8 Must-know Trends in Office Fitouts, By Peter Fabris

5 11 2011
This is a terrific article published in the October 2011 issue of Building Design + Construction.  The firm quoted numerous times, Gensler, is where I worked and was trained before starting my firm.
Each cluster of open workstations at Russell Investment Headquarters,
Seattle, is located near an “innovation hub” that offers privacy rooms,
project team rooms, and informal collaboration spaces—all equipped with
whiteboard surfaces and state-of-the-art technology. Design firm NBBJ
located privacy rooms throughout the office, giving associates a
dedicated place for focused work or tasks that require privacy or
Enabled by wireless technology, laptop and handheld computing
devices, and high-tech tools like Skype, GoTo Meeting, and WebEx,
today’s knowledge workers can work from anywhere, anytime. On any given
day in a typical office environment, many workers are off site, their
office workstations lying empty. Employers are capitalizing on this
trend to trim office square footage and real estate costs.

Ken Patrick, president of Boston-based Environments At Work, a
provider/installer of office furniture and interior features, relates
his firm’s experience relocating a local client. “We recently moved a
biopharma company from Cambridge to [suburban] Waltham, and they will
save $200 million in rent over five years,” he recalls. While that
atypically high savings is due largely to moving to a more favorable
rental market, a significant reduction in gross square footage also
contributed to the savings.

Even though technology makes it easy for office workers to stay in
touch with colleagues virtually, face-to-face interaction in the work
setting is still prized. Many innovative ideas are born and refined not
only during scheduled meetings but also at impromptu gatherings. So,
while workstations are being slimmed down in number and size, space for
meetings and informal interaction is growing. New office fitouts provide
attractively designed spaces of various sizes for in-person
collaboration, including conference rooms for small, medium, and large
groups. Small cafés, lounges, and nooks with comfortable chairs
encourage informal interactions.

The weak economy is responsible for a modest bump in office retrofit
work for design and construction companies, as employers look for real
estate bargains. Vacancy rates are high, and landlords are doing what
they can to keep occupancies up. “Tenants are able to negotiate good
rates with good concessions,” says Neil Schneider, executive vice
president and principal with McCall & Almy, a Boston-based
commercial brokerage firm and real estate consultancy. As leases expire,
tenants are jumping to higher-quality space, or negotiating with their
landlords to revamp their current spaces. Either way, the new office
usually differs drastically from the old one.

1. Make way for the incredible shrinking workstation.

Individual workstation square footage is being slashed dramatically—in
some cases, to less than half the traditional size—in part to allow
organizations to devote more space for meetings and informal
interaction. “You need to get the workplace denser to afford more
conference and meeting space,” points out Gervais Tompkin, AIA, LEED AP,
Gensler’s head of workplace consulting.

“The workstation used to be eight feet by eight feet, or eight by 10,
but it has shrunk to six by six,” says Nick Haritos, a regional vice
president for office furniture and interiors manufacturer Haworth.

Technology miniaturization has been a factor in this change, says
Haritos. Laptops with built-in flat screens take up way less space than
bulky desktop computers. Desktop phones are rapidly being replaced by
cell phones. With digitization of many documents, techno-savvy
organizations have been able to reduce, if not completely eliminate,
paper files, catalogs, and other printed material.

2. Say goodbye to high partitions—hello, open office.

Workstations are not only shrinking, they are becoming more open.
Partitions are either being junked completely, or their height is being
lowered to foster greater employee interaction. Some organizations are
even getting rid of private offices, or at least reducing their number
significantly. Exceptions to this trend: workspaces for accounting and
human resources personnel who have to deal with confidential matters.

If your client wants to remove private offices, you should discuss
the potential impact on executive morale with them. Mark van Summern,
AIA, a principal with New York-based Perkins Eastman, cautions clients
that want to move employees from closed offices to open spaces to
consider the office-as-status-symbol factor. “You may end up with
increased turnover from more senior people who are accustomed to having
their own offices,” van Summern warns.

