Are Activity Spaces the Cure for Open Offices?
JULY 14, 2021
A decade ago, the open-office layout was the darling of workplace interior designers. But by now, we've all heard complaints from its victims: poor souls in free-for-all offices who take more sick leave and are constantly distracted by interruptions.
Enter the game-changer: activity-based design. "We've seen a serious pendulum shift," says Melissa Wallin, co-founder and principal of the San Francisco–based interior design firm Design Blitz. "Ten years ago, even the HR person was in the middle of the office, and people were asking them about very personal things out in the open office. Now the pendulum is swinging back. We're starting to realize that the office is a complex place; it's layered, and it has to serve different activities throughout the day."
Activity-based design tries to address all the modes of work and play that happen in an office throughout the week. We talked with Wallin about some of the spaces—from the common to the quirky—that her team has designed to meet these needs.
Collaboration and Community
Photo courtesy of Design Blitz. Photographer: Bruce Damonte. Project: Malwarebytes Headquarters. Main work cafe.
The reason business leaders embraced open-office design in the first place was collaboration. They envisioned serendipitous "collisions," like a marketer and an engineer running into each other in the hall. But activity-based designs might be able to nudge people together with fewer distractions.
Meeting rooms are straightforward, but Wallin offers a few tips: They should be tricked out with the necessary ports and displays so that there are no technical hiccups, of course. But they should also be near desks. That way, strategists who suddenly land on a brilliant idea for a campaign don't lose the urge to continue brainstorming because the conference room is too far. Instead, they can easily switch into collaboration mode.
Outside the conference room, tech offices have also matured in the ways they encourage socializing. Where office leaders once asked for ball pits, they now ask for hospitality perks. Activity-based design for socializing focuses on the cafeteria or maybe a bar, ensuring there's a space for co-workers to take time away from their desks and chat.
"Food and drink are the biggies," Wallin says. "It can soften the blow of not having an office anymore: I don't have an office anymore, but I have a pool table! Or miso soup on tap!"
Workplaces are beginning to mimic best-in-class hotels. Wallin has had a few offices ask for a receptionist who doubles as a barista to make lattes for staffers and guests. "I'm trying to find out the ideal office headcount to support the barista/receptionist," she says. "I think it's 200 people, but I'm still not sure."
Photo courtesy of Design Blitz. Photographer: Jasper Sanidad. Project: Instacart San Francisco Headquarters. Open meeting and focus space with moss wall. Behind the glass is the wellness yoga room.
Once an office worker is overwhelmed by the open-office, they'll want a way to zone out periodically. "An optometrist will tell you, if you're looking at a monitor, go look at the mountains in the distance once an hour," Wallin says. "We need to do the same things for our minds to get some perspective, then get back at it."
In an open layout, it can be difficult to find peace. That's where activity-based design comes in. For the software company Malwarebytes, Wallin and her team at Design Blitz created a "zen den:" an acoustically isolated, sensory-deprivation zone with yoga mats and no phones allowed. "Lighting is dim and colors are soft. It can double as a prayer room and a meditation room. We've done other projects where it double as a lactation room."
But it's easier to design a relaxing space than it is to get people to use it correctly, Wallin says. Non-productive zones are a luxury to have in a place defined by productivity, but that doesn't mean workers should be ashamed to use them. "You have to respect it. You can't have a one-on-one meeting or make a phone call. It really has to be bought into on all levels." In large, busy corporations, "there's a recognition that we're asking [for] a lot of our workers' time—so we have to create breakaway spaces."
Heads Down, Private Work
Photo courtesy of Design Blitz. Photographer: Bruce Damonte. Project: Malwarebytes Headquarters. Small conference room and adjacent open-office collaborative meeting area.
It can be difficult to get work done in an open-office. For tasks that require an uninterrupted flow of concentration, like writing or coding, Wallin recommends areas of isolation. Private, sound-controlled booths—also known as "code closets"—can get the job done. For programmers, Wallin says her team creates "dark little caves."
The placement of these coveted spaces depends on the demand. For a team of salespeople, phone booths should be near at hand so that they can almost literally "hop on a call." But for workers who only need isolation every once in a while, it might help to keep booths farther from desks. That way, people won't automatically bunker down in a de facto private office.
Human resource workers in particular are hard to design private spaces for, Wallin says. "They want to be accessible and not scary, yet easy to chat with. But because of the nature of what they're doing, no one wants to be seen coming into HR." As a result, it can be difficult to balance openness with privacy. Wallin likes to keep HR in a closed-off room for privacy, but near the front door or the recruiter's office to give off welcoming vibes.
In the HR room itself, design choices are "very cuddly, very light, bright and happy" to keep people at ease in uncomfortable situations. "We look for high texture things in those spaces, furniture that feels residential and wallpapers and coverings that feel soft. Kind of like you went into your grandmother's sitting room, if you had a really cool grandma."
HR staff should advocate for activity-based design, Wallin says, because it'll help retain and attract employees. "When people feel supported—that something was built to support the tasks they're doing, and they don't have to fight against infrastructure—it makes happier people. That's really it."
Header photo: Design Blitz
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