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Choosing the right office layout

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An open office — that’s what today’s workers want. To attract talent, you’ve got to tear down those partitions.

Hold on! Workers need quiet and privacy and a place to post personal photos.

If you’re renovating your office or expanding into a new one, you’re bound to get caught up in this sort of debate. There’s plenty of research to support both sides, as well as pros and cons regarding furniture placement, conference rooms, color palettes and a host of other considerations. With all these contradictions, how can you possibly make the right decisions — or any decision for that matter?

The answer, experts say, is to turn away from the noisy debates and focus on your own needs and goals. Just because something works for another company doesn’t mean it’s right for you.

“Five years ago, lots of people were putting in a ping pong table because they wanted to be hip and cool like Google. But if your workers don’t use them on breaks, they fail,” explains Heather Turner Loth, a workplace strategist at  Eppstein Uhen Architects, which designs office spaces for businesses, industries, health care facilities, and other groups. “Office design needs to mirror your culture and reflect how your people work and how you want them to work.”

What are your goals?

To arrive at a successful design, companies must examine everything from their existing productivity and workflows to their goals for the future. If you’re meeting your income requirements and your staff is content with traditional space — executive offices with windows on the periphery and administrative workers in the interior — you may not need to change your basic structure when you move or renovate. On the other hand, if you’re growing quickly and need to hire millennials and Gen Z’s to replace retiring workers, a more thorough makeover may be in order.

Does that mean moving to an open office plan? Not necessarily.

“The core issue is not about whether the open office is a good idea, but about whether it’s the correct strategy for you and how to do it right,” says architect and designer Leslie Saul, who has been helping businesses make decisions about office space for 40 years.

Saul and Loth both spend time with executives reviewing their corporate goals, values and mission statements, as well as observing how employees use existing space and whether efficiency could be improved. Afterward, they hold what Saul calls “possibilities workshops,” asking questions like “What would your ideal office be like?” They use vision boards to help clients make aesthetic choices.

Modifying a layout

Your choice of office layout doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Some companies that want additional transparency may find that glass doors or glass offices are all they need. Others may decide to open up more, removing remove cubicles and ceiling partitions, or even eliminating assigned desks, a tactic that a recent survey found 25 percent of companies are experimenting with.

For those who go with an open plan, it’s important to remember that while noise can be an issue, there are ways to mitigate it. One way is to have a sound balancing system, which uses small speakers to produce a light whooshing sound, providing privacy without being distracting. “You know someone is talking on the phone, but you don’t hear what they’re saying,” Saul says.

Acoustic ceiling tiles also help by absorbing sound, and other surfaces can be coated. Companies that like a cool, industrial look with exposed structural steel can spray the beams with egg-carton-like acoustic material so that they don’t reverberate as much.

Another popular tactic is to provide workers with small conference rooms or booths where individuals can go to concentrate — or where small teams can hold spirited discussions without annoying others.

“If you do it right, an open office can be terrific,” Saul explains. But again, it’s not for everyone. The choice depends on your present and future needs.

Evolving space

As a business changes, its office space also needs to evolve. Many professional services firms, for example, are beginning to hold seminars or training workshops for existing and prospective clients, in addition to offering traditional individual advice, Loth says. They may need a large space to accommodate these new audiences.

But if they create such an addition, what about the 75 percent of the time when it’s not being used?

Sometimes spaces can be repurposed.

“One firm we worked with created a café with a training center that was partitioned off but could be opened up as a secondary space where employees could work or hold meetings,” Loth says.

If you think that sounds a little like Starbucks, you’re on the right track. Laptops enable remote work, and some employees prefer to do theirs amid the hustle and bustle of a café, steaming beverage at their side. But a public café doesn’t provide internet security. Allowing workers to hang out in an attractive office café can be an excellent alternative for employees who crave workspace variety, Saul adds.

Other employees may work from home, or spend much of their time in away from their desks in clients’ offices. A study by commercial real estate firm CBRE found that on average, 20 to 40 percent of office desks are unoccupied. If that sounds like your company, you may want to consider reducing your square footage to save on real estate costs.

Choosing an office layout may sound like a daunting task, but if you focus on your business goals instead of the hottest trends, your instincts should lead you in the right direction. As you hone in on a plan and start to consider aesthetic choices, you may even find you’re having fun.

Leading EDGE

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