To blunt executive grumbling, senior managers at the client firm
should take the lead in promoting the open office. As part of an office
rehab in New London, Conn., Pfizer business unit managers gave up their
private offices. “Some of them were the biggest advocates of the
change,” says Terri L. Frink, IIDA, a principal and the interior
architecture studio leader with the S/L/A/M Collaborative, headquartered
in Glastonbury, Conn.

When private offices are included in a new fitout, they are now being
enclosed with glass partitions rather than drywall. This serves two
goals: maximizing daylighting throughout the office, and allowing
everybody to see who is present. “Young people want to see their
managers,” notes Marie Fitzgerald, IIDA, a senior vice president with
architects Symmes Maini & McKee Associates, Cambridge, Mass. “You
are more likely to have conversations and share information when you can
make eye contact more often.”

In some cases, translucent panels are a necessary substitute for
glass. In a recent office fitout for a law firm, Goettsch Partners used
frosted glass to partition off paralegals’ workstations. Law is
one profession that still uses a lot of paper documents, explains Jim
Prendergast, AIA, LEED AP, a partner with the design firm. Frosted glass
hides unattractive stacks of paper while allowing sunlight to pass

3. Manage noise and privacy—and not just through design.

An open office environment has one major drawback: lack of acoustical
privacy. With office workers sitting together more snugly, and smaller
partitions (or none at all) separating them, noise levels can rise,
sometimes making it harder to concentrate.

Many new fitouts are providing quiet and privacy via small, enclosed
spaces that are available for any employee to use. With mobile phones
taking the place of landlines in some offices, employees who take a
sensitive or lengthy phone call can head to a private, acoustically
isolated “phone booth” or “enclave” without having to hang up and call
back from another room.

“People like to work differently, and we don’t all do the same job,”
says SMMA’s Fitzgerald. A recent fitout at Blue Cross and Blue Shield in
Providence, R.I., provided unassigned quiet spaces. “If you need a full
day of privacy, you can sign out a small enclave.”

Pfizer’s New London rehab set aside 6% of total space for “focus
booths,” each a 36-sf dog-bone-shaped, acoustically isolated space that
accommodates two. These spaces are sometimes used by individuals to
access online teleconferences.

Other strategies for quieting the office include using
sound-absorptive desk-level products, ceiling tiles, and flooring.
Breaking up areas to limit the number of workstations connected to each
other can help, too.

Sound-masking technology can be used to reduce distracting noise in
some office environments. Sound masking can supplement or replace
ambient noise by broadcasting a fan-like “white noise” over speakers so
that speech is somewhat diminished. Ironically, quieter HVAC technology
such as underfloor air displacement and chilled beam cooling—popular
options for sustainability—make for a quieter space when vacant, but
when people are present, speech is more discernible over longer

“Office space is often designed for acoustical standards without
people present,” says Niklas Moeller, vice president of Logison Acoustic
Networks, a sound-masking provider and acoustic consulting firm in
Burlington, Ont. The result is distracted workers. “Noise and lack of
privacy are near the top of complaints, along with thermal comfort, in
new office projects,” he says.

One noise-reduction solution is decidedly low-tech: asking employees
to keep their voices down. Pfizer’s office rehab project included
etiquette training focused on being considerate about noise. And because
all workstations were unassigned, that kind of courtesy extended to
asking employees to leave the workspace clean at the end of the day,
says the S/L/A/M Collaborative’s Frink.

4. Program in more team rooms, not necessarily more conference rooms.

“Most companies don’t have the right types of conference rooms,” van
Summern says. “They are oversized, and you have three or four people
meeting in 10- or 12-seat rooms.” That wasted space is money not well
spent. Better to offer team rooms of varying capacity for groups of
different size.

Pfizer’s project provided four sizes of meeting rooms: “huddle
spaces” for four, “living rooms” with a capacity of six, and two sizes
of conference rooms, one for up to 12, another for up to 24.

