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Your Office Design Is Killing Teamwork

We've tapped experts in architecture and workplace design to explain what's wrong with cubicles, and how to remedy your dull office.
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Is your closed door killing your creativity? Is your cubicle squashing your ability to communicate?

The cubicle arose years ago as companies shifted workers from individual offices into communal workspaces, but still wanted to keep them separated and focused. Now, office tides are shifting again, as companies tear down cubicle walls, exploit shared space, and convert any available hallway, closet, or kitchen into a collaborative working room. Call it the Google approach to office design: the workspace should be a fun, collaborative extension of the brand, where people feel free to use the whole space. That design philosophy is proliferating—and for good reason.

While offices and cubicles used to be an indicator of status: "that's gone away. That's kind of a Boomer thing," says Bill Winchester creative director at Lindsay, Stone & Briggs, a brand agency, which is moving from a traditional, cubicle office to an open-studio design.

Smart office design not only opens up a free-flowing forum of ideas, but it can help attract young talent who balk at the idea of sitting at a cubicle behind a gray wall for eight hours a day. But there's more to designing an office that fosters collaboration and teamwork than just ripping down cube walls: The design can include refitting hallways, letting in natural light, and even treating the office microwave as place to cook ideas. Experts in office design share these tips on fostering teamwork.

For Seating, Think in Clusters or Rows.

Designers say there's no one-size-fits-all way to map out your office in order to best encourage productivity, but the general ethos is to open sight lines, allow sharing of work space, and arrange desks to break up the feeling of working in a corporate sweatshop.

Michael Kleinberg, president of New York-based design firm MKDA, says some offices go with benching systems that use long lines of desks, while others use clusters or quads of desks to create a feeling of collaboration.

"The reality is, by working in teams, one is more productive than working independently, especially in more of a tech environment or creative environment," he says.

Fostering a communal feeling is more important than granting individuals the privacy afforded by corner offices and walled-in conference rooms, says Janet Pogue, head of the workplace group for Gensler architecture and design consultants.

"That can be as simple as clear lines of sight, adding glass so that people can see one another," she says. "If you can see if somebody is available or not, that starts to foster teamwork."

The paradigm is shifting from thinking of an office as being "me space" to being "we space," says Tom Polucci, director of interior design for HOK, a global design and architecture firm.

Instead of having a few conference rooms employees can use when needed, you can treat the main area as collaborative space and then create a handful of breakout or huddle rooms where they can go to work together or when they need privacy.

"You need to think of a business as a place to exchange ideas, not a place to sit down and crank out e-mails," says Alan Feltoon, vice president and managing principal of Leo A Daly's Washington, D.C., office.

It's Your Space: Use Every Inch of It.

Office space is always at a premium in urban areas, like New York City, but companies across the board are always looking to maximize space to save money. That might mean it's time to rethink the purpose of every room in your office.

"A kitchen doesn't have to be a kitchen," Feltoon says. "It’s a luxury to be able to have space that sits vacant all the time. You have different opportunities to use conference rooms, pull together things for impromptu meetings."

Before Winchester's company decided to change its office design, and alter its office culture, it noticed some of the best ideas were coming from unexpected places.

"It was when people are gathering in the kitchen over a cup of coffee. It was more interesting when people would be gathered at the refrigerator or microwave," he says. "Ideas would just pop out all over the place."

Companies can respond to this by wiring kitchens for connectivity, adding tables that can double as workstations and otherwise treating it more as a café instead of an industrial kitchen.

"Consider every space a workspace," Polucci says. "Even a kitchen should support the function of work."

In the new office environment, hallways and staircases can also be re-imagined as extensions of the workspace, instead of just a way to travel from point A to point B. Polucci says studies show people are actually more productive and innovative when in motion. New office designs encourage that by swapping dingy concrete service stairwells for ornate, centralized open stairwells, and installing signage that encourages people to use the stairs instead of the elevator.

"They have landings to run into a colleague," he says. "They become kind of this vertical space that people want to hang out in."

Hallways are being made wider and sprinkled with couches, whiteboards and other places to encourage conversation.
"Where we would put file cabinets in years past, maybe becomes a bench, a place to plug in, charge your iPhone, talk to a friend," Polucci says. "Those kinds of little nooks and crannies, using them and thinking about them has become very critical. It's about trying to get everything out of the space as possible."

Get Creative With Natural Light.

It's taken American offices a while to catch up to the European model that exposure to natural light—not just humming fluorescent bulbs—makes for a happier, more productive workforce, especially if employees are sitting in front of a computer all day long.

"In Europe, most of buildings are designed with floor plates that are not that deep," Kleinberg says. "Even people on interior get light."

You can capture light by using glass walls for the sides of the office or using "daylight harvesting" to bounce the natural light coming in through the office throughout the day. Both tactics also help save energy.

Focusing on natural light and ventilation not only can help improve the mood and productivity of your staff, but can also help save on cooling and heating costs, Feltoon says.

"It's not the matter of little switches," he says. "It's really trying to minimize the use of mechanical air conditioning."

He says studies show that focusing on sustainability issues such as lighting leads to fewer employees calling out sick or not showing up for work, and, therefore, increases overall productivity. 

Can you Open Up Design While Keeping Everyone Focused?

 If your employees are accustomed to a quiet, segregated office space, should you be worried that an open office will cause too many distractions and drag down productivity?

Sure, designers use certain types of flooring, wall coverings, and insulation to reduce ambient noise. But, in reality, the demographics—and tastes—of the workplace are shifting. Worries about distraction are becoming less of a problem as new generations of tech-savvy workers are accustomed to multi-tasking and place value in an open environment. If an open, collaborative environment scares some job applicants away, Winchester says he's OK with that because the design of his new office is an extension of the brand image.

"It's self-selecting thing at this point," he says. "People who don't jibe with it, we probably don't want them."

 

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Oct 17, 2011

TIM DONNELLY | Columnist | Inc.com Contributor

Tim Donnelly is a freelance writer and managing editor of Brokelyn.com. His work has appeared in Billboard, The Atlantic, Thought Catalog, and The New York Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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