A high-functioning office will balance collaborative work areas and a variety of spaces that support individual focus.
For decades, corporate office layouts have fluctuated between fully open and partially enclosed workspaces. But the latest swing back to fully integrated, collaborative work environments has generated a myriad of complaints about a lack of privacy, both acoustic and psychological. To balance our clients’ needs for real estate efficiency and staff comfort, we aim to design an optimal balance of public and private space for a successful workplace.
The conversation about distractions in the open work environment is not just a hot-topic; it’s a valid and important consideration, particularly in light of research pointing to its benefits and shortcomings. In 2014, Maria Konnikova reported for the New Yorker that a study by organizational psychologist Matthew Davis found that open office plans fostered a symbolic sense of organizational mission although “compared with standard offices, employees experience more uncontrolled interactions, higher levels of stress, and lower levels of concentration and motivation.”
As designers of the workplace, we recognize the need to balance collaboration and access to coworkers with heads-down time to focus. This equilibrium that drives employee satisfaction is often identified as “flow.” One of my favorite examples of this concept is social theorist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Ted Talk “Flow: The Secret to Happiness,” in which he suggests that engaging in activities where you can achieve a state of “flow” will likely bring lasting satisfaction in what you do.
The Attributes of a Successful Focus Area
We understand the importance of focus areas to support an open office layout, but what details make these spaces successful? When laying out a new office space, we may use one of two planning methods to design successful focus areas. The first method is a zoning model, where focus areas are separate and buffered from typically noisy, social, high-traffic zones such as cafeterias, kitchens, lobbies, and open office areas where people tend to talk and create uncontained noise.
The second method creates a distributed model, or a neighborhood layout, which provides each open office area or team with its own focus zones nearby for easy transition from collaborative to individual work. This model implies power of permission, making it clear to employees that corporate culture supports the use of focus areas by employees at all levels.
Types of Focus Areas
Focus areas can usually be categorized into one of the following categories.
Focus or Phone Room
These areas have four walls and a door and are large enough for one or two people. These could be used for a conference call, so as not to disturb open office neighbors, or for heads-down individual work. Glazing in the door or side lite may have window film that provides privacy although occupancy is still obvious to a passersby. It’s important to design good acoustic separation between phone rooms and adjacent spaces to minimize sound transfer between rooms.
These are semi-enclosed spaces, surrounded by 2 or 3 walls and may be used for an informal or impromptu collaboration between two people, provided they are not too exposed to open office areas or circulation. On a physiological level, alcoves, nooks, and enclosed booths signal a degree of protection from the path of travel, while still maintaining a view of the surrounding environment.
The library is a medium- to large-size space, designated as a quiet area. It is understood that this space is a quiet zone where employees may sit together but work individually. Design features often include a communal table or lounge seating that does not encroach on the louder zones of the open office.
The perfect focus area may be different for everyone. Where a private room for one client works, a communal table in a “quiet zone” may not. Variety that speaks to each particular clients’ corporate culture is key.