The Open Office – A Design Conversation

The recently published Harvard University study on “the ‘open’ workplace…” has sparked a resurgence of engaging dialog within design firms, and with commercial brokers, on, LinkedIn, PBS News Hour, and in an NPR rebroadcast. At RMW, our thought leaders have joined the conversation and taken a broader approach to the application of workplace design and the open office. The following thoughts reiterate RMW’s belief that as the office pendulum swings, it is context, process, location, community and flexibility that enable engaging human environments in the workplace.

CONTEXT: Consider varied scenarios in which space will be used.Hakee Chang
A designer’s objective is NOT to simply create a space but to create the best workplace experience for each of our clients.  Similar to a realtor’s mantra of location, location, location, a designer’s mantra should be context, context, context. As in the published articles, studies and critiques often lack the right context. It’s easy to point to physical spaces as the cause, and even easier to draw data or individual anecdotes to support it.  The challenge (and probably why there have been few articles to support open offices) exists in elaborating all the multiple mechanisms we engage to research, reveal, test, and establish understanding before the first ideas for the physical environment are discussed. This is why workplace strategy + design process is so vital to the discourse.

PROCESS: How do the occupants currently work? Is it working?Denise Darrin
To design the best work environment, we need to know and understand our clients. Not just the person or group designated to direct the design team, but also how various departments work, collaborate and communicate. How does the average employee feel about their space? What are the company’s mission & values? What is the vision for the workplace, and why? It is the job of the design team to reveal the connections and disconnects and to determine how space can support closing office culture and communication gaps. The importance of the visioning phase cannot be overstated. It provides context. Unfortunately design teams are sometimes invited to the table too late in the process and this first phase is reduced or eliminated. The result; new work environments that divest firm culture, hinder workflow and deplete the intended goals.

LOCATION: Square footage and the growth plan.Caitlin Pastori
A strengthened partnership between designers, brokers, and GC communities add valuable insights and support to the process. More than metrics are needed to validate the true square footage required to create the spaces clients need. Especially in the Bay Area, the cost of real estate often leads the decision, so when companies lease new space, we want them to be as efficient as possible and allow for flexibility in design. There isn’t a formula, It’s about unearthing how that business works so that we are assisting with identifying the right amount of real estate not just for the programmatic elements but the environment, from day one to five+ years down the line.

COMMUNITY: What’s in your neighborhood? – Sherry Carroll
Removing walls does not necessarily foster collaboration. However, as social creatures we are best served by thoughtfully designed and scalable neighborhoods with access to focused heads down areas. High level executives with the option to work remotely or in a private office have reported being more energized, focused and engaged when with their teams than when silo-ed in an autonomous space. When they need focused time, they need access to a setting that minimizes disruption.  Walking meetings in a natural setting have also become a popular way for managers to have confidential one on ones with their reports. No longer does one need to sit to meet, or get valuable work done. Mobility and choice is key to enhancing employee engagement and productivity.

PLACE: Pride and belonging in the workplace. Janet Braden
People want to belong and contribute to something bigger than they are. A workplace with a strong sense of identity that is connected to the corporation’s people, culture and values is vital. As the mobile workforces grows, with more persons working remotely, and with the implementation of free-address strategies, a workplace that engages the senses and fosters pride of place is essential to creating a unified workforce. Visitors, clients, and employees need to feel welcome, engaged, energized and excited to roll up their sleeves to work together.

FLEXIBILITY: One style does not fit all.Kevin Morgan
Some form of open plan is here to stay. Now that employees have experienced open offices, they understand what works and does not. Employees truly enjoy and benefit from some shared open features amenities (Café/Lounges) with direct access to work areas. However, some work requires an enclosed space, and regardless, needs to function in conjunction with the “cool” shared amenities. Now, when private offices blend with open workspaces, they are typically smaller and on the interior of the space allowing the larger population of the space increased access to natural light.

Open plan, cubicles, free addressing, or private office, if the intent is simply to squeeze more bodies in for a cost effective buildout with increased headcounts, undoubtedly there will be challenges with noise and privacy. When the objective is increased collaboration through creating robust communities, then planning with care and balance will yield a more successful open office for the people who inhabit our design. The way we live and work has evolved considerably in the past decade. As our needs change, the pendulum swings.



Hakee Chang Caitlin Pastori Sherry Carroll Janet Braden Kevin J. Morgan Terry Kwik