Changing spaces in workplaces

The untraditional creates its own tradition as a new wave hits the office. The question is ... will it last?
August 11, 2010

Bland is banned in the office spaces of the new millennium. Whether companies are rehabilitating historic structures or creating dizzying dot-com delirium with curving walls and raucous colors, the new offices are definitely not your father's workplace. But the trend may not be long-lived. As the dot-com economy recently headed south, some specialists wonder whether the office design it spearheaded will become history as well.

For the moment, though, the workplace can be anything from the traditional office space with four walls and a door to one set up for hoteling, in which employees can "touch down" for a few minutes or a few hours to conduct their work before speeding off to consult.Telecommuting from home, a car or even a hotel room also has become more and more of an option as energy and environmental concerns move to the fore. "I think officing has really become more of an activity than a place," says office-design specialist Michael P. Considine, vice president with Baltimore-based RTKL Associates.

Some designers are using curving walls and furnishings as counterpoints and foils to the rectilinear environments. The curves also are being introduced as part of wayfinding strategies. Another trend in workplace design has been one of creating more open work areas and individualized environments. "Workspaces are supportive of the functions of the individual rather than a one-size-fits-all mass customization," says Considine. The new workspaces serve both as symbols of a company's products or services and to attract and retain a qualified workforce. The latter has become necessary, say experts, because so many of these workers spend long hours at work and companies find it necessary to offer enticements. Some firms want employees to think unconventionally, and if that means that their office must look like a teenage boy's bedroom, so be it.

For firms such as Medina, Minn.-based Polaris Industries, a manufacturer of snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles and watercraft, translating that trend into a corporate headquarters meant developing a workplace vernacular that reflects the off-road vehicle and the lifestyle that accompanies it. Says Tim Carl, associate vice president of Minneapolis-based A/E Hammel Green and Abrahamson (HGA) and project architect for Polaris, "Architecturally, we merged an industrial high-tech style, similar to the Polaris product line, with a rustic lodge-like feel, featuring lots of natural wood and stone. We've tried to wrap an understanding of function with an understanding of image."

Work is where you make it

Carl says many companies have discovered that work is done informally, and architects have been asked for designs that allow or promote the approach, using the real-life model of a neighborhood. In the Polaris facility, a wide corridor, such as one that serves as a "main street" through the office area, gives people a chance to chat. "You can actually design these opportunities," he says. Feeding off of the corridor are clusters of conference rooms. Commercial overhead doors with glass panels close off the conference rooms from the corridor. The space planning also is designed to make workers feel as if they are in a neighborhood.

The Nortel Networks facility in Billerica, Mass., also is organized into an interior planning concept of "streets," "monuments" and "town squares." Workstations are laid out in "neighborhoods" that easily support the relocation of people. Areas in which people converge, such as conference rooms, break rooms and at copying machines, are in the town square.

Such varied floor plans offer decompression for high-stress environments, says Patrick Halm, senior associate for Cambridge, Mass.-based Symmes, Maini & McKee Associates and project manager for the Nortel offices. Sometimes decompression comes from exercise rooms, cafeterias and game rooms that never close. "We're seeing that a lot of these companies allow them to be available more or less continuously," says Halm.

Graham Reese and Amy Crumpton, interior designers for Memphis-based Hnedak Bobo Group, say the design of the iXL offices in Memphis says much about the company's desire to make its employees happy. By investing in an attractive office, whether offering more expensive lighting or extravagant amenities, it lets workers know it considers their environment important.

Coart Johnson, senior vice president of corporate real estate facilities for iXL, says that the design represents a trend, although change is constant. "We have to be able to modify and fine-tune space requirements just about as quickly as the company and its space requirements change," he says.

Economy darkens mood

As last year's dot-com economy becomes this year's dot-bomb economy, enthusiasm for some of the more expensive perquisites may be dampening, but the trend is to reflect the new ways in which people work. The raucous and giddy interior finishes and furnishings might also be in for a rough landing. As companies concentrate more on cutting costs and designing for the long-term, "The focus on bright colors is fading fast," says Franklin Becker, professor and director of Cornell University's International Workplace Studies Program. Becker also notes that looking cool and hip — to the extent that is associated with bright colors — is more suspect now that dot-coms have imploded.

As one architect explains, the trend for lively space and a homey work environment was spilling over into more conservative industries, such as banking, but as the economic outlook darkens, businesses wait to see how matters shake out. "I guess I'm very hopeful that companies are going to move away from building lifeless office space. It shouldn't cost more to do this," says Carl.

Variety is the spice of work

"Studies and research have indicated that productivity is improved if you provide variety," says John Crosby, HGA director of interior architecture and design and project architect and interior designer for Accenture Tower in Minneapolis. Accenture, the former Andersen Consulting, which a number of architects hold up as the definitive example of a trend, decided that its workforce of 65,000 employees in 250 cities did not need dedicated workspaces for every employee, because the company's analysts and consultants typically work in their clients' facilities. The renovated, 80,000-sq.-ft., three-level Accenture Tower in the former Metropolitan Centre provides 400 work settings for about 750 analysts, consultants and partners in a flexible environment with a full staff of support personnel and service-oriented amenities. HGA created three basic office settings:

  • Huddle rooms, which are softly outfitted like living rooms.

  • Focus rooms, for making personal phone calls or working on a project that requires concentration such as writing.

  • Touchdown spaces for consultants.

Accenture is not alone. Becker sees companies trying to reduce costs at the same time as they are attempt to understand the changing concept of where work is and should be performed. "Proximity can no longer be depended upon for adjacency," says Becker. Businesses are rethinking the idea that everyone should be under one roof. Technology and mobility are being combined to deal with size and scale, he says. As companies grow, corporate culture changes. What was informal has become formalized, and organizations must develop new approaches for dealing with the concept of working teams.

As we move further into the new millennium, time will tell whether the era of dot-com design is as ephemeral as many of the pages on the World Wide Web, or whether the revolution of information technology has truly brought a revolution in design.