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Power to the People

By Michelle Taute

When interior designer Deborah Elliott, IIDA, ASID, meets with new clients, she often hears a familiar refrain: "Don't make me like one of those dot-coms." Companies buckling down to weather the economic downturn don't want to bear any resemblance to failed Internet companies. However, they are learning lessons from other companies' workplace strategies. The burst of the Internet bubble may be old news, but it's still having a powerful effect in the office-design industry.

For Elliott, a principal with Carrier Johnson in San Diego, that means a reluctance to take risks with alternative office design. Corporate America equates "wild" tech company offices with embarrassing bottom lines. Workers worry about job security. And designers turn their noses up at spaces that are only different for the sake of being different.

While businesses content themselves with the status quo, designers have learned lessons from the fall of the dot-com. A powerful new movement is on the rise in today's office environments: individualism. The workers themselves will define the "office of the future" with choices for where, when and how they work.

Franklin Becker, Ph.D., Professor and Chair, Department Design and Environmental Analysis, and Director of International Workplace Studies Program at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., takes that concept a few steps further. "Ten years forward, young people will choose workplaces partly on what they can learn and how they can grow," he says. "Standardized systems won't survive long term."

Changing Landscape

Because people are seeking more balance between work and family life, employers are offering everything from custom-made schedules to work-at-home arrangements. These lifestyle issues will continue to drive workplace change over the next decade. "Young, unmarried people have different attitudes and needs at work than 40-year-olds with kids," Becker says. "We're going to have to recognize and accommodate these differences to retain workers."

The workplace of the future will be tailored to meet all types of needs and differences—whether it's personal working preferences, job function or age. Elliott believes alternative office locations will jump to the next level of popularity: satellite spaces. Off-site work locations will allow employees who live miles away from the central office to check into airports, hotels and cyber cafes as natural extensions of the business center.

Future laws and regulations also will make a splash. "I can see there being legislation regarding commuting that could potentially force the break up of large campuses and buildings," says Jeff Reuschel, Manager of Ideation for Haworth Inc., Holland, Mich. "That would have a pretty profound impact on everything from site selection to how the buildings get constructed to distance communication."

As the economy heats up, Reuschel believes companies will face even greater worker shortages. That means design will, once again, become a competitive tool for attracting and retaining talented workers.

Pockets of Innovation

Putting human needs first already is intrinsic to the design process in parts of Europe. Alexandra Martini, a partner in the Berlin-based firm Martini, Meyer, says her company has never designed rigid offices. "We think of new ways of working," she says. "Breaking from convention gives the individual places of interest like community spaces and lounges." Her theory is that relaxed workers really can concentrate and be creative—even if that means reclining on a couch instead of sitting at a desk.

Martini has gained international attention for her firm's office design at a German post-production house called Das Werk AG. Many of the resulting rooms, which feature bright, colorful furniture that wraps up walls and even crosses the ceiling, look more like futuristic play areas than a traditional office. The workspace is based on a concept the firm created called "long-medium-short-endless." It uses space and time abstractly to meet the physical and emotional needs of employees who put in long hours. "Everybody is an individual, and every workplace is individual," she says. "We always strongly research who is working in a space and what their needs are."

Designers on the other side of the Atlantic also embrace a broader, more diverse definition of ergonomics. As Becker puts it, they take the concept beyond the basics of minimizing pain and discomfort in a repetitive environment. He appreciates the Scandinavian approach, where many companies offer people the chance to change their working style throughout the day. There might be stations conducive to standing up a few hours -- a position that can help reduce back pain—as well as places to work in reclining or other alternate postures.

Dreams Meet Reality

Cultural differences are the biggest barrier to expanded consideration of human needs in the U.S. workplace. Designers have a hard time selling bottom-line oriented executives on spