Why the traditional office is being ditched for create, hybrid spaces

First there were individual offices. Then cubicles and open floor plans. Now, there is a "palette of places."

New office designs are coming to a workplace near you, with layouts meant to cater to the variety of tasks required of modern white-collar workers. Put another way, it means people don't sit in just one place.

It's partly a backlash against the one-size-fits-all mindset, not to mention the corporate penny-pinching, embodied in the move toward pure open floor plans that packed more workers into less and less space. That idea was supposed to drive collaboration, but many experts agree it often went too far, with row upon row of desks and workbench-style seating more likely to generate ennui than efficiency.

"When used as a generic answer for workspace design, it's terrible," said David Lathrop, a researcher at Steelcase, an office furniture maker.

Designing space for everyone

The new model is largely open, but not entirely. Under the revised thinking, breaking down walls to bring people together is good, but so are "team spaces" and standing tables, comfortable couches and movable walls.

Privacy is also good, particularly for tasks that require intense concentration, the thinking goes. That doesn't mean a return to the glory days of private offices, but it does mean workers have more space and more places to seek solitude than in the neo-Dickensian workbench settings. The new designs often include "isolation rooms," soundproof phone booths, and even lounges where technology is forbidden.

And it's meant to be tweaked as needs change. "This continues to be iterated," said Frank Cuevas, who is working on a major redesign at IBM and whose use of the word "iterated" hints at the kind of startup mentality the changes are intended to evoke.

"It's not something we're going stop and say, 'This is it,'" he said.

Corporate makeovers

The corporations setting the new standard are not young Silicon Valley companies known for free food, slides and foosball tables at work – or for carefree spending, as at Apple, whose new corporate mother ship cost a reported $5 billion (A$6.4 billion). Nor are the designs one-of-a-kind projects that veer toward eccentricity. Salesforce's new skyscraper campus in San Francisco, for example, has areas on every floor for meditation, partly inspired by the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk.


Instead, the companies behind the emerging new norm in workplace design are a lineup of more staid organisations across a range of industries, and they may spend heavily but also systematically. They include Microsoft, IBM and General Electric. Certain workspace innovations may surface first at Google or Facebook, but the older stalwarts are combining and refining them for mainstream businesses.

Embracing the need for change

One of the most aggressive makeovers is happening at Microsoft, a change forced by business necessity. The company faces a new wave of technology, as the market has shifted to software delivered and constantly updated as a service over the internet cloud, as opposed to being loaded onto individual computers, with the code often stored on compact discs and sold as a product every few years.

"You have to collaborate more," said Michael Ford, Microsoft's general manager of global real estate. "We absolutely have to change."

For decades, the company, based outside Seattle, housed its software engineers in secluded offices, thinking that the privacy helped employees focus while writing computer code. But in 2010, Microsoft started testing open designs with a quarter of a floor, and then expanded. Since 2014, it has opened 10 renovated buildings without offices, including four this year.

Wellness and workability

Companies renovating their workspaces often tap into a growing body of research on building design and worker well-being and productivity. Research at the University of Oregon concluded that exposure to sunlight and outdoor views correlated to about six per cent fewer sick days than those without. Research done by Craig Knight, a British organisational psychologist, concluded that "empowered offices" – in which workers can choose their conditions – can increase productivity by at least 25 per cent.

And at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, scientists found that well-ventilated offices can significantly improve a person's ability to perform challenging tasks such as developing strategy or responding to a crisis.

But companies can also save money by using a little less space than conventional offices do.

The benefits of hybridity

Worker space is now about 150 square feet per person, down from 225 square feet in 2010, estimates Tim Venable, senior vice president for research at CoreNet Global, a commercial real estate association. But the hybrid design saves less than entirely open designs, which usually have workbench settings and in which the amount of space can drop to as little as 60 square feet per worker.

Since 2014, IBM has spent $380 million (A$489 million) renovating its workspaces in the United States, which now bear all the hallmarks of the new hybrid design – open spaces, whiteboard walls, no offices, sit-or-stand desks, huddle rooms and phone rooms.

IBM, said Cuevas, vice president of real estate strategy and operations, offers employees as many as 10 different space configurations. In January, the company also remade its headquarters in Armonk, New York, with senior executives departing wood-paneled offices for smaller, side-by-side glass ones without doors.

The limits to open space

While GE executives wait for the company's new headquarters to be built in Boston, they are working in temporary offices nearby, designed according to the new principles. The contrast with the cavernous offices and silent hallways of the old headquarters in suburban Connecticut could scarcely be more striking – open spaces, sit-or-stand desks, and no parking spaces. (Workers are urged to take public transportation.)

Face-to-face conversations have replaced endless email chains, so decisions are made faster, said Ann Klee, vice president for the Boston development and operations. Still, openness has its limits. Sometimes, she concedes, you do have to ask colleagues to use their "indoor voices." More quiet rooms are being added to the new headquarters design.

The New York Times