Break Out Of The Box; No More Cubicles!

Every day we hear the terms Baby Boomer, Gen Xer, and Millennial in reference to the impacts each one is making in working world.

“Baby boomers are retiring.”

“Gen Xers are taking over the reins” 

“Millennials are redefining the work envrionment” 

With each one of these generations, comes their preferential work place stereotype: Boomers want offices, Gen X’s comfort is in cubes, Millennials thrive in coffee shops.  Mix in tech businesses and hip start ups with their funky lounges, inside gardens, gyms, and complimentary kitchens, standard office design has been turned on its head.   Now add extrovert and introvert social preferences and the latest discussion on emotional intelligence awareness in the workplace.  Its a wonder anyone is productive.  How’s a company supposed to find a comfortable balance without jumping on every new trend? Suffice it to say, creating an office environment for all different types of people to succeed is a challenge.

History of Office Design

Office design started in the beginning of the 1900’s because of several factors and key individuals.  With the development of steel production in building construction, larger spans and more open spaces were possible.  Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Larkin Admin Building,  considered to be one of the first business oriented buildings.  Henry Ford took the idea of the assembly line for his office layouts, lining up desks end to end, with managers at the end and corners for supervision.

Fast forward to the 1960’s and the German idea of “Burolandschaft” or office landscaping blossoms.  The social movement of the time evolved top down supervision to a more natural and collaborative flow.  Managers desks were mingled in and rigidly lined up rows of desks were free flowing in meandering organic lines.  Plants were introduced as dividers and the atmosphere focused on the people.  The late 1970’s introduced dividing panels to bring back privacy and improved acoustics.  By the 80’s, the cube farm was in full force and remained the standard until the tech industry upped the ante in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.

Before the tech industry, a typical office break room had a microwave, fridge, coffee maker and maybe a vending machine with cafeteria style seating for lunch.  Now its full complimentary kitchens, basketball hoops, pool tables, swings, and even napping rooms. People’s workstations are personalized with their bikes suspended on cables, inflatable palm trees in the corner, and their dog sleeping under their desk.

office atrium

The NEW Standard

The Layout

Private Offices- One of the biggest financial burdens of a company is the office itself.  Rent of office space is figured per square foot.  Private offices are less efficient than furnished workstations because they require a bigger footprint for that one person.  Modifications are more difficult as its real construction vs. moving furniture.  Private offices still conjure up a sense of status and that is a hard mind frame to break.  The quintessential corner office of the baby boomer generation meant that you finally made it.   Needs and wants are different when considering using an office.  For the most part, confidentiality should be the only reason a private office is needed.  Areas such as Human Resources, medical, financial, or legal are the only fields where privacy dictates hard offices.  Beyond that, a private office is a want and simply a reward of status.  Give a director or officer of a company a large swanky office where they spend most of their day in conference rooms or traveling, makes no sense financially in regards to rent and usable space.  A company must ask themselves when designing their office layout, are offices necessary?

Workstations- Clustered workstations are the new version of the old cubicle.  The typical 5′-6′ high cubical wall has all but disappeared in office furniture showrooms.  When used, panels are now 3′-4′ high to allow cross communication between teams.  File cabinets nestle underneath desks and double as guest seating.  Desks are typically coupled into clusters of 4-8 people creating families. Bookcases and cabinets usually border the clusters and create aisles flowing to community lounge spaces, conference rooms, and break facilities at the perimeter.

Hot Desks- Another aspect of what type of desk or work area is to analyze the duration of the employee being on site.  Would a “hot desk” environment work better for traveling or telecommuting staff?  Employees who are frequently away from the building might simply need a desk compared to their desk.  Sharing desks or drop-in desks (hoteling) also allow for visiting employees from other branches to use.

Open Studios- Studio style offices are typically done with one long table divided into each person’s work area.  Collaboration is free and occurs constantly.  Open studio style layouts have become very popular however they do come with their drawbacks.  Noise and distractions are top complaints among this set up style.  Introverts for example, may desire quiet time and seek refuge in far corners.  With an open studio style office, private alcoves and nooks are necessary as employees do make personal phone calls during the day, people do get stressed and tears do flow.  Thus, provide a place for  decompression and emotional intelligence awareness.

Conference Rooms- Community gathering spaces both casual for breaks or formal for meetings are still placed in central locations.  Aquarium style conference rooms are popular (all glass fronts), people can see if the room is occupied and the room doesn’t feel isolated.  However, if privacy is needed some sort of partial window film or electrochromic glass that frosts on command can be used.  Aquarium style conference rooms may seem off putting to some but their driving concept of open communication and lack of barriers hones the community vibe.

Co-working Spaces- Maybe you are a small company, whether starting out or fully established and a co-working space is a better fit.  With these configurations, your company shares main, larger facilities such as conference rooms, restrooms, and kitchens with other businesses.  Your area remains sectioned off and secure, but you mingle with other businesses in the common areas, reducing the size of your individual rented space and overlapping in communal facilities that are easily shared.  Cambridge Innovation Center is just one of many co-working spaces in the Boston metro area.

co-working space

The Furnishings

Ergonomically designed furniture is standard.  Today’s office chairs adjust up, down, back and forth.  Armrests go in all directions also.  Seats are cushioned or mesh with adjustable springs and lumbar support.  You don’t need the designer line, just make sure its adjustable and durable.  Workstations are now available with height adjustments, allowing for standing.  Treadmill desks and under desk peddles are also commonplace.  Physical comfort is paramount.  Your employees work hard for you, don’t make their back hurt.

