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Workplace Design Trends Support Collaboration

Open workspaces, strategically placed support spaces, and employee "amenities" factor prominently into the design of a flexible, collaborative work environment.

Summer 2012
Today's corporate work environment continues to evolve, as employers and employees respond to changing domestic and global economies. Identifying and securing more favorable lease rates, right-sizing facilities, and creating an environment that attracts and retains high-quality talent are all important considerations. However, flexibility is the key factor when planning and designing corporate workspaces, from site/building location selection to the individual worker's ability to adjust and control his/her personal environment to maximize comfort and productivity.

Workspace: Open vs. Closed

With the exception of a few corporate office types, such as law and accounting firms, many companies have adopted and implemented "open office" environments in lieu of multiple, enclosed "hard-wall" offices. Hard-wall offices are more expensive to construct since each requires at least three walls, a dedicated door frame and hardware, individual lighting controls, and - occasionally - individual thermostats for air temperature control. Spaces incorporating high concentrations of perimeter hard-wall offices also block views to windows from workspaces located on the interior of an office floor plan.

Since collaboration is more important than individual privacy for most job functions, open office layouts are quickly becoming the norm across industry sectors. If private conversations or formal meetings do need to take place, they can be conducted in conference rooms of varying sizes carefully positioned throughout the facility. Companies and the personnel responsible for programming and planning new space should carefully evaluate and consider which positions require closed offices and which do not, and create published space standards by which all environments are planned.

Furniture: Modular and Varying

In an open office environment, it is critical to select the right furniture for each type of function. "Systems furniture" is the most commonly used term to describe a flexible, pre-manufactured, modular kit of parts, consisting primarily of vertical partitions and horizontal work surfaces. Individual workstations may be configured from a variety of sizes, typically ranging from 6 feet x 6 feet to 8 feet x 10 feet. Quite often, in highly collaborative environments, four to six employees may be "teamed" or "pooled" in one area, with the open sides of their individual workstations facing each other and/or onto a central planning table. Systems furniture environments are available from a number of manufacturers, offering a seemingly endless selection of options - from varying partition panel materials and heights, filing and storage systems, accessory storage systems, and personal space heating, ventilating, and lighting systems. The advantages of systems furniture include flexibility in planning initial spaces and power/data/IT infrastructure at move-in, as well as the ability to reconfigure space and infrastructure quickly when necessary.

Modular furniture planning concepts can also be used within private, hard-wall offices as well as lobby and conferencing areas. Creating space standards for furniture for various staff positions and room types makes the planning and design process seamless and ensures a consistent look and feel throughout the corporate interior.

Support Spaces: Central and Strategically Placed
Best-in-class interior space planning always considers key technological requirements of the end user. Main points of entry (MPOEs) for voice and data must be carefully positioned when planning new buildings. Primary data facilities (central servers) must be planned to interconnect to the MPOEs and allow for a company's future growth and expansion. Intermediate distribution frames (IDFs) on each floor of multiple-story office spaces should always, where possible, be stacked vertically for ease of installation and to enable future reconfiguration. Other support spaces, including restrooms, janitorial closets, storage rooms, etc., should be located within the interior of the floor plan, as they do not require exterior windows and are not typically reconfigured once built.

Amenities: Respite from the Workday

In the past, spaces such as "break rooms" or "employee lounges" were considered to be just another support space, and not much importance was given to them. Today's workers appreciate and deserve thoughtfully created amenities. These can vary in size and complexity from small to modest break rooms in very small companies to full-service, on-site kitchens, serveries, and dining rooms at large corporate campuses. Almost all corporate facilities today - large and small - incorporate workout rooms or full-service fitness centers.

