Take this workplace and shove it
Towering dividers, flickering fluorescent lights and bleak hallways: your workplace is destroying your mood and your productivity. But it doesn’t have to. A group of designers, architects and engineers gathers in a contemporary boardroom to discuss changing trends in office design. At one end of the room stands a 65-inch SMART Board used for brainstorming and drawing blueprints, and a similar-sized high-definition monitor for teleconferencing. The opposite wall boasts floor to ceiling windows with picturesque views of downtown Toronto. A clear garage door functions as the room’s third wall, looking out onto reception. This is one of six meeting spaces in this 10th-floor studio, home to Canadian integrated design firm Cohos Evamy.
“This is the boardroom and that’s the reception area,” said Craig Applegath, architect and principal with the firm. “But on the last Friday of every month we roll up the garage doors and this becomes a gathering space for a company-wide party; the board table becomes two buffets and the raised reception desk, a bar.”
Cohos Evamy designed and built this space in 2008 with a focus on creating a positive corporate culture and a happy, inspired workforce. Flexibility was at the core of its design.
In this 16,000-square-foot office, principals sit next to junior staff and custom-designed desks are made from plywood tables, connected to one another in an open-concept format. There are no corner offices. “This helps promote collaboration and keeps the Millennials and Baby Boomers working closely together,” Applegath said.
The consensus around the table: with multiple generations interacting and collaborating in a changing corporate landscape, the best way to design for change and growth is to incorporate flexible solutions for both personal workspaces and meeting areas. And if you want to promote productivity and attract the best and brightest, your physical office should reflect the culture and values of your organization.
Today, tall impenetrable dividers, flickering fluorescent lights and dreary hallways are being replaced by communal workstations, personalized task lighting and colourful brand-appropriate interiors. “It’s really all about making people want to come to work and allowing them to feel comfortable while they’re here,” Applegath said.
From cubicle to collaboration
In our technology-driven culture, large clunky desks with elaborate paper filing systems are becoming a thing of the past. Today’s workers require a more flexible plug-and-play environment where they can hook up, log in and later move on when the task is complete, said Cristina Harnden, Grand & Toy’s director of sales programs for the interior business. “One way to accomplish this is by replacing desks with tables on wheels,” she said. “Then you can reorganize your workspace depending on the specific task and the level of privacy or communication required.”
Benching—connecting individual tables with low panels in between—promotes flexibility, allowing employees to easily transfer between individual tasks and group discussion. At Cohos Evamy, employees sit in project-based groupings. “If we have an issue to discuss we can all turn our chairs into the centre for an impromptu meeting,” said Andrea Pierre, a 23-year-old interior designer with the firm. “It saves time and encourages us to help one another.”
In her first job out of university, Pierre said this office layout promotes continued learning and constant collaboration. “Sitting next to engineers, architects and other designers with various levels of experience keeps us all on a level playing field,” she said. “Not only am I learning from my co-workers, but my ideas and opinions are welcome and valued.”
According to Harnden, this works especially well because younger workers are typically less distractible, having grown up in a fast-paced, technology-driven society where multitasking is the norm. And, she adds, benching offers a much more malleable solution, allowing the layout to be changed as corporate needs evolve.
But if employees no longer have silence and privacy at their workstations then meeting rooms, phone rooms and boardrooms must be available to provide closed-door spaces for client meetings, private discussions and uninterrupted work. The trend is toward incorporating a number of casual and more formal spaces in various sizes depending on the needs of the organization. Typically, these rooms are wired, have access to SMART Boards and/or teleconferencing solutions and offer natural light, if possible. Creative meeting spaces can also include plush chairs, pillows for floor seating and brightly coloured walls, which set them apart from the rest of the office. “We also built a small phone room which employees use for personal calls or when they don’t want to disrupt their neighbours,” Applegath said.
Power to the employees
“User control is a huge trend in office design,” said Susan Mole, interior designer and principal with Cohos Evamy. “We find that younger generations need multi-functioning spaces which can be personalized and adjusted.”
Giving employees the opportunity to configure workstations to meet their own needs and preferences is often key to increased productivity and employee engagement. “There is a much stronger demand for work-life balance from today’s workers, and part of that is the belief that workspaces should be an extension of the lifestyle these individuals lead—not separate from their outside lives,” Harnden said.
Comfortable ergonomic seating is one of the most important factors of employee wellness, said Melanie Weller, an occupational therapist with Gowan Consulting. She recommends each employee have access to a desk chair that fits. “People come in different sizes and chairs should be chosen accordingly,” she said. Opt for chairs with adjustable armrests and high backs and consider purchasing upholstered chairs as opposed to leather, for better wear-and-tear and temperature control.
For a modern and flexible seating solution, Cohos Evamy has introduced the Knoll Generation chair into its studio. This multi-positional chair allows users to sit comfortably forward, backward and sideways while its mesh-like back reclines and bends into any position imaginable. “No longer do people want to sit in a 90-degree position at a desk all day,” said Knoll’s director of business development, Fabiana Stubrich. “This chair offers lumbar support and is comfortable no matter which way you use it.”
Light, hardware, air
If you have a highly mobile workforce, laptops may be the best option, said Phil Smith, category manager for business notebooks with HP Canada. Laptops provide mobile flexibility, but can also become fixtures by using a docking station and monitor. To provide extra flexibility and promote efficient multitasking, incorporating multiple monitors serves as a cost-effective solution. “Mount your monitor on a hydraulic arm in order to easily adjust viewing depth and height,” Weller said.
Flexibility also comes in the form of heating and cooling. A modern trend in office design is individually controlled HVAC systems. Putting heat and air controls at the user’s fingertips ensures comfort and productivity in a more sustainable way. “Three of the last four office towers we worked on had under-floor air systems with individual control panels,” said Lyle Scott, director of sustainable design with Cohos Evamy.
Another factor is lighting, said Allen Chan, a principal with the Toronto-based firm The Design Agency and former host of HGTV Canada’s The Designer Guys. “Individuals should be able to control how much or how little light they use,” he said. “Gone are the days of direct flourescent tube lighting.” He recommends warmer lighting overhead and individual desk lights at each workstation.
Designing a feel-good space
“With great changes in corporate culture and workflow over the past 50 years, we’ve come to realize that happy employees really are more productive employees,” Chan said. “Corporations spend time and money organizing team-building excursions to foster community, and we believe that through design you can help support that community on a daily basis.”
Said Mole: “Designing an office space is really about leveraging staff costs. Once you get great people in the door, a comfortable and inspiring space will help ensure that they’re producing value.” In order to do this, she encourages her clients to include employees from all levels of the organization in the design brainstorming process.
“What we’re seeing now is brand identity making its way into the office design,” Chan notes. When planning a design or redesign it is recommended that you determine what you want your corporate culture to feel like and how you will reflect that in colour choice and workflow.
Cohos Evamy has on display a growing collection of art by local artists. Because it chose a neutral palette for its walls coupled with grey concrete floors, these bright, vivid canvasses pop off the walls, breathing personality into this modern space. It also positioned potted plants to create a more natural full-of-life feeling. Live walls, fresh flowers and greenery can provide contrast in a corporate environment, but must be cared for and maintained.
Finally, when designing for productivity, sunlight is important, and has proved to boost moods.
No matter which features you choose to incorporate, a good design comes down to that ineffable feeling or energy that is apparent the moment you step through the doors. If you’re successful in creating that feeling, productivity will follow.
First published in Backbone Magazine