Fine-tuning the Open Plan Office
By: Bill LaPatra, AIA, partner, and Elizabeth Gordon, associate principal, at Mithun
Winter 2016 2017
Weyerhaeuser headquarters developer Urban Visions, recognizing the importance of daylight in the workplace, incorporated floor-to-ceiling glass walls and a flexible panel system that allows for both privacy and views in the company’s new Seattle headquarters.
Traditional office users continue to adopt and adapt trends pioneered by tech companies.
TECH COMPANIES have invested heavily in creating dynamic, exciting workplaces. One of the fundamental challenges that architects working with these firms face is how to support the intense focus that software/systems engineers need to get their work done within an open office, while still encouraging collaboration, brainstorming and rejuvenating breaks. Various solutions to this design problem are now being adopted by more traditional companies and adapted to their own needs.
Islands of Personal Space
Most tech companies now occupy primarily open plan offices. For example, at one new office space for a large tech company (which prefers to remain unnamed), approximately 20 percent of the floor area is devoted to shared offices that accommodate four to six people. A few are occupied by executive leadership, but most enclosed spaces are private “huddle rooms” for project teams. Alternative workspaces — a library, a lounge and even a “secret room” that features a soundscape — entice people to take breaks from their workstations when they need intense focus, collaboration or social time.
The company provides each employee with an individual workstation. These are organized into neighborhoods of no more than 20 workstations. The company has pursued a “desk-first” approach, looking for ways to improve the workstation and the surrounding environment to better support the needs of their workforce by minimizing visual distractions, enhancing acoustics and elevating aesthetics. In addition, each station features an adjustable-height desk and is separated from other desks by “soft barriers,” including panels and plants. Each can also be reoriented to face different directions. Since employees can personalize their level of privacy and orientation, the workplace feels more residential, less corporate.
Weyerhaeuser, the nation’s largest timber company, viewed its move into a new headquarters in Seattle as an opportunity to transition from cubicles with six-foot-high dividers to a more flexible workspace panel system. The new panels average 3.5 feet tall; the top foot is translucent glass. This strategy creates a sense of privacy for employees seated at their desks, while also providing open views across the work areas for those who are standing or circulating through the office. The system is also flexible; desks can be oriented in different directions, allowing teams to create unique configurations.
The building was designed with floor-to-ceiling glass and a floor-to-ceiling height that is a foot taller than most commercial spaces. This provides daylight and views to each workspace, and increases the perception of personal space. As in the tech world, a number of alternative workspaces were created for collaboration, private focus and informal meetings.
Solving Acoustic Challenges While Fostering Collaboration
To help engineers maintain their hyper-focus, some tech companies ensure that social and collaboration zones are distinct from work areas. The tech firm’s new meeting rooms and amenities are arranged along the south side of the building, while the workstations and offices are on the north side. The connecting corridors have been activated as collaboration areas. These corridors have niches that are lined with whiteboards and include seating for small group meetings. When staffers want to discuss something informally, they can go to the nearby corridor instead of disturbing their neighbors.
The Weyerhaeuser office also faced acoustical challenges. Designers therefore supplemented acoustic paneling that covers 50 percent of the ceiling and portions of the cubicles with sound-absorbing workspace panels, carpet and a sound masking system. That system features a series of speakers installed on the ceiling at 15-foot intervals. It can be adjusted to create enough white noise to diffuse the sound of conversations. Operable windows aid acoustics; when opened, sounds of the city buffer noise in work areas. The windows also bring in fresh air and allow employees to control the temperature of their workplace.
The atrium at the Harley Marine company headquarters on Seattle’s Harbor Island opens to a landscaped deck overlooking the water, facilitating connections to the outdoors as well as among employees.
At both the Weyerhaeuser office and the tech company, central circulation zones with inviting staircases include micro-kitchens and informal collaboration space. These foster interaction as workers take breaks and move throughout the building. Because they are separated from work zones, these spaces also limit acoustic distractions.
The Pause That Refreshes
Supporting biophilia — the bond between humans and nature — is an increasing focus of office design today. Using natural materials for interior finishes is a starting point, but creating attractive outdoor environments for employees can have a more profound impact for both human and environmental health.
For the engineers and other tech company employees, taking a break outdoors can provide a useful counterpoint to the deep immersion of work. The outdoor space around one tech company building is being redesigned with paths for “walking meetings” and outdoor rooms defined by berms, trellises and hedges to encourage people to take their work outside. This effort also includes a restoration element that supports the company’s sustainability and ecological goals. The new landscape features native plants and trees that will mature and eventually provide shade and wildlife habitat.
Additional biophilic strategies include using biomorphic patterns and abstract natural sensory experiences such as dappled, diffused light in wood-paneled corridors. Counters and booths positioned at the open edges of the central staircase provide vistas. Conversely, single-person booths provide refuge and are positioned adjacent to views outdoors, supporting focused work.
At the new Weyerhaeuser office, the building’s glazed facade looks directly into a neighboring park, allowing employees to feel as if they are within the park’s grove of London plane trees. Inside, display screens with imagery of Northwest forests greets visitors in the lobby. Throughout the building, Weyerhaeuser wood products and other natural and reclaimed materials bring the beauty of the forest into the workplace.
Biophilia was also a major driver for the design of the Harley and Lela Franco Maritime Center, the Harley Marine company’s headquarters on Seattle’s Harbor Island. A landscaped deck overlooks the water, while an atrium opens to the deck and connects the building directly to the maritime environment. Completed in 2013, the outdoor spaces are enjoyed by staff throughout the day. With great views of Seattle’s working waterfront and downtown beyond, this indoor-outdoor connection reflects the company’s maritime business and provides space that has been vital to the company’s culture of teambuilding through events and gatherings.
The issues that technology workplaces have to address are often specialized and reflect the demands of their workforce, yet their innovations — borne of an innovative industry — are now informing office designs for other evolving companies as well.