Gensler Spec for Tech Uptown Station San Francisco Oakland Bay Area FME Architecture DPR Construction My Work in a We World Blitz Microsoft Knoll Santa Cruz
Muhtayzik-Hoffer | Photo courtesy of Jasper Sanidad
Muhtayzik-Hoffer | Photo courtesy of Jasper Sanidad

Workplace interior design shifts back to the individual—to a degree.


By Neil Gonzales

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he post-recession technology boom ushered in the open workplace design fostering employee collaboration and a free flow of ideas. That design was counter to the cubicle work culture of past decades that sought to maximize employee efficiency and focus while providing some semblance of privacy.

But subtly over the last year or so, some cubicle-era concepts have made their way back into the offices as companies are realizing that a predominantly open floor plan can lead to unintended noise and distractions.

Companies are also starting to recognize that employees as individuals have different cognitive styles and ways of interacting with one another.

At the same time, employees—especially in the technology sector and millennial generation—are seeking urban workplaces that go beyond the mere office and are able to blur the lines between work and social life.

“People are looking for places where live, work and play combine and overlap,” said Ben Tranel, principal at global design firm Gensler, who delved into trending workplace issues in his recent “Spec for Tech” report. “There’s an attitude shift. People are choosing where they want to live first before looking for a job. They want a lifestyle that is more balanced. That’s why the traditional office is obsolete.”

As a consequence, Tranel said, companies are moving away from a cloistered-campus design to a “more public, engaged built environment.”

An example of that is Uptown Station, a Gensler project and new office for San Francisco-based mobile-app ridesharing services company Uber. The 380,000-square-foot, seven-story building in Oakland provides amenities in a common paseo on the ground floor where employees and the general public alike can pass through, creating a vibrant space.

“The self-contained campus model was native to an environment that had no intrinsic amenities,” the “Spec for Tech” report said. “But when that approach is transported to the city, there’s a danger of creating a fortress that can be unfriendly to local businesses and neighboring firms. The urban campus must embrace the access to local retail and services as an extension of its own facilities.”

Inside the office itself, independent spaces are being built back into the work environment although the “individual footprint and desk remain small,” said Eric Ibsen, chief design officer for San Francisco-based FME Architecture.

National builder DPR Construction’s new Bay Area regional office—a 2014 renovation project involving FME Architecture—is an example of this trend.

The redesign of the 20,000-square-foot, 1950s-era warehouse in downtown San Francisco features active, social spaces such as a training room, break area and wine bar on the first floor while the workstations on the second floor are accompanied by small conference rooms and similar sections that allow for more private work.

“We put all the heads-down work on one level—the second floor,” Ibsen said. “The first floor serves all the other purposes.”

Moving forward, he said, office design needs to take into account spaces for concentrated individual work, collaboration, training or education and socializing.

Gensler’s “Spec for Tech” report seconds that assessment. “As mobility and virtual work increase, people now have the flexibility to blend work and home life in a way that was impossible in the past,” the study said. “For the office, this means planning for a wider range of activities.”

Another recent Gensler study further explored issues involving individual work in an open-office environment. That study, “My Work in a We World,” found that focused, heads-down activity seems to be under attack in a modern workplace “overbuilt for collaboration.”

The open plan can lead to such concentration-breaking incidents as constant interruptions from fellow workers and overheard loud conversations, the study said.

That kind of “undisciplined collaborative” area can result in workers often getting sidetracked, said Gensler consulting strategist Laura Mihailoff, who worked on the study.

The study cited a previous Gensler report indicating that overall workplace performance nationwide declined by 6 percent between 2008 and 2013. That decline was attributed to “a decrease in the effectiveness of the workplace to support focus work,” the study said.

The study suggests that companies consider a design addressing both collaborative and focused work. That design also needs to be flexible as a “good balance” can depend on numerous factors—including individual cognitive styles, team dynamics and company policies, the study said.

“With so many variables, we need to create environments and opportunities for autonomy, providing individuals with control over how, when and where they do their work,” the study said.

“We’re moving toward greater consumerization,” meaning the workplace is becoming “more responsive to the users and meeting their specific needs,” Mihailoff said.

A manifestation of this is the design concept of the team neighborhood, a section dedicated to a particular group of employees within the overall workplace. Such an area allows members of a certain team to focus on their shared work without disturbing other groups in the office, Mihailoff said.

Tech giant Microsoft’s San Francisco office in the iconic tower at 555 California St. shows examples of this trending workplace consumerization. The employee areas maintain an open plan, but the office has a variety of informal, flexible spaces that encourage work from any spot deemed comfortable by anyone at any time.

Microsoft’s office—designed by local architecture firm Blitz in 2014 and measuring 43,500 square fee—also features angular-shaped pavilions that can serve as private employee focus spaces or breakout rooms for impromptu meetings.

A recent study by Pennsylvania-based design firm Knoll presented similar findings about the changing workplace environment.

Companies “report a growing demand for ‘quiet’ working spaces and booths suitable for concentration, conference calls or individual video conferencing in addition to multipurpose cafés and outdoor spaces,” the Knoll study said.

The tech industry particularly seeks out this diverse mix of space, the study said. “Our goal is to have space where virtual or face-to-face collaboration can take place,” Tom Gill, vice president of Santa Cruz-based electronics company Plantronics said in the study, but it “is also important to have focus areas, supporting not just teamwork but independent work. We try to provide the most appropriate space to work given the task to be performed.”

As tech companies increasingly recognize the importance of various kinds of interaction, the study also said, “They are designing spaces that allow people to move between teams as well as integrating development teams more tightly into the main office space.”

The evolution of the workplace “will be more hospitable and responsive than ever before,” the study concluded. “A key part of that will be adaptable physical design and floor plans that allow spaces to be configured and reconfigured to meet the changing needs of the workforce.”

How well companies address those needs will factor significantly in the success of their employee recruitment efforts. “Companies are looking to attract top talent, so they are trying to get a competitive edge,” Tranel said.

The “Spec for Tech” report pointed out that today’s knowledge workforce is “looking for shared purpose as opposed to either hierarchy or a hyper-collaborative environment. They want to work for a company with a strong mission and culture [and] whose beliefs are expressed physically in the space where they live and work.”

Offering plenty of amenities remains important, the Gensler report added, but integrating social and cultural elements “is now the No. 1 factor in the office as a recruitment and retention tool.”

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