Anyone who has worked in an office for any length of time knows that when someone leaves, their space gets ransacked by the remaining staff.  Anything from a better stapler to the newer chair gets snatched up.  When this occurs, the remnant work areas and cubes are bleak and then casted off to the next hired worker bee who comes along.  Nothing says “Welcome!” better than the oldest computer, wonky chair, and a broken stapler.  Joking aside, part of a company’s on boarding standards should be establishing a standard workstation.

Technology is monitored by IT departments, but who monitors the furnishings?  Some companies do have facility departments, but they receive direction from someone else. All items have a life cycle and they need to be placed on a replacement schedule with allocated budgets.  Cost of commercial grade office furniture being what it is can be a difficult expense for a company to justify.  There are now furniture companies out there that re-purpose and and reconstruct your existing furniture to your new desired aesthetic.   Davies Office is one such company.  From adjusting file cabinets to lowering panel heights to reupholstering chairs this company can assist in reusing what you already have, thus reducing the full replacement costs.

The Company Culture

In a previous blog (Making room) I discuss first impressions a company’s furniture can make on a client, visitor, and potential employees:

If you advertise your business as being current or cutting edge, but your conference room screams 1990, that’s a confusing message.  Your physical office counts just as much for your branding image as your logo, webpage, and slogan.

Create a Vibe- Office furniture doesn’t have to be fresh out of a showroom, however it does need to be presentable and in line with your company’s image and desired impression.  Along with the selected finishes such as wall coverings and flooring, the furnishings dictate the style of business you are and create a vibe.  What’s yours?

Baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials are blending in the work force, each bringing their own work comfort zone.  If a company hasn’t established its company culture, different work styles will often clash.  Human Resources, medical, financial, or legal fields for the most part dictate a more serious company culture.  For the rest of the working world, offices have relaxed.

Staffing Issues- Another aspect of your office design impression effecting company culture is in regards to staffing.  Is your business having difficulty with employee retention, ownership transition, or simply hiring new employees?  They are hugely impacted by the office design.  For example, a candidate could choose to turn down an offer because the office and in turn business feels stuffy, deciding your competitor is a better fit.  An existing employee can start interviewing elsewhere because the environment has slowly made them feel oppressed and uninspired, leaving you for your trendy competitor.  Current owners could have a difficult time promoting and encouraging upper staff to take over the reins because the business feels out of date.  Often with new ownership comes remodeling and re branding for a reason.  Become that desired competitor.

modern office space

The Outside Environment

Biophilic Design- A new movement is growing in office design and architecture in general.  Its more than just potted plants and windows, its the re-connection of people with nature.  A wonderful film about biophilic design  explains the principles of this building philosophy that is being practiced by successful businesses world wide.  More than just businesses are benefiting from this idea; hospitals, schools, and entire city neighborhoods are bringing nature back to the forefront.

Exterior Campus- Continuing the idea of biophilic design, businesses are developing their exterior campuses.  Roof top gardens, picnic plazas, and dog parks are being installed.  Headquarter campuses are connecting to the surrounding neighborhood, blurring the boundaries into communal outdoor spaces.  If you Google Amazon’s new headquarters going up in downtown Seattle, for example, they have altered the entire city block.  By doing this, they enhance the surroundings and bring a new life to the neighborhood.

Roof top garden

The Building

In addition to office design, buildings themselves are improved.  The LEED movement of construction has brought awareness of Sick Building Syndrome and improving building efficiency.  Lights are now controlled by daylight sensors, motorized window coverings monitor heat gain and solar glare.  HVAC control air quality and circulation.  Interior finishes are more pure by reducing toxic chemicals and content.  Low flow plumbing fixtures are installed and rainwater harvesting is designed into the outside landscape.  Buildings now have recycling programs, bike storage and electric car charging stations.  Buildings don’t have to officially use the LEED certification program to benefit from its design standards.  Simply following the guidelines alone can produce a healthier and more environmentally sound building when utilized.

Office design and the working environment is very different today compared to 30 years ago and unrecognizable from the 1950’s.  A company needs to find its balance that’s inline with their values, their employees’ expectations, and their sector’s impression.  The furnishings and finishes of a business cannot be a second thought, going hand in hand with the logo and slogan,  to create the culture and outside image.  Very few have the resources of Amazon.  However, take what they do and scale it down to something you can easily implement: open up the doors, change the music, and offer free k-cup pods.  Then, set a schedule to replace the chairs, paint the walls and tear out that corner office.

The point is to bring life back into the office. We all have work to do, let’s enjoy it.


Sarah Daricilar, NCIDQ

Studio Owner & Interior Designer

Daricilar Design Studio    –    Medway, MA

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