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8 Ways to Create the Office of the Future

In addition to being attractive and comfortable, productive office spaces help organizations meet their goals.

Chief executives who haven’t given much thought to office design since the economy’s southward turn might be surprised to find what’s happening in other offices. New thinking about efficiency, productivity, and ergonomics has led to more open office designs that can be achieved on a reasonable budget.

New technology, whether it’s a tablet, a flat screen, or a laptop, has dramatically changed how people work at their desks. Elsewhere, subtle changes to foster collaboration and creativity might seem minor in the grand scheme of things, but they can make a big difference in employee satisfaction. 

Robin Stroebel, CEO and founder of InteriorLOGIC, said that over the past four years, business models adapted to weakening conditions. Now that at least the state and local economies have solidified, companies are finding that office designs that worked pre-recession don’t necessarily support the way they now work.

“Whether a company views change as a necessity or a goal, if they haven’t made a workplace change in the past four or five years, they are going to find out that the workplace has definitely changed,” Stroebel stated.

In this look at newer trends in office design, IB presents tips on bringing your office up to date. Some tips actually are new trends worth paying attention to, while others have been underway for a while and have taken new directions.

1. Build in collaboration. Now more than ever, if you want to leverage creativity, you have to bring people together, and office design accommodates it. More work is being done in a dyadic nature, meaning two or more people are working together. 

A more lounge-like setting is accompanied by technology so ideas can quickly be recorded and shared. There is a push to have team space or space that can “flex” from individual to team space over the course of a day. The shift from “I” space to a “we” space goes hand-in-hand with smaller, more portable technology that enables workers to be outside the office. 

So does the inherently flexible drop-in office, most often associated with young entrepreneurs, in which professionals rent space by the hour, the day, or the month. This category includes collaborative space that can change according to the desires of the different occupants.

“You can’t do that in a vacuum,” said Debra Alton, new business client manager for Target Commercial Interiors. “We’re seeing a need, and our clients are asking us to provide them with spaces where groups of people can come together, informally and formally. So the conference room, which we’ve always had, has spilled out into open spaces.”

2. Repurpose existing space. With upwards of 40% of real estate underutilized in some locales, a large segment of the population is not doing business in the office. They are in meetings, calling on clients, traveling, or at a remote office. Since work is conducted in many places, businesses are looking for solutions to vacant office space. If they can see some return on their investment in real estate, it can translate into better technology or better spaces or more collaborative spaces. 

According to Alton, there is a trickle-down benefit to real estate savings. Vacant space can be transformed into a Starbucks or “cafeteria” space within your office area, a place where people come together and work on projects, or even work independently as they are surrounded by others. “We’re seeing an emphasis on making space work a lot harder and reducing the footprint of individual spaces, and that goes along with that shift from ‘I’ space to ‘we’ space,” Alton said. “If you don’t need it every day, why pay for it? It’s the realization that after your people costs, real estate is the second largest cost that you have.”

Stroebel credits changing workplace demographics, LEED standards, and wireless and mobile technology with changing what people want and need. “While people don’t want to compromise on their visual and acoustic privacy, they are willing to try the smaller workspace,” she said. “They can reconfigure, they can move around, depending on what they need for that day – collaboration, brainstorming, and so forth.”

3. Recycle and reuse. When the economy turned south, businesses naturally spent less money, including on furniture, but they found that cheap furniture wasn’t a very good investment. More recently, they have looked to reuse products that can be refreshed and updated, which can be done for a fraction of the cost of buying new. They want the ability to adapt by using the parts they have and interfacing with other systems, and they want to go from platform to platform within a furniture system so they are not stuck with one product line within a given brand.

As Scott Slaughter, associate principal at Interior Investments, LLC, explained, they are taking advantage of the furniture’s longevity. “The fact of the matter is that office furniture oftentimes is in very good physical shape, unlike a car where you have wear and tear on the engine and it tends to wear out,” he noted. “Furniture tends not to wear out. The fabric might get a little disgusting or its color might have looked great five years ago, but looks horrific now, but the great thing about furniture design is that things can be updated with a fresh fabric, a new laminate work surface, and it can be done very reasonably as opposed to buying all new.”

Given the frequency of use, people will make an exception for quality office chairs because they last longer than most. The better chairs cost as much as $800, but they’re part of the ergonomic consideration because even with emerging advice to get up and move a little, professional people spend the majority of their day seated in an office chair. 

“Other than probably their bed, that’s where they spend the most time, so it’s important that they are comfortable and that they have a good ergonomic solution,” Slaughter stated. “What you will see is the chair will be ‘partnered’ with an adjustable-height working surface, with a keyboard tray or monitor arms, and with other components that we’ve also seen people working toward. 

“Three years ago, flat [computer] panels were in their infancy in the workplace, but now they are everywhere. You don’t see CRTs anymore. That changed the dynamic of how the workstation was laid out, and that changed what you can do from an ergonomic standpoint.”

4. Let in natural light. Designers are using lower panels to allow more natural light, especially in collaborative work areas.

The move toward introducing larger amounts of natural daylighting occurs as more emphasis is placed on task lighting. We’re learning more about how much better the human eye functions under the blue hues of natural lighting and LED lighting used in task lamps, and while there still is a need for overhead lighting, it is likely to move from yellowish to blue.

Rebecca Brown, an account executive with Creative Business Interiors, noted that lighting is only gaining in workplace importance. “With the advent of LEED, one of the things that designers of new buildings, as well as managers of existing buildings, have to consider is the light transfer. How are you getting the light from natural daylighting into the interior of a space? 

