An Office Designed for How You Work

How new trends in space utilization anticipate the needs of office workers.
An Office Designed for How You Work

The hottest buzzwords in office design today are “agile,” “flexible,” and “choice.” The first two are interchangeable, and they are intended to enable the third. Agile or flexible work environments are designed so that many or most employees can choose (or be assigned) to work in the course of a given day in any number of settings, from an enclosed private office to a crowded table in an open area, depending on the nature of the task they need to perform.

“Work has become more fluid,” says Andi Simon, director of project management for real-estate management company Cushman & Wakefield/NorthMarq of Bloomington. “A lot fewer people now come to the same office and sit at the same desk every day without moving around much.”

Take her client Unilever, for instance. The consumer-products giant is designing space for a move of its Minneapolis office to new quarters in the McGladrey Plaza building on Nicollet Avenue. Unilever has calculated, Simon says, that only a portion of its desk space is actually occupied at any given time. Often, a subset of employees are working elsewhere. “They’re in conference rooms or out of the office at meetings or working at home or traveling,” she says.

The “nobody home” trend started years ago, and it is no longer novel to hear about practices like “hoteling,” in which short-term workstations are set aside for employees or contractors who visit the office only occasionally, or desk sharing by employees who work partly from home.

What is newer is that “we’re actually starting to match environments to the work that people really do,” says Shawn Gaither, a principal with architecture and design firm Studio Hive of Minneapolis, which is designing Unilever’s new space. The change is taking place across industry lines, from professional services to education and government, Gaither says. “We’ve been throwing around terms like ‘hoteling’ and ‘benching’ for years, but one size rarely fits all. It’s only when you begin to align [workplace designs] with the work people are doing that it succeeds.”

Here are four key trends and concepts that characterize the shift toward flexible work spaces.

1. The Incredible Shrinking Office

There are fewer private offices today than in decades past, Simon says. No surprise there, but she also says that the sizes of remaining offices are shrinking. The same goes for cubicle sizes. And the square footage of both offices and cubes is growing more standardized.

That observation is echoed by Steve Chirhart, president of TaTonka Real Estate Advisors of Minneapolis, which helps corporate clients find office space and works with the design firms that configure it. Cubicles that once might have been 10 by 10 feet now are more likely to be eight by eight or even six by eight, Chirhart says. Private offices that used to measure 15 by 15 feet or 20 by 20 now might be 10 by 13 feet or 12 by 12.

The phenomenon is common even in workplaces that remain, essentially, cube farms, and even in places such as law firms where private, walled offices still are the norm, Chirhart says. Cost savings are a driver, of course, but the main enabling factor is that more documents are being scanned and digitized in offices today. Less paper means less need for space-consuming filing cabinets, Chirhart observes. In other words, office sizes are shrinking because they can.

And the differing office sizes that traditionally served as badges of corporate rank are giving way to standardization. The law firm Oppenheimer Wolff & Donnelly asked Studio Hive for smaller, standard-sized offices for its move this year to new space in downtown Minneapolis. “They wanted to get smarter about how to do real estate,” Gaither says. “And there are a lot of savings to be gained just by ordering standard furnishings when you’re talking about almost 100,000 square feet of new space.”

2. Open in More Ways Than One

Sometimes cubicles just get smaller. But more often they are being traded for more open workstations with less screening—shorter partitions or none at all. Some employees might have their own permanent desks, while others move from station to station as projects or assignments change.

Practicing what it preaches about flexible workplaces, BWBR Architects of St. Paul has designed its own office to incorporate many “bays” of four workstations each. In the course of a year, an employee might move to different stations in different bays. Portable file storage follows a person from place to place, so changing stations is almost as simple as plugging one’s laptop computer into a different outlet.


BWBR Architects

The arrangement has nothing to do with “hoteling,” says BWBR Design Principal Don Thomas. The purpose of the bays is to cluster people who are working as a team on a given project. As people move on to new projects, they can change teams and locations easily.

The bays are not closed off but are visible to one another, encouraging interaction. “Our culture is to work in teams, and to have people work on diverse projects so they can [acquire] broad knowledge of pretty much everything we do,” Thomas says. “We also want people to see how decisions are made. And we want mentoring to be easy and natural.” An open environment encourages such learning on a day-to-day basis in ways that a cube farm doesn’t.

