print logo
© 2018
International Interior Design Association

Chicago, IL
Toll Free: 888 799 4432
International: +01 312 467 1950

Office Interface

By Eileen Watkins

Technology could soon render the office building obsolete or force it to evolve dramatically—as a retail center, a private club, a coffee house or even a monastery.

“With the increasing trend of people working in residential settings or in transit, large companies are seriously investigating the advantages of decentralization,” says Gervais Tompkin, AIA, Vice President in the San Francisco office of Gensler. “More and more, we are asked to style office environments to look like something else.”

Andrew Laing, Managing Director in North America for the international design consultancy DEGW predicts the office will become more significant as a branded environment, expressing the values of the organization. “Typically, clients have been interested in the efficiency and effectiveness of the office space,” he says. “Now they also care about how well it expresses the corporate culture—who they are.”

From a Distance

Telecommuting has not worked out as well as people hoped, observes Paul Van Riley, AIA, Principal with Riley & Rohrer, Baltimore. “It reduced verbal communication, and workers felt isolated,” he says. “Now many companies are bringing workers back into the office. Even those in field sales are now required to come in.”

Tompkin also sees a growing emphasis on the work culture. “Especially after 9/11, we’ve come to realize that your coworkers, to some degree, become your extended family,” he says. “The group of 10 people who work near you becomes your ‘tribe.’ You get to know each other’s tolerances, and everybody helps one another to get the job done. It’s a breaking down of ‘Dilbertville,’ which was characterized by having no individual or group identity.”

Take biotechnology firm Chiron, which wanted to foster interaction among employees when it hired San Francisco-based Brayton & Hughes Design Studio to design its 260,000-square-foot Life Science Center in Emeryville, Calif. “They wanted to attract the best and the brightest,” says Partner Stanford Hughes, AIA, “and some of the best ideas occur when you’re meeting and interacting with your colleagues.”

The facility demonstrates the emphasis on common areas and almost follows the lines of a hotel, with an “atrium lounge” providing a general gathering-place, and numerous public areas to encourage informal conversation. The design internalizes the offices, so they all look down on the common areas, and places the labs on the outside of the building. Workers have to pass through all the other spaces to get to them. “It creates many opportunities for spontaneous interaction,” Hughes says.


Tompkin believes that, up until now, video conferencing has been unsatisfactory. “You had to stop and wait for the other person to talk, because there were no physical or social cues.”

The next wave of technology, he says, will feature a video screen that takes up one wall of the conference room. An East Coast executive will sit down at a table that appears to complete itself on the screen. A West Coast executive also will sit down at the table, onscreen. The two will greet each other in real time, and begin their meeting. “It will be almost like looking in a mirror, but at the other person,” Tompkin says. “It’s still two-dimensional, but because of the distance it will have the illusion of 3-D.” Gensler already has designed one such setup.

Riley also sees wireless phones with video capability supplying much-needed visual information. “Person-to-person is still the best way to communicate, because you can see hand gestures and facial expressions,” he says. “We’ve found e-mail can be cryptic and easily misinterpreted. And on the telephone, if someone gets quiet, you can’t tell whether it’s because you’re infuriating them! With visual input, at least you can see that.”

More Creature Comforts

People accustomed to working from home will want homelike amenities when they return to the office, Tompkin says. “Mobile workers often reserve a desk in a temporary office—what we used to call ‘hotelling.’ Their interactions are out in the field with customers, and they use the office as a place to get organized and prepared.”

In this case, Tompkin explains, the office space becomes a version of home. Even if it consists of only a six-by-eight-foot cubicle with a work surface, a file drawer and a chair, it must have a “residential aesthetic.” He says manufacturers such as Metro are now experimenting with homelike designs, and Barbara Barry has designed elegant furniture for McGuire and HBF that works equally well in the home or office.

Kimball Office, Jasper, Ind., also has begun to respond to this need with a new “lounge collection” of seating that combines wood and metal with crisp, minimalist upholstery. Some pieces incorporate storage, tables and tablet arms. Kimball offers a retractable laptop arm that lets the worker lock up a computer when he or she leaves the cubicle. Horizontal tracks on cubicle walls can hold several flat-screen monitors, so people can work in pairs or teams.