“Office planning as a whole is changing, and offices are not necessarily located along the windows anymore,” Brown added. “That affects a lot of things. You are finding a lot more daylighting coming into the space, which doesn’t always mean wonderful things. You need a nice blend of ambient light, something a little more of true blue color, and things that offer direct and indirect lighting.

“With an aging population, that becomes really important.”

5. Focus on ergonomics. When it comes to correct posture, some things will never change. Having your arms level (with adjustable rests on your chair) when typing and having computer screens at eye level whenever possible are here to stay. Slaughter points to new thinking about the regions of the spine that are worthy of extra support from today’s highly adjustable office chairs, specifically a move away from lumbar support to sacral support.

Of the four regions of the spine from neck to pelvis – cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and sacral – the thoracic and the sacral are increasingly seen as the areas where we want support. Noting the importance of positioning the upper pelvis in such a way that it causes us to sit up straight for long-term comfort, he said that Herman Miller, one of the more prominent office seating makers, now is stressing sacral support.

That represents a different way of thinking because most people believe it’s correct to support “the small of their back,” Slaughter stated. “The fact of the matter is that if you have your chair adjusted in a way that is comfortable for you, and when you get up at the end of the day and nothing is sore, nothing aches and there is no pain, no matter if you follow ergonomic guidelines or not, that’s your ergonomic solution,” said Slaughter, who noted that physical therapists will take issue with this. “I will often say in my discussions, ‘If you sit on a peach crate and you get up at the end of the day and you have no aches and pains and you are comfortable, that is your ergonomic solution.’”

6. Incorporate mobility. Ergonomics is being taken to a new level that stresses the health and wellness of the individual, including the option of standing or sitting, or moving around to different areas. Alton (Target Commercial Interiors) cited Mayo Clinic research that shows the mere act of getting up and standing for a period of time increases cognitive ability. To take advantage of the emerging research, Steelcase, a manufacturer of office furniture, has designed a walk station, which is part treadmill and part workstation, to leverage the benefits of movement.

When people spend at least one-third of their day in the office, employers should be cognizant of how workers’ moods, emotions, and lifestyles affect how they work. Being able to duck into a private room to make a personal phone call and not feeling stressed about that, and having the ability to be flexible in how you work during the day all contribute to the well-being of the workers.

As Alton explained, it’s moved beyond just thinking about your seated posture and into the entire physical, cognitive, and emotional ability of workers. “Getting up and moving is good no matter what the situation, even if you’re at a static position during the day,” Alton said. “That’s always been one of the tenets of good ergonomics in the workplace, but now the furniture is starting to respond by accommodating a seated or standing work surface, so in order for you to stand up and continue working, desks are being produced that allow you to push a button or crank a crank or touch a latch and take you from a seated position right up to a standing position without missing a beat.”

7. Extend the brand. An overlooked aspect of office design is the opportunity to extend your brand through your physical setting and employees. Encouraging each employee to internalize your brand, making it part of their professional genes, allows them to express it outwardly at various points of contact, particularly in the office environment. 

“Reinforce that brand through your people and your office,” Alton advised. “If you came to our [Target Commercial Interiors] office, you’d see a lot of red, and you’d see a lot of bull’s-eyes. You’d see kind of a contemporary, lively, bright office environment. 

“Conversely, if you were in an attorney’s office, you’d want a lot of client confidentiality, and you might see something different. It’s not a cookie-cutter approach. Everybody has their own culture and their own DNA that’s reflected in all the physical surroundings and obviously demonstrated through their employees as well.”

8. Make home offices homey. The same principles apply to the growing number of home offices, whether they serve as a second office for professionals who spend their days in a high-rise, or for the proprietors of home-based businesses. The best part about the emerging home office is that it is okay to make it more, well, homey, and furniture manufacturers are responding to that.

Within homes, people carve out spaces that were underused in the past: attic spaces, basements, guest bedrooms, and even man- or woman-caves take on added importance when home offices are merged with creature comforts.

Homeyness is in, even if you are a home-based business that entertains clients in the home. “We’re starting to see spaces that are being shared with other spaces, and that’s the direction away from making it look so office-like,” Slaughter said. “It can be very functional from an office standpoint, but more home-oriented. “Even there, if you have an office environment where you bring people into your home, you can still create those types of things. Keep it homey, yet office-like.”

Jan Eymann, a principal with KEE Architecture, noted that some manufacturers, like Herman Miller and Denison, are making furnishings that are specifically designed for home use, with a nice assortment of wood species, cork tackboards, and task lighting. The furnishing systems, which are becoming more attractive, are based on modern work habits and mobile devices, with enough flexibility to enable consumers to “morph.”

“You can be creative with them,” Eymann stated. “There are systems that we design in collaboration with homeowners, and we have the furniture builder construct the furniture.”

The average homeowner stays in his or her home for five years before moving. If buying something large, it’s hard to reconfigure in one’s next home, so as you select furniture for a home office, think of how you might use it later as a storage piece or room divider. “A good design concept is that you don’t want to purchase or design something for office or home that fits like a glove,” Eymann commented. “You want it to fit more like a mitten so that you are not so design-specific to technology, equipment, or room size.”

A number of past ergonomic problems are being resolved within the equipment itself, “which is the right way to address it,” Eymann said. “You want people to have things adjustable without paying a lot. Your work mode changes. You want something to respond to that change. People are addressing ‘stuff management’ because clutter is a killer.” 

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