Return to site home page


Private Practice

The open office paradigm has moved the focus from “me” spaces to “we” spaces, but new insights into how we work emphasize the need for balance.

By Adam Moore

The open office paradigm has moved the focus from “me” spaces to “we” spaces, but new insights into how we work emphasize the need for balance.

Most designers recognize that one size does not fit all when it comes to workplace design, and yet it seems as though the open office concept has become the de facto corporate standard within the last few years. Clients everywhere are bringing down the walls in favor of sprawling benching applications and open sightlines, all in an effort to capitalize on collaboration, build a culture of transparency and attract the best talent on the market.

And while these are all important goals in a competitive business climate, the truth is that some employees need more focus time than others. For these people, the open office often falls woefully short of its promise, leading to increased stress, reduced productivity and worse.

As it turns out, emerging workplace research is beginning to agree. According to Gensler’s recent whitepaper, “What We’ve Learned About Focus in the Workplace,” both the importance of and the time spent on focus work has increased since the beginning of the recession, with 55 percent of an employee’s time typically spent on concentrated tasks in 2012 (from 48 percent in 2007).

“These increases seem surprising given the emphasis on collaboration by many businesses,” the report states, “but when you look at work factors that have changed since 2007, less space, less privacy, more time at work and more distractions are making focus work more important and time-consuming.”

Some studies put the percentage of private time needed by employees even higher; according to Pedro Ayala, western director of design strategies with Kimball Office, his company’s own research puts the percentage closer to 66 percent. But whatever figure you choose to align with, the fact is becoming increasingly clear: employees need a mix of “we” and “me” spaces to remain innovative and productive.

But if the goal of the open office was to create figurative collisions among employees, doesn’t the push for more private spaces equate to a step back? Not necessarily, says Ayala. “Anytime there are new trends that hit the market … the pendulum tends to swing to its highest point, and then it will start to come down and even out.”

“What I’m hearing is that even in the new technology companies where the CEOs want to be embedded with their people, [the CEOs] will occasionally lock themselves in the conference room because they need privacy,” he adds. “What that is showing is that there’s a need for spaces that allow the end-user to have total privacy.”

architectural solutions

The Cutting-Edge Cubicle

Many of us can imagine the office of the future, complete with spaces that are tied into our computer networks and automatically adapt to our needs throughout the day. But the new HP MIMIC concept, designed by industrial design firm Zac & Co. and MulvannyG2 Architecture, proves that it's a little closer than we think.

As the winner of both the Judges’ Choice and People’s Choice awards in the 2012 edition of the HP/Microsoft Smart Office Challenge, MIMIC uses existing HP technology to create an adaptable, modular office that can change with the tap of a finger.

“You wake up in the morning and check your email, and before you’ve even left home, your office space can recognize that you have an hour of meetings or phone calls within the space, and that you don’t necessarily want whoever is around you to overhear them,” explains Zac Feltoon, owner of Zac & Co. “Because of the integration, your office space can actually respond to that. Through the power of applications on your smartphone, tablet or laptop, you can open this transitional wall and space, and modify it as you go throughout your day.

Each MIMIC space is made of a rigid aluminum frame, while the sides and tops feature a collapsible system of rotating electro-chromatic glass modules that respond to wireless commands.

“The idea is that it’s interactive,” says Alan Feltoon, managing principal with MulvannyG2 Architecture. “You have the ability to open the panels from 42 inches and up if you want semi-privacy or you can open the entire thing. It was intended to be very playful and interactive in the workplace.”

WATCH: See the HP MIMIC transform in the office of the future at the I&S Media Center.

For Brian McCourt, director of architectural solutions for Steelcase, it’s not an either-or proposition—private spaces and collaboration areas work together to create a productive, healthy work environment.

“What we see as the next big shift taking place is the disbursement of private experiences through the entire open floor plan,” he says. “You really have to provide this ‘palette of place’ because there are so many different types of spaces that people need.”

What’s more, these private experiences—which might be video/phone booths, team rooms or small conference areas—need to be flexible, considering that the interior won’t stay put for long. “I often hear design firms say, ‘We know that the user group, 3 years down the road, is going to change the space, so we need flexibility—not only with the furniture but with the architecture,” McCourt says.

That rules out most conventional construction; instead, designers are turning to innovative, unitized glass solutions like K.I.’s Lightline or Allsteel’s Beyond, which provide flexibility while retaining acoustic privacy. V.I.A., a new parametric wall system from Steelcase, can define focus or team spaces in much the same way, while also bringing vertical real estate into play; a variety of interchangeable glass panels, solid skins and technology solutions allow the design of customized, integrated workspaces that can be reconfigured at will.

Another intriguing option comes from Seeyond Architectural Solutions, whose unique multi-dimensional walls and enclosures can be used to divide a floorplate or create appealing private experiences. This turnkey design-and-build solution provides designers with three distinct substrates and a variety of options for customization, including printed graphics, custom coloring and light/sound performance.

READ: See how we got to the open plan in the first place, in "The Cubicle, Deconstructed"

Semi-transparent glass can add an additional element of privacy to areas where sensitive conversations or meetings occur. Rivuletta, a new fluted sheet glass product from SCHOTT North America combines ultra-clear optical glass for maximum light transmission with small flutes to slightly obscure the view. Designers looking for a touch of techno cool may want to consider switchable glass panels from Guardian,which can go from clear to opaque with the flip of a switch. For projects on a tighter budget, colored or patterned resin panels from manufacturers like 3form or Lumicor can have the same effect, while adding a durable shot of color and texture.

furniture solutions
Manufacturers of contract furnishings have been similarly quick to respond to the growing need for privacy, offering a range of high-paneled systems and movable partitions that can assist in spatial differentiation. And while these options may not provide the same auditory or visual privacy as heavier-duty architectural solutions, they do offer greater flexibility in positioning and movement.

The Workbay Office concept, designed by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec for Vitra, is a prime example of this new breed of furnishing. Unveiled at Salone Ufficio in Milan earlier this year, the system consists of simple fleece walls and compact modules that allow individuals or small groups to hide away when privacy is needed.

“The variation of organic floor plans, room sizes and wall heights help create a new, emotional office landscape, which breaks with the usual category of open-plan and cubicle offices,” reads an article in Vitra’s own magazine describing the installation. “Users use the topography of the Workbay Office as a source of orientation—as they would a natural landscape—and instinctively select the work situation that is the most suitable for the task at hand.”

Other recent introductions, such as the BuzziHub by BuzziSpace (in addition to the company’s extensive line of other “Buzzi”-style solutions) and Docklands by Bene offer a similar aesthetic with colorful, friendly pieces that can stand alone or be configured into “quiet zones.”

Of course, for the fastest-moving companies out there, even these solutions may be too formal. These organizations, typically found in the tech sector, are now requesting “agile environments”—spaces that can be modified or “hacked” by users on demand to meet their immediate needs, whether that is dedicated focus work or small-group collaboration (read “The Smarter Office” for more on this trend).

High-backed seating, such as Haven by Allermuir, Atelier by Dauphin, the Tuxedo High-Back from Nienkämper and the modular Villa line from Kimball Office all offer flexible, attractive ways to provide seated privacy without locking users into a static configuration. Most lines also offer power options to support the devices that make mobile work possible. Other lightweight options for creating quiet spaces on the fly include floorstanding WALL partitions from RMIG and movable dividers from LOFTwall, which can be manufactured with a variety of materials to increase or reduce sound and light transmission.

Can you work efficiently in an open office layout? What have your personal experiences been? Sound off in the comments below!