Employers continue to favor open-floor design, despite its mixed reputation. But more organizations are also creating alternative workspaces, recognizing that employees need a variety of spaces tailored to different tasks.
These creative spaces range from conversation lounges to huddle rooms and zen rooms. Some aim to provide productivity improvements, while others aim to provide better collaborative tools.
Although some organizations have been implementing open floor plans, an open working environment may make employees feel stressed or less productive.
“There's still an ongoing debate about what really is the best approach," says Adam Felson, principal of officemorph, a San Francisco project management firm focused on office spaces.
Felson says that most companies are mindful that an open environment doesn't work without alternatives that give end users a choice.
“When employees aren't constricted to only sitting in a big, open workstation and have different places they can go, whether they want to collaborate and make a lot of noise or whether they just need to be heads down and have quiet time—that's when [open space] works," he says.
Which productivity improvement or collaboration solutions are best will vary from one workplace to the next. Start with an assessment of the business and employee needs, recommends Allyson Strowbridge, founder and principal of ctrl+shift+space, a Portland, Oregon firm specializing in design and project management for new office and renovation projects.
“You need to understand how employees work, what type of work they do and how they collaborate and engage with their teammates and outside customers," she says. “That will drive the best solution, and it's often a combination of an open floor plan and some private spaces and activity-based spaces."
A Welcome Lobby
First things first: When employees walk into their building, they should feel like they want to be there. That's the belief of Dave Haroldsen, head of brand for tech-enabled real estate company Offerpad.
The 4-year-old company, which has 500 employees nationwide, moved its Chandler, Arizona, headquarters to a 40,000-square-foot open-floor space in March. Previously, 250 employees jammed into the 12,000-square-foot headquarters, a mixed space of large offices and open areas.
“Employees are at the office for the majority of the week… so that first moment when you walk in needs to feel special and authentic to your brand," says Haroldsen, who designed the new HQ space to resemble a home, with areas like a “front yard" and “sundeck."
Asking people to forget about their lives for eight hours is too much. [...] It's better to provide a space where they can take a time out instead of taking an entire day for mental health and losing productivity.
—Allyson Strowbridge, founder and principal, ctrl+shift+space
To recreate the home style, the Offerpad lobby looks like a front yard. Beyond is the “family room," complete with a fireplace and casual employee photos.
“If you want your employees to work harder and have more fun at work, you need to set the tone, and that requires an investment," Haroldsen says. “But that doesn't mean investing a ton of money—we didn't have a lot of money to throw at this crazy stuff."
Another variation on the lobby format is a combined reception and cafe space. Felson says some people use the term “receptionista" (a combination of receptionist and barista).
“We're starting to see more and more multiuse spaces, like merging the reception area with a break room as you walk into the space," he says. “It's also a place where employees would congregate, in the front of the office or a central space, rather than somewhere in the back."
Impromptu Meeting Spaces
Meetings these days are shorter and smaller, and the traditional conference room is often unnecessary. Strowbridge recommends a variety of casual settings for impromptu meetings and collaboration.
Huddle rooms are one popular option. Either open or enclosed, they typically accommodate two to four people and include collaboration tools like screen-sharing and video-conferencing technology.
“Other types of areas where people can come together in a more casual setting could be standing-height tables for a quick standup meeting, or a relaxed setting like a lounge for conversations that don't need to take place behind closed doors," she says. “The location of these is important because you don't want them in an area where there's the potential to distract other employees."
Offerpad has about 25 of these types of areas.
“We tried to create an environment where you can have small meetings or big meetings without having to schedule a traditional conference room," Haroldsen says.
Walk into the Reno, Nevada, office of The Slumber Yard at any given time, and you're likely to find at least one of the dozen employees in the “chill room." This converted storage space has a white-noise machine and massage chair, but the true attraction is the four adjustable-frame beds.
The mattress-review company put some of its extra mattresses to use by creating a place where employees can get away from sitting down at their desks.
Company co-owner Matthew Ross says work can get mundane, particularly in the afternoon. The chill room is a place where someone can loosen up for 10-15 minutes, as well as work on a laptop, relaxing in an upright position on a comfortable bed.
“We wanted not only a place where people can recharge their jets, but also a change of scenery," Ross says. “I've seen an increase in productivity, especially in the afternoon when your mind starts to wander after lunch. The employees love it… and it helps them focus and get their work done."
Respite and Quiet Areas
For those times when work requires concentration, quiet spaces, or “libraries," provide a distraction-free workspace.
“It allows people to move around and be in that space when they need to do heads-down work," Felson says. “But you need to create the rule that it's a room where you can't speak."
While quiet areas are a welcome break from intense conversations or noise, Strowbridge says what's commonly overlooked is a space for a different type of respite: mental wellness. Since people spend so much time at work, it's inevitable to have moments when they need to deal with something personal like bad news.
“You need a place where you are not on view while you're having a moment of stress, and you need to collect yourself," she says. “It's important to have a place where you can meditate or pray, or maybe punch a pillow and take some deep breaths before you have to be seen by people."
These rooms—whether you call them a nap, zen, recenter, meditation or wellness room—help with productivity improvement, Strowbridge says.
“Asking people to forget about their lives for eight hours is too much," she says. “It's better to provide a space where they can take a time out instead of taking an entire day for mental health and losing productivity."
Embracing the Change
Strowbridge cautions that you can't simply put some chairs or couches in a corner without thinking through what kinds of activities employees will engage in, and without making sure the technology and tools are in place.
“If you want your team to move to a future state of utilizing the space in a different way… you have to help them understand why it's important and what's in it for them," she says.
In addition to educating them about it, she recommends modeling the behavior by managers and others in position of power, as well as providing a feedback loop.
“Make sure you're helping them through the process," she says, “so they can get to this future state of how you envisioned the space to be used."
Photo: Getty Images