5. Allow for an appropriate amount of flexible space.

The pace of change that many organizations face has accelerated to
hyperspeed in recent years. Many traditional procedures and tasks are
becoming obsolete; new high-tech operations have to be generated from
scratch. As work groups grow and shrink in response, the workspace may
need to be adjusted accordingly.

“It’s not a uniform trend across the board, but some companies need a
more agile interior,” says Angie Lee, workplace corporate practice
leader with A/E firm SmithGroup. Demountable partitions, sliding doors,
movable walls, raised flooring, and standardized furniture and fixtures
make reconfiguring office space easier and cheaper.

6. Design common areas to serve your client’s organizational goals.

Determining optimal placement and size of common areas is important for
workplace efficiency. In the Blue Cross & Blue Shield project in
Rhode Island, employees were encouraged to use fewer paper documents by
limiting the new space to just one multifunction printer/copier/fax
machine per floor. “This reduces the footprint and printing costs,”
Fitzgerald says.

Common area design is also scrutinized in some cases to better
support company values and goals. When Nissan North America moved its
headquarters from Los Angeles to Smyrna, Tenn., it wanted to promote
cross-functional collaboration through the new design. The old
headquarters was scattered over multiple buildings. The new
single-structure, multi-story design featured a large floor plate with a
“town center” on every floor containing meeting rooms and break areas;
support functions such as printers were purposely located near elevators
to generate “forced congregating,” according to Jack Weber, principal
with Nashville-based Gresham, Smith and Partners, which designed the
Nissan HQ.

7. Use the fitout to embellish the client’s branding.

Fitouts can address a client’s key marketing function: “How are we
communicating to extend our brand message?” asks Goettsch Partners’
Prendergast. That means doing more than just slapping logos on the wall
behind the reception desk. “If you have an environmental law practice,
for example, sustainability is particularly important,” he notes.
Clients and recruits want to see a commitment to the environmental
ethos. One recent Goettsch fitout for a law firm reused furniture as
much as possible, bought new materials with recycled content, made
extensive use of daylight harvesting, and provided light sensors in
every private office—all to reach LEED Silver status.

Multi-location organizations often want to foster aesthetic
continuity across job sites with uniform standards for color, material
choices, lighting, and other features readily visible to employees and
the public. Other clients may choose to go in exactly the opposite
direction, looking for distinctive touches related to the local area.
For example, to add a touch of local color to its corporate look, Google
fitted out its Zurich, Switzerland, office with some ski gondolas that
are used as small huddle spaces.

With the increasingly mobile work force, iconic spaces and imagery
are more and more important, says Gensler’s Tompkin. “These are
grounding elements,” he says. “They relate to the cognition of
wayfinding and help to establish an emotional connection to a place over
great distance.”

8. Help clients ‘manage presence’ to avoid ‘office future shock.’

If the trend toward employee mobility continues at the pace it has show
in the last few years—and who’s to say it won’t?—there could be
profound implications for corporate real estate managers and designers
of workspaces, says Tompkin. The work-from-anywhere-anytime lifestyle
has taken hold at many companies, especially among high-tech and life
sciences companies.

“We are seeing radically more virtual interactions, and the number of
in-person meeting participants is nose-diving at some companies,” says
Tompkin. He wonders if this might not foretell an office model where
meeting space will be severely limited, or a scenario where corporate
management might try to reverse the trend and require more employees to
be present at the office. “Everything is pushing people to work
individually, virtually,” he says. “Who wants to battle rush hour
traffic to attend a status meeting in person when you can do it from

Many organizations have yet to fully consider the implications of
extreme mobility, says Tompkin. “Companies need to actively manage
presence,” he says. “We may be headed for a model where office space
will support more organizational-critical tasks but not support
individual work.” That could mean the office of the 2020s could be
radically different from today’s most up-to-date workspace.




2 responses

20 11 2011
Andersens at work «

[…] Here is another terrific article about trends in the workspace and office fit outs . […]

19 04 2014
Gangemi Cabinet Makers

So many great office ideas. I agree with the open offices it allows for productivity to flow through the office smoothly and freely.

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