Eight Steps Toward More Functional Office Space

Spring 2014

Many companies have heard the siren call for open office space that allows for greater collaboration, attracts younger workers and reduces real estate costs. But before tenants take the plunge into a new office environment, building owners and architects can help them conduct a careful analysis of the way they work now and how they will work in the future, to ease the transition for all generations of workers — and to ensure that the new workplace truly works for all of its occupants. Joe Flynn, senior associate and workplace strategist at Margulies Perruzzi Architects (MPA) of Boston offers the following suggestions:

1) Recognize that one size does not fit all. Designing new office space might be easy for a traditional law firm that plans to continue its hierarchical office structure or an IT company or architectural firm that long ago gave up traditional offices in favor of open, collaborative space. Most companies, however, will fall between those two extremes and must carefully weigh their options.

headshot of Joe Flynn

Joe Flynn

2) Determine how much space the company will need. Early on, the company needs to estimate how much space it will need in its new office environment. If it is moving from a traditional setting of offices and work stations, that space can serve as a benchmark, but it may need less individual workspace per person and more conference rooms for private meetings.

3) Analyze the company’s work style. Not every company will be more productive in an open space workplace; there are numerous pluses and minuses to consider. (See the tables below.) A publishing company in which 60 percent of the staff are editors, for example, will need private space for those heads-down employees.

a table with information

4) Explore all alternatives. Flynn and a large Boston client looked at all of the firm’s options. For each option, they considered the impact on older workers, younger workers and the cost of real estate. The company was particularly focused on what its competition was doing, which could impact recruitment or potentially spur defections to other firms.

5) Consider what is driving workplace change. Why does the tenant want a different type of workplace? Is its workforce evolving and becoming more efficient? Are people spending more time working outside of the office?

6) Look at the project’s shelf life. At a recent planning meeting for a new office to be occupied by a company whose executives all were over the age of 50, Flynn asked a simple question: how many of those executives would be working at the firm at the expiration of the newly signed 15-year lease? When they realized that many of them would not be there, the executives became more willing to bring in younger stakeholders, even new hires, to help plan the new office environment.

7) Design for flexibility. For companies with multiple generations in the workplace, consider a flexible office design. Moveable partitions and modular furniture enable baby boomers to have offices now while younger generations can work in an open office environment. Then, as the baby boomers retire, partitions can be moved to replace offices with more open space or meeting rooms.

a table with information

8) Create and deploy a clear communication plan. Moving to a new office environment before employees fully understand what’s going on can lead to confusion, unhappiness, even mutiny. Flynn stresses that all changes and their implications must be clearly and frequently communicated. One company with which he worked created a communication plan that continued for a full year, so that employees could understand and adapt to the changes that were taking place. This company even created a “Day in the Life of an Employee” video to show how to function in the new work environment. (See below)

How to Structure a Telework Day

A company with which Margulies Perruzzi Architects worked decided to create an “address-free” work environment: none of its employees had an assigned workspace or storage system, except for a locker. Employees were encouraged to telework three days a week and come to the office two days a week. The company recognized that making such a dramatic change in the way it did business would require its workers to make major adjustments in how and where they did their jobs. It therefore spent a year helping them learn how to use the necessary new technology, manage people remotely, evaluate work products and use their time and space efficiently.

According to Flynn, the communication plan was flawless. It incorporated a video detailing what a typical telework day might look like. The video follows a woman in her early 30s with several young children through a telework day, during which she does the following:

  • Gets up and checks her email, answering job-related messages;
  • Prepares breakfast for her family;
  • Dresses the children and drives them to day care;
  • Conducts a conference call in her car while parked outside the day care center;
  • Goes to the gym for an hour-long workout;
  • Checks her email in the locker room;
  • Returns home to work on a project;
  • Takes a break for a lunchtime doctor’s appointment;
  • Returns home to take part in a video conference call with colleagues in a different time zone;
  • Prepares dinner for her family and eats with them;
  • Returns to her desk after dinner to finish a work product;
  • Puts her children to bed;
  • Ends the day by checking her email at 11 p.m.

According to Flynn, by creating this video, the company was effectively telling its employees: “This is not a 9-to-5 job. We understand that you have lives to live. We think that you are professionals and can manage your personal and professional lives.”