspace reflects the company’s “smaller office, bigger opportunities” philosophy. The company moved from a 45,000-sq.-ft. space into the new 35,000-sq.-ft. office while increasing staff from 101 to 165. Blitz increased office efficiency by reducing the number of dedicated workstations and moving the majority of the sales team to a mobile workflow. Mobile workers store their belongings at a centralized location and work either at a shared workstation, soft seating at the work café, or alternative meeting areas.

To coincide with One Workplace’s approach to sustainability, the workspace reflects the company’s “smaller office, bigger opportunities” philosophy. The company moved from a 45,000-sq.-ft. space into the new 35,000-sq.-ft. office while increasing staff from 101 to 165. Photo: Bruce Damonte, courtesy Design Blitz

The architects planned for longevity and flexibility by future-proofing the open office through the installation of a raised-floor system for easy furniture reconfiguration. Interior offices and small meeting rooms were constructed using a re-usable and demountable partition system that allows structurally isolated rooms to be created without connecting to the ceiling. Minimal colors and patterns allow easy interchangeability to reduce waste as furniture trends change.

Lighting and environmental strategies maximize energy efficiency. Offices and meeting rooms are centrally located using glass to maintain views of interior and exterior spaces. Daylight penetrates the office through 14 new skylights, four 20-ft.-high windows, and three 10-ft.-high windows along the front building elevation. Existing single-pane glazing was replaced for dual-pane low-e glass, and window sills were removed to extend glass throughout the main floor. Motion sensors were added to interior building fluorescent lighting, while light-reflecting insulated foam was added to the existing roof without disturbing the structure.

The office includes an on-site gym, showers, and bike racks to encourage fitness and promote cycling to work. The water fixtures meet California’s Green Building Code Standards for water use, and Energy Star appliances were installed throughout the building. Electric car-charging stations are located adjacent to the front entrance.

Borrowing From The Hospitality Industry

Joshua Zinder Architecture + Design (JZA+D) added a dash of hotel and restaurant flair for the recently completed redesign of common spaces at 506 Carnegie Center, part of an office campus in Princeton, NJ. Photo: Michael Slack, courtesy JZA+D

Suburban office parks designed in the 1980s face challenges when competing with other desirable properties in their markets. To reposition and refresh these buildings, some architects are borrowing ideas from cutting-edge hotels and restaurants.

Joshua Zinder Architecture + Design (JZA+D), Princeton, NJ, (joshuazinder.com) added a dash of hotel and restaurant flair for the recently completed redesign of common spaces at 506 Carnegie Center, part of an office campus in Princeton. The results have redefined the cafeteria and courtyard as a social center and major amenity, bolstering the ability of tenant companies to compete for and retain talented employees, many of whom prefer a more urban social experience.

Emphasizing transparency and natural daylight and introducing natural finishes, asymmetric forms, and a full-height plant wall installation, the updated cafe seating area accentuates a specific connection to the adjacent patio and seasonal bar—a welcome departure from the space’s previous closed-in feeling. A mix of lighting fixtures interacts with varied furnishings to offer choices of experience: globe pendants highlight booths, for example, while domed fixtures generate warmth around arrangements of contemporary lounge seating.

Counter-height communal tables were built from rough-cut, large-format timber slabs. JZA+D worked with the manufacturer to specify slabs with rich grain texture and live edges asserting the natural form of a tree. Photo: Michael Slack, courtesy JZA+D

At either end of the space, occupants find counter-height communal tables built from rough-cut, large-format timber slabs. JZA+D worked with the manufacturer to specify slabs with rich grain texture and live edges asserting the natural form of a tree.

The patio itself has been reinvented as an events space, even a destination. The space features two brand-new structures: a square bar pavilion for events covered by an overhanging slate roof, and a barbecue kiosk with a wood trellis cover that neatly echoes the exposed floating wood beams overhead in the cafe.

“Introducing design ideas from the hospitality sector helped us deliver a fresh, timeless sensibility while reinvigorating the shared amenities,” said Joshua Zinder, AIA, founding principal of JZA+D. “The updated cafe and terrace brings a ‘pocket of urbanity’ to this suburban location, adding value for our client and their tenants—and the tenants’ employees.”