Designers try to make such open work areas as attractive as possible. One technique is to ensure they get plenty of natural light. In traditional office arrangements, private offices get the windows while open-space desks occupy the interior of the building. CityDeskStudio of Minneapolis likes to invert that concept.

CityDesk partner Ben Awes says that for clients including advertising agency Barrie D’Rozario Murphy and IT firm JAMF Software, his firm has designed Minneapolis offices in which open work areas get light from the windows while private offices and conference rooms are placed in the interior.

Design firms say that clients also are increasing the amenities and the variety of settings found in their open spaces. “One of the consistent requests we get is for casual sitting areas with soft furniture, like mini-living rooms,” says CityDesk Partner Bob Ganser. Another is for expansive kitchen areas, or café-type settings where people can meet and work as well as eat.

These café and living-room areas are meant to double as alternative work spaces, designers say. They are either wired or served by wireless networks. They might have drop-down screens or whiteboard walls for meetings and presentations.

Studio Hive has designed such café areas for clients including the Sartell Group, a Minneapolis software development firm, and pharmacy-benefits management company Prime Therapeutics of Eagan.

The amenities also are meant for play and relaxation. Awes says that Barrie D’Rozario Murphy’s café area has a pool table, a Ping-Pong table, and a jukebox. Simon says that Unilever’s new office will feature a professional-grade golf simulator.

3. Privacy? Sure, Sometimes

All of that openness and flexibility are terrific until someone needs to make a private phone call, conduct a sensitive conversation, or focus for an extended period on a “head-down” task that requires concentration and relative quiet.

Advocates of open-office concepts have tried for years to get around the need for privacy, Thomas says, “but it keeps coming back. When you need high concentration, you need to eliminate distractions.”

Open environments don’t work for everyone. Thomas mentions computer programmers as people whose highly focused work is likely to require private spaces a good deal of the time. Privacy also is required for things like performance reviews, strategic planning meetings, and many business and personal phone conversations.

But Thomas and other agile-workplace advocates point out that while all employees require privacy some of the time, most don’t need it all of the time. Like cubicles, not all private offices have to be assigned to particular people. In a trend that goes hand-in-glove with open design, multiple small, private offices and conference rooms are made available for any employees who need them. A tiny office with only a desk and a telephone might be used for quick personal phone calls—or it might be staked out for a day or two by someone who ordinarily works at an open station but needs to concentrate on a focused task.

Mini–meeting rooms can be created and equipped to accommodate two or more people. (Simon notes that many clients are asking for rooms designed for six to 10 people. “That seems to be a sweet spot,” she says.) Larger conference rooms are included too, and function as they always have.

4. It’s Not Just About the Money

There is no denying that a key driver of flexible design is corporate reluctance to pay rent for a bunch of offices and cubes that are occupied less than half of the time. Simon says she has heard claims that companies can achieve overhead savings of 40 percent by shrinking and standardizing office spaces, and by adopting open, flexible designs. “I think that’s high,” she says. But she does estimate that with the techniques described here, organizations often can accommodate the same number of employees in 10 or 20 percent less space.

Everyone acknowledges that economics play a role in all this. But designers and real estate managers insist that saving money is not the only goal. And they say that the more clients think about what they really want to achieve, the less important cutting costs becomes.

“In a recession, especially, it makes no financial sense to give 100 square feet to someone who is there 10 percent of the time,” Gaither says. That is often the problem that a client originally sets out to solve, he says. “But it’s a misconception to think that because [individual] work spaces are getting smaller, the overall environment is getting smaller.”

When you’re renting floor space, all of those cafés and lounge areas and private meeting rooms add up, Gaither says: “Do you wind up putting more people in the same space with agile designs? I’m not sure that’s a pattern.”

Thomas agrees. It might start as a cost-cutting initiative, he says, but agile design usually winds up being about the most effective use of space for the way people actually work.

Corporate workers “have been squeezed for a long time,” Thomas admits. “So people get skeptical when they hear talk about, ‘How big does your workstation really have to be?’ But this really is about flexibility,” he says. In the end, it’s about how the work actually gets done.



CityDeskStudio’s design for the JAMF Software offices.