Improve Focus without an Office Redesign

Curated pieces solve open plan design challenges

by Amanda Schneider

Amanda Schneider is President of ThinkLab, the research division of Interior Design magazine. ThinkLab combines Interior Design magazine’s incredible reach within the architecture and design community with proven market research techniques to uncover relevant trends and opportunities that connect back to brand and business goals in a thought-provoking, creative, and actionable way.

In what has been dubbed “the privacy backlash” many workers are finding themselves less productive in open-office floorplans. Designed to increase collaboration and spur innovation, open-concept spaces have their place in the office, but so do quiet, stimuli-managed areas to focus on heads-down work. The sweet spot lies in the ability to offer choices to employees who spend the day working on a variety of tasks and therefore require their environment to mirror their working needs.

Today, we’re seeing a drive to design legible spaces and territories or zones that offer visual and acoustical privacy and perceived barriers from the open office. And, we’re beginning to see more flexible solutions than the traditional drywalled office setting pop up in response. Specifically, we’re looking at furniture that addresses architectural needs, including pieces that are moveable, affordable, and less-time-consuming to create. These alternatives address the needs of visual and acoustical privacy in a fresh new way while simultaneously evoking the principles of human-centered design.

As we look at these examples of workplace shifts, we begin to realize that this need is relevant today more than ever. Here’s the research as to why this trend is here to stay, and some practical, curated solutions to address the need.

Open-Concept Floorplans Leave Us Craving Privacy
As remote work rose in popularity—some studies suggest as much as 70 percent of professionals work remotely, at least in part—we recognized that time spent in the office needed to provide the opportunity for face-to-face collaboration. But in the effort to drive collaboration, the entirely-open floorplan, many now suggest, went too far and is, in fact, counterproductive. A Harvard Business study states that overall, face-to-face time decreased by around 70 percent across the participating employees, on average, with email use increasing by between 22 percent and 50 percent.

In the same breath, the backlash to individual office dividers swung to the minimalistic office floorplans featuring collaborative benching solutions and even more common spaces. This led to the shrinking of individual space in an office: an average of 151 square feet of dedicated office space per worker in 2017, down from 176 square feet in 2012 and 225 square feet in 2010.

Together, these factors created the perfect storm for a privacy drought. Workers need opportunities to take a personal phone call, prepare for that upcoming presentation, and even conduct team meetings without the distractions of colleagues. The entirely-open-concept workspace, as the primary solution for work time, simply doesn’t meet these needs.

Curated Solution: Living walls are becoming a popular example of furniture addressing the needs of architecture—but with some added benefits. Infused with biophilia, these walls dampen noise between dedicated workspaces, while offering a moveable solution that’s as visually pleasing as it is soothing. In fact, research suggests that biophilic design elements, such as living walls, can increase productivity by 8 percent, rates of well-being by 13 percent, and increase creativity while reducing absenteeism and presenteeism.

Leases are Becoming Shorter
In 1965, the average tenure of companies on the S&P 500 was 33 years. By 1990, it was 20 years. It’s forecast to shrink to 14 years by 2026. Today, the only constant is change, and the most robust businesses are structuring everything from their business models to their leases to accommodate it. And, with these shortened leases comes the need to be creative with long-term spatial planning versus short-term. Companies think not only in terms of physical space—i.e., Do I want to invest in architectural design for space I may occupy for only one year?—but also in terms of furniture: i.e., How much time, money, and effort do I want to invest in planning for the furniture needs of THIS short-term space?

The EPA estimated that there were 12.1 million tons of furniture in landfills in 2015—much of which was undoubtedly created as the result of cheap furniture solutions discarded after a short-term lease. The same agency said that 548 million tons of construction and demolition (C&D) debris were generated in the United States in 2015, with demolition representing 90 percent of that. Between furniture and architectural waste (including millwork, drywall, and other architectural features), it is becoming more crucial to design long-lasting, quality pieces that can move from one location to another, providing an environmentally friendly solution to address these concerns. In terms of time and effort to design a functional office space, furniture designed to address architectural needs limits the amount of time (and money) spent on fixed millwork that cannot be transferred to the next location. And it does this while addressing two needs: the need for functional furniture as well as the need for dedicated work zones.

What’s more, using furniture designed as architecture over millwork can have considerable tax implications. Items that are considered personal property—furniture designed as architecture and other moveable items included—can be depreciated over 5 to 7 years, as opposed to realty, or permanent items like brick and mortar, which are depreciated over 39 years. In terms of the time value of money, the savings for furniture designed for architectural needs is dramatic.

Curated Solution: Need to create niche spaces within an office but only planning on staying a year or two and don’t want to invest in architectural solutions or millwork? There are many beautiful furniture pieces that address the needs for privacy without calling on an architect. Think in terms of privacy booths for private phone calls, or storage solutions that offer visual privacy. These options address the functional needs of an office, while their non-permanent nature make them an easy move after a short-term lease concludes.

The Specification Process Needs Simplification
As previously mentioned, limiting millwork on a project can reduce the budget and timeline—specifically valuable in a short-term lease situation. For companies that want to replicate a job for multiple locations, this involves hiring multiple millworkers/A&D firms as opposed to ordering through one centralized source. By limiting the number of touchpoints throughout the specification process—think more items ordered through one purchase order—the entire process is streamlined.

We Need Spaces that Inspire Us
If you ask an HR department what its biggest challenge is today, more often than not, the answer would be attracting and retaining top talent. As Millennials and GenZers continue to flood the workforce, they bring with them a unique set of workplace expectations that vary from their predecessors’. As a result, a workplace that offers a calming space for inspiration and that “wow” factor has made its way to the top of the list.

Furniture designed for architectural needs fosters this atmosphere by metaphorically (and perhaps literally) tearing down the walls of hierarchy and creating an atmosphere where everyone feels relaxed and like equals. For environments that strive to even the playing field, this is a cultural win. But for companies that still prefer the traditional hierarchy of staffing, there’s still value in curating spaces designed for individualized tasks, and the office atmosphere can respond to the design as it sees fit.  Furniture designed for architectural needs shapes not only the environment surrounding us but also the mood we feel while we are in it.

Curated Solution: Another way to foster an inspiring environment is by creating spaces that are inspired by human-centered design. In addition to the health benefits of biophilia addressed earlier, research shows that exposure to natural light can support productivity and overall well-being, with naturally lit offices reporting a 51 percent decrease in eyestrain, a 63 percent decrease in headaches, and a 56 percent reduction in drowsiness. And when designing with natural light isn’t an option, there are now products that mimic the natural look of light coming in through a window, and great task light options that replace overhead lighting.

In a day and age where business moves fast and people move faster, creating signature pieces we can take with us and flex up and down depending on our needs allows us to leverage our resources wisely. We’re seeing spaces that mimic the unique attributes of our brands and the humans that occupy each building, while simultaneously offering an intriguing element of excitement to the next generation of workers.

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