By Alison Woolf, LEED AP and Frédéric Côté, Assoc. AIA
Step into any café in Palo Alto, a bar in a chic London hotel, or an airport lounge in Shanghai, and look around. What’s happening? Work? Socializing? Relaxation? Knowledge sharing? All of the above, in fact. From the first inns of Roman antiquity and the grand hotels of the Gilded Age to the business hotels of today, the exchange of ideas has always been as valuable as trading goods or conducting business.
With the Internet instead of spice routes, today’s knowledge economy relies on similar venues for workers to connect in order to learn new ways to think and create. Striving to be successful and stay competitive, employers want to encourage staff to be entrepreneurial and propose ways to improve business at all levels. The most progressive and admired companies have already abandoned the image of the cube farm in their headquarters. They are finding inspiration from outside the traditional office model to rethink how the workplace can be designed to support collaboration.
Since the 1980’s, amenities found in four-star resorts have helped hotels become both the home and office away. And as the workday has grown longer via smartphones and 7×24 operations, it is no longer uncommon to see telephone rooms, changing quarters, and touchdown stations as part of the office. Today, hospitality’s role in workplace design is only increasing as demands for optimal space utilization, changes in work styles, and pervasive mobile connectivity inform new ways of working. Taking cues from hospitality’s attention to detail and guest experience, the office also needs to engage employees that now have an array of choices of where to work.
The increasing variety of on-site amenities in the workplace is readily found in the high tech campuses of Silicon Valley. Originally thought of as recruitment tools, cafes, fitness rooms, and yoga studios were ways to attract and retain employees. Much like at a hotel, these specialty areas can enhance the day-in-the-life of an employee. As an example, we located the gym, laundry room, and a touchdown lounge adjacent to the bus loading area at a recent campus for Google in Mountain View, CA. This allows employees to take care of a few personal errands while waiting for their ride home.
The undisputed mainstay of the office amenity is the break room. Traditionally relegated to a windowless, interior space with a water cooler and coffee machine, the break room has evolved into a social hub due to the popularity of the neighborhood coffee shop. Study groups in cafés are a common practice for the students who make up the current wave of young professionals. This generation prefers working in this kind of active space. On tech campuses, companies hire baristas not only to meet the volume of traffic but also to recreate the café experience from beverage to service (as well as save employees’ time and keep the coffee room clean). For Dolby Laboratories, we capitalized on this idea by locating a café in the center of the open office to foster socializing and support impromptu meetings. Located in a neighborhood of workstations, the break room also serves as a “scrum room” for the adjacent work group. Drawing inspiration from the café menu board, we chose blackboard paint as the surface of the pantry doors. Employees can jot down ideas that quickly come up in brainstorming sessions or in a spontaneous meeting.
Conversely, shared co-working environments like Sandbox Suites and The HIVE have evolved out of a need for the current generation of mobile workers and consultants seeking a more professional or permanent setting than the coffee shop. The benefit to these flexible work solutions is the unplanned exchange of ideas by peers working in other fields.
Densifying the workplace is also a common business goal in the new economy. When meeting the needs of rightsizing, striking a balance between users losing individual space and gaining shared space often means combining attractions in the office. The multiple uses of a break room or lobby are just two examples of double-duty creative spaces. However other parts of the office program can have an even greater impact on the overall footprint of the workplace as well as culture of the company.
These days, space and time are both luxuries, so “red carpet” lounges provide those hideaway moments similar to what one finds at in hotels or spas. Often carved out of corners of the workplace, these lounges take advantage of otherwise underutilized nooks and crannies.
For the law firm of Keker & Van Nest, a former warehouse provides a unique space that suits the firm’s culture and identity. A stand-alone lobby with a custom reception desk, waiting area, and mural by a local artist greets visitors and employees before heading upstairs to the offices or to the neighboring conference center. Viewing work as an extension of home, the partners wanted the conference center to have the appointments and features of a boutique hotel. We designed a suite of conference rooms with a dedicated concierge desk near the building’s storefront. Like a hotel conference center, the space can be divided into three separate rooms by way of acoustic, accordion doors to hold client meetings, case briefings, or depositions. With the doors open, the rooms double as an event space for larger engagements and social functions. On either end, custom glass and steel wall panels stack aside so the conference center can connect to adjacent lounge areas and a bar. An open kitchen, breakout area, library-style lounge, and smaller meeting rooms are located on a mezzanine level and provide a respite from the social activity below.
The connection between indoor and outdoor spaces is also a model now prevalent in hotels, homes, offices, and public buildings like museums and learning centers. Intuitively, we have always known the positive value of nature for our health and productivity. Research by organizations like the USGBC and the value of sustainability both prove and demand that daylight in the workplace promotes well-being. This includes the addition of other features like showers and bike racks that facilitate healthier commuting, exercise, and using outdoor spaces. A resurgence in the use of natural sustainable materials in commercial applications has also changed the look of the office; reclaimed wood and organic materials like wool, felt, and living walls contribute to a softer, more residential aesthetic.
For our client TRX, the company’s mission to promote well-being through movement was the driving force behind its headquarters office and its goal to pursue LEED certification. We were challenged to rethink conventional models of stationary work. Incorporating a fitness room where employees can conduct training exercises tailored to their products proved a good start. Adding a rooftop terrace for outdoor workouts, a juice bar, and shower rooms reinforced their own culture and brand as well as meeting their sustainability goals. However the client’s own initiative to use medicine balls in lieu of task chairs at desks was the most radical decision that blurs the line between recreation and work.
In our research, we have found that the ability to collaborate with co-workers and having access to more robust technology are the two most important reasons employees give for coming into the office. Applying this finding to office design at large, today’s workplace needs to foster connectivity, both personally and digitally.
A creative, sensitive approach to design allows for this hospitable environment where the office is an enjoyable and healthier place to be. And whether spice, silk, or information, the next emerging economy will still be rooted in the sharing of ideas and cultures. One thing we are certain about is that the office environment will continue to evolve by providing a menu of ways and places for individuals and teams to spend the workday.
Alison Woolf is a Senior Associate and Senior Designer at Huntsman Architectural Group with a background in collaborative workplace, hospitality, and residential design. Frédéric Côté is an Associate and Senior Designer whose expertise includes building renovation of single and multi-family residences and corporate office interiors.