During this year's NeoCon, the most influential and popular trade show for commercial design, it was clear that companies are making big shifts to take care of their employees through better office design. From smart furniture that supports an employee's health and wellness goals in real time, to outdoor commercial furniture accommodating more trans-exterior work activity, the week was filled with innovation presented by some of the most respected brands in the industry.

But there was one trend that significantly stood out among the rest: the return to privacy. For years, we've been decreasing the amount of privacy and personal work space for employees. Case in point: Gensler's 2013 study showed that from 2010 to 2012, the personal space of an individual dropped from 225 to 176 square feet, and it's predicted to drop to 100 square feet or even less in 2017. In their already-reduced work areas, 42% of employees are creating makeshift solutions to block out distractions from their co-workers.

Today, companies are realizing a balance must be struck, with a return to privacy and personal work space without sacrificing the creative collaboration made possible through open-office design. So while we're not saying we need to once again embrace the towering felt walls of a cubicle, we need to realize that the open office is greatly suffering under its current minimalist aesthetic.

It's time to start giving back to employees with what we call "individual work zones" that support a broad range of activities. Employees will have a variety of options: seating areas and work surfaces to suit particular needs, including focused work, meetings, presentations, collaborations, brainstorming, socializing, and quiet study or professional development.

Why Open-Office Benching Systems and Workstations Exist

Let's face it: most companies can't create more fixed, private offices to satisfy their team's negative reactions to an open-office floor plan. The costs of building and outfitting private offices are often out of scope, and if you're a company that plans on growing, you could potentially be shooting yourself in the foot if you permanently reduce your flexible square footage. No one wants to start squeezing four employees into what was once a private office and encouraging them to "have fun and get along!" You'll establish grounds for an HR nightmare.

Bench systems and modular workstations exist because they fit the most people into a single open space for the lowest price. Even removing panels from cubicles lends you a few more square feet to play with and therefore, more team members to fit into the floor plan. Why was this created? Because it has a positive advantage: faster collaboration. When you literally tear down the walls, you get increased conversation, information speed, and collaboration among your employees. This, in turn, fosters and grows a community within the office. For task-based group work, it makes a lot of sense. But for the rest of the day? We have to introduce other solutions.

While the groundbreaking research behind Self-Assembly Lab's Transformable Meeting Spaces is incredible (the idea of literally dropping meeting rooms and hubs from the office ceiling to create enclosed spaces), many businesses just aren't there yet. So here are some NeoCon-inspired ideas to strike a balance.

More Privacy With Modesty Screens and Acoustic Additions

If you've recently invested in modular workstations and benching systems for your open office, you don't have to fret. You can create more privacy with screens or removable acoustic panels. For example, Inscape Solutions has introduced curved, modern panels that provide just enough coverage against glare and passerby distractions. Meanwhile, ezoBord offers what they call "modesty panels" in elliptical, crescent and rectangular shapes. These panels fit to the front of a minimalist workstation to provide a solid color privacy screen.

Better Focus With Artistic Office Partitions

The entire commercial office can benefit from strategic divides between areas throughout the open office.

One solution? Sculptural and creative office partitions.

Companies are extending their brand aesthetic while increasing privacy through the use of eye-catching partitions, room dividers and partial wall designs. For example, nonprofit Echoing Green hired Taylor and Miller to divide up their office layout in a way that would grow and move with the organization. The architect and design firm fashioned hundreds of lightweight plywood boxes and wood slats in a variety of rectilinear shapes that created movable walls, partitions, even seating and stairs.

Other artistic partitions include colored glass walls and doors, natural elements such as wood and living vertical gardens, and woven fabrics.

Improved Personalization With Miniature "Work Homes"

A Tiles Direct study showed that 22% of office workers want more personalized work space. One trend spotted at NeoCon was the introduction of more "homely" spaces: comfortable sofas, chairs, cubbies and even rooms within rooms that feel like one's own private space. Even West Elm unveiled a 'tiny office' line called Haus. Going one step further than office partitions, you can use these acoustic pods and sliding doors or caster-wheel walls to maximize an employee's 100 or 150 square feet without permanently installing an office.

These miniature rooms are further customized by the employee and the employer with agreed-upon amenities for maximum productivity and comfort: sit-stand desks, enhanced technology, and storage-seating combos or all-in-one storage solutions. Portable devices can easily sync from space to space, allowing them to keep their personal work area but move to collaborative floors or cafes without losing a step.

Without quiet, private places to do concentrated work when needed, the increased noise of an open workstation environment can end up decreasing productivity for everyone involved. With these "walls" in place on specific floors or throughout departments on one large floor, the open office can return to a cozy and varied work space the entire company can enjoy. Now, group conversations, personal phone calls and other noisy habits (like loud music) will no longer be an impediment to the success of the company.

Published on: Jun 27, 2017