Control Issues

John Newland, Industry IIDA, Chicago-based Director of A&D Marketing for Kimball Office, predicts that soon a worker will be able to control individual ambient and task lighting and office temperature. “After all,” he says, “if there’s a draft, or the lighting is too low or there’s too much glare, it all affects an employee’s productivity.”

Laing notes that designers already are paying more attention to controlling glare and managing heat gain from windows and agrees that heating/cooling systems soon will have more local controls. He also foresees office environments that will recognize and respond to individual workers. “When you enter a room and touch the wall or the table, it will know who you are and what equipment you need.”

Tompkin finds organizations are becoming far more responsive to the individual needs of employees in terms of the workspace. “With many of our large clients, we see control of the facility drifting from the chief financial officers to the senior vice presidents of human resources. They now see the facility as a human resource expenditure, as opposed to infrastructure.” He also sees purchases of office furnishings being guided by employee satisfaction surveys. “Instead of asking, ‘How much does it cost?,’ they say, ‘Here’s our budget—what do the people like?’ As a result, for the same cost, the facilities are a lot better—more centered on what will make people work more effectively and increase their satisfaction.”

Also look for a more widespread use of green materials and technology, says Riley. “I’m hoping to see greater use of recycled products, those made locally, and those with low toxic emissions.” He’s excited about the “harvesting” of daylight for both lower energy bills and better-quality light. “We’ve designed a skylight system with mirrors that capture the daylight and bring it inside. At the Solar Decathlon [held in 2002 in Washington, D.C.], I saw plastic rods that use sunlight but glow like fluorescents.” Riley’s firm tries to use both woods and paint with low volatile organic compounds. He notes that lumber firm Warehouser has begun cultivating a green hardwood that grows quickly, is replenishable and insect-resistant and resembles teak.

Rather than becoming redundant, the office of the future will serve as a hub where workers team up to share ideas and where sales and service personnel can regroup before going back into the field. As Tompkin says: “The office is not going away. It’s still a legitimate place to work.”

The changing nature of the workplace will influence design in one more way, according to Laing. “The office will become more significant as a branded environment, expressing the values of the organization,” he says. “Typically, clients have been interested in the efficiency and effective use of the office space. Now they also care about how well it expresses the corporate culture—who they are.”

Personal Space

Privacy is important to the office worker, but it’s not just a clear-cut question of the closed, individual office versus the open plan.

“Often there’s an assumption that you should have total acoustical privacy, that it’s not appropriate to overhear others,” says Andrew Laing of DEGW. “But many companies now want employees to hear work in progress, because they feel workers learn from each other.”

He points out that the conventional cubicle with high walls may not be acoustically private. Because the worker has no visual awareness of others, he thinks he can’t be heard and may speak loudly on the phone or with a visitor. “In a more open plan with visibility, people tend to lower their voices. Visual awareness of others affects behavior.”

He also has observed that some open-space environments can become too quiet, so that any noise becomes a disturbance, and the worker has to leave the area just to talk on the phone. “It’s better if there’s a general hum or buzz,” he says. “This enables you to make a quiet phone call, or have a small meeting, without disturbing others.”

Laing recommends that open-space work areas should be relatively quiet and away from traffic spots. Meeting and project team areas tend to be noisier and should be isolated in their own regions. “What we recommend is not simply a shift to open space, but to more shared enclosed spaces,” he says. “Smaller meeting rooms are shared over time by individuals or for collective activities. The workers then have access to spaces that let them do private work or make phone calls.”

John Newland, Industry IIDA, Chicago-based Director of A&D Marketing for Kimball Office, refers to the study released in 2001 by BOSTI Associates, which surveyed 13,000 workers from Fortune 500 companies—workers frequently requested privacy. “When a CEO tells us he wants an open office for more communication, we show him that if you give an employee some privacy, it encourages more open communication,” Newland says. “Coworkers may not visit each other as often with a low-panel system.”

Newland also likes the idea of an enclave of cubicles with ceiling-high walls, opening into a shared team area. “People can do quiet, focused work 60 to 80 percent of the time but can easily get to the central team meeting table to collaborate.”