Simplicity, The Ultimate Sophistication

The new office spaces created by Dyer Brown for True Fit feature cost-effective and highly adaptable design solutions with extensive graphics, raw materials, and other fun flourishes for a high-end yet tech-savvy, downtown aesthetic. Photo: Andy Ryan, courtesy Dyer Brown

For a firm known for data-driven personalization for apparel and footwear, a new Dyer Brown-designed headquarters offers sophistication and downtown appeal.

Dyer Brown, Boston (dyerbrown.com), created a new Boston headquarters for True Fit, a leading tech company known for its “personalization platforms” used for online apparel retailing. The new office spaces feature cost-effective and highly adaptable design solutions with extensive graphics, raw materials, and other fun flourishes for a high-end yet tech-savvy, downtown aesthetic. Branded elements include inspirational quotations and logotypes of the many companies that True Fit serves with their unique, popular, and easy-to-use tools for sizing garments and footwear prior to online purchases.

“True Fit’s clients and partners include hundreds of retailers and thousands of clothing and footwear brands,” said Dyer Brown project manager Michelle Bristol, IIDA. “The company’s executives needed their new headquarters to make a powerful statement about who they are, along with budget-savvy, strategic workplace setup that empowers True Fit’s team as it leaves visitors with a lasting positive impression.”

Dyer Brown integrated reclaimed timber into existing sliding-door hardware at entrances to meeting rooms, and designed bespoke wood furnishings including chairs and conference-room tables. Photo: Andy Ryan, courtesy Dyer Brown

True Fit had outgrown its former head office and, following a search around Boston, the firm’s leaders leased the 25,000-sq.-ft. space on the 12th floor of 60 State Street, a prestigious address in Boston’s downtown area. Based on initial meetings with the tech firm’s leaders, Dyer Brown proposed a minimalist, rugged design concept favoring a bold, professional flair as well as open, bright interiors with extensive glass and environmental graphics. Exposed building structure maximized ceiling height in various areas, responding to True Fit’s desire for high ceilings, openness, and daylight.

Along with the exposed structure and systems overhead, the reception area, conference room, and an open pantry break room feature a palette of reclaimed timber, polished concrete flooring, and sleek, frameless glass partitions. Casual modern upholstered furnishings add to the raw, rugged sensibility, softened by pendant lighting fixtures and varied displays of client company logos and products. Dyer Brown also integrated reclaimed timber into existing sliding-door hardware at entrances to meeting rooms, and designed bespoke wood furnishings including chairs and conference-room tables. Ample city views are left open and uninterrupted throughout.

Dyer Brown introduced innovative, cost-effective workplace collaboration solutions throughout the headquarters floor, against a backdrop of glass office walls, wood-grain-look flooring, and branded, mural-sized graphics and wallcoverings—all designed in collaboration with the client to enliven work areas with on-brand, inspirational messages. One of those—“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” attributed to Leonardo da Vinci—seems to capture the essence of True Fit and its new headquarters, said Brent D. Zeigler, AIA, IIDA, Dyer Brown’s principal, president, and director of design.

According to Bristol, the new headquarters offices are adapted from a former law firm location, which allowed a number of creative reuses of existing elements, which needed only minor upgrades. For example, Dyer Brown converted several existing private offices into huddle rooms for smaller meetings and breakout sessions, reinforcing the tech firm’s culture of teamwork and connection. The team preserved black aluminum framing on some glass office fronts and some original lighting systems retrofitted with better lamps and controls. These steps allowed True Fit to concentrate value in other areas “to make a lasting, powerful impression on visitors,” said Bristol, “without breaking the bank.”

“With a subdued, focused palette of finishes and furnishings that provide pops of color, the ideas captured in the graphics and True Fit’s people take center stage,” said Bristol. “It’s an unassuming approach that enhances the subtly stylish aesthetic of the company itself.”


— Watch a video on One Workplace.

— Blitz

— Joshua Zinder Architecture + Design

— Dyer Brown

— Spacesmith

— CetraRuddy

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