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How to Design a Great Small Office

Forget reducing clutter or hiding storage. Here's how to design a small office that will boost your bottom line.
GARAGE WITH A CONFERENCE ROOM: With 2,700 square feet for seven full-time employees, 2fORM's owner, Richard Shugar, has managed to create a balance of open and private spaces in the company's Eugene, Oregon, office.
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It's not the size that matters. It's the design. A small office can be the creative hub for you and your employees with just a bit of foresight. Some companies can manage day-to-day tasks from their living rooms or in coffee shops, but most find that it's not easy to make a deal over the roar of a milk frother.

A great office doesn't need to be large; in fact, there are plenty of benefits to being scrappy that large companies try to imitate. And while it's important to be smart about reducing clutter and finding storage alternatives for a small space, designing a truly great small office requires more insight and planning than a few Murphy tables and IKEA storage bins.  

Here are a few tips on how to design a small office that will help facilitate communication, bring in business, and keep your employees happy.

Designing a Small Office: Use a Layout that Reflects Your Organizational Structure

How are decisions made in your business? All companies, and especially small firms, must be clear about more than just their budget before they can start designing their offices, says Richard Shugar, the principal and owner of 2fORM, an architecture firm based in Oregon. He advises his clients to consider the flow of internal direction when designing the office. He says: "It's not only just about their business model, but how it's how they plan on running their business. How do they plan on communicating from within? Is it top down? Does the president make decisions and people follow?  Or is it a collaborative environment where people work together? How does the space incorporate everyone so that the employees feel like they're getting vested in the company?"

Even if you're dealing with a space 500 square feet or smaller, the positioning of each employees matters. Is the CEO situated in the corner with a big office, or stationed on a desk with the interns? The placement of employees in a confined area reflects the flow of direction of the organization. For example, Shugar, who manages six employees, sits right in the middle of his office.  It gives him a chance to see what everyone is working on, and it gives his employees ample opportunity to approach him.

Dig Deeper: How to Set Up a Home Office

Designing a Small Office: Create a Flexible, Open Environment

About 10 years ago, Cornell University's International Workplace Studies Program published a 77-page report on Offices that Work. In it, researchers examined the concept of "organizational ecology" by "looking at the nature of workplace strategies that small, dynamic organizations have developed to help them meet the challenges of doing more, faster and better, with less."

The researchers found that open, small-scale environments increased the exchange of information, created a positive social environment that supported learning and job satisfaction, accommodated greater flexibility, and did not impede the ability to work productively.

In other words, cubicles – or other similar enclosures – don't always work. The padded grey cages are increasingly scorned at start-ups and in design circles for a reason – they can actually make employees less productive. If you're a small company with a small office, privacy will inevitably be a concern. But the meaningful question, the researchers say, is to ask what's the right balance for your company.

At thredUP, a nine-person startup based in an 1,800 square-foot office in San Francisco, everybody is clustered together on one side of the office, and the other side is occupied by couches. "There are no cubicles or walls," says James Reinhart, the company's CEO. "The decision was to make it as open and transparent as possible. Having a place for employees to eat lunch together is important too," he says. "Even a mini-kitchenette really helps."

Dig Deeper: The Real Consequences of Office Clutter

Designing a Small Office: Reflect Your Company's Attitude

If you see clients, your office should be an accurate reflection of your business objectives.  When designing spaces for companies, Shugar tries to understand how customers view the firm.  "I learn about their branding and I try and see how their business is reflected to the public," he says.  He advises that architects ask: "What is the image this company wants to represent?"

2fORM's office is a converted commercial space, where the conference room walls are made up of recycled bleachers from a stadium. The office reflects the company's attitude towards sustainability, and as an architecture company, Shugar says, you need to play the part: "Worn, dated, or poor design will reflect poorly to clients."

Even if your company doesn't see clients, you must ask yourself how your office space represents itself to current and future employees. "I think that's critical," Shugar says, "because the architecture reflects an attitude: how you choose to practice, how you choose to communicate, and depending on what type of firm it is, how you place your values."

Dig Deeper: The Coolest New Office Furniture

Designing a Small Office: Use Frugality to Your Benefit

For thredUP, all the furniture they own was used, mostly bought on Craigslist or left over from a previous tenant. To Reinhart, what was important was to have a space that was quirky, fun, and colorful. "When people sit down in a more relaxed atmosphere it helps them be more thoughtful," he says. "Sure, we could go out and buy 10 Herman Miller chairs and a bunch of nice tables, but that could be in any office in the world."

Why buy from an office catalog? With a small office, you have more latitude to be frugal by buying second-hand.

"What I love is the fact that you move from your desk to an area that feels different, and an area that lends itself to creative thinking," Reinhart says. "We're not talking beanbag chairs. We just found the right balance."

Dig Deeper: What to Consider Before Opening that New Office

Designing a Small Office: Create Small Perks for a Big Impact

"We have a decent espresso machine ... and a kegerator," says Reinhart.  "I think there's an interesting theme there, which is you want people to feel like they're living a bit of the 'good life' to be able to have espresso and beer in frosted mugs.  Those little things go a long way."

Certainly, an important issue to address is whether or not you should spend money on perks like these, or if you should you just pay people more. Having a small office gives you an opportunity to offer things like coffee and beer because it's not that expensive to replenish and maintain. But Reinhart points out interesting facet of behavioral economics in this situation that make the perks seem worth it.  "If I say, I'll give you two bucks a day so you can go get coffee, that's not as valuable as having an espresso machine in the office," he says. "You want people to love this place. At 7 p.m when I can have a frosted beer – it's a huge draw."

Dig Deeper: 10 Tips for Surviving the Office

Last updated: Nov 7, 2010




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