Whether small or large, simple or complex, these areas are desired by employees so that they can take a break from their workday and relax. Staff members have a great need to "get away" from their immediate work environment to enjoy their lunch, peruse a magazine, go online, and take care of personal business, or simply sit and chat with other staff. Incorporating residentially scaled soft seating, furniture, and lighting (with Starbucks' "loungy" feeling), with less intense, earth-tone colors, does wonders for the human spirit, as well as productivity. Positioning amenities at exterior windows - providing views of an exterior courtyard or a roof deck - enables workers to re-charge their batteries and maintain productivity throughout the day.

Environmental Control
The ability for employees to control the air temperature in their environment is extremely important. However, most existing office buildings implement either packaged or central heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems that have several zones, each controlled by its own thermostat. Where several staff members are located within the same zone, invariably one will be too cold and another too warm, offering little flexibility or individual choice.

Implementing modular workstation space heaters and/or fans for passive cooling is one option for giving staff members individual control over thermal comfort. If planning and designing a new office building, companies should ask their architect and mechanical engineer to explore the option of under-floor air distribution systems. Such systems are becoming more prevalent, as they direct the flow of air from the floor upward through the space toward the ceiling, resulting in a more even temperature distribution. Most notably, under-floor systems allow placement of adjustable diffusers within each workstation for staff members who desire a higher level of control.

Although not practical in every climatic region, new buildings can be carefully designed to implement centrally controlled or manually controlled operable exterior windows, coupled with low-speed fan systems that draw fresh, outdoor air into the space and exhaust the airflow back to the exterior. Such hybrid systems eliminate the need for heating or cooling energy demands much of the year, resulting in substantial energy cost savings.

Adjunct to airflow and temperature control, adjustability of lighting levels within the workspace is also highly desirable. When designed in conjunction with carefully planned exterior windows and ceiling treatments, many light fixtures at building perimeters need not be powered much of the day, even on slightly overcast days. Ceiling-mounted light fixtures, most often implemented as 2 feet x 4 feet fluorescent sources with downward-only illumination, have increasingly been replaced with suspended linear fixture systems that produce direct/downward as well as indirect/upward illumination. Direct/ indirect fixture systems (now available in 2 feet x 4 feet configurations) offer superior lighting distribution for a variety of task types and reduce the number of required fixtures within large, open office areas, further reducing overall energy consumption.

Sustainable Design
Not long ago, sustainable or "green" design was an industry buzzword that relatively few outside the architectural, interior design, and engineering fields understood. Today's corporate campus and office building environments can incorporate environmentally conscious decisions that affect energy usage and implement wise stewardship of the earth's resources without significant upfront costs.

The United States Green Building Council (USGBC) offers certification programs for site, building, and interior design for a variety of project types, utilizing point systems that vary by project type. Decisions on site selection, building envelope design and materials, interior design and materials, as well as mechanical, plumbing, and electrical systems design obviously impact the overall performance and maintenance costs of any given facility. However, nearly all of the points/rating components are directed toward the goal of saving energy before the project is constructed and saving energy during facility operations. Most notably, many of the points/rating components are intentionally directed at creating healthy, comfortable work environments for the end user.

Planning for Maximum Flexibility
As companies seek to relocate, expand within their existing locations, or design and construct new facilities, they should carefully evaluate options by employing a dedicated and knowledgeable team to guide them through the process. Such a team should include:

  • The company's upper-level management to establish financial parameters

  • The company's facilities manager (if one exists) or a third-party program facilities manager

  • An experienced and qualified real estate brokerage firm that will negotiate in the company's best interest and look for properties that carry advantageous expansion and exit strategies

  • A seasoned land-use attorney and civil engineer (if developing a new ground-up project)

  • An architect and interior designer to provide land-use master planning, corporate tenant improvements programming, and space planning

Companies desiring to maximize flexibility across the spectrum of project planning are well advised to dedicate adequate financial resources for programming, conceptualizing, and cost-estimating their facilities, well before any pencil is laid to paper. Involving employee task forces and user groups in the programming and planning process will result in superior facility operations and employee productivity when the project is complete. The best plans are made by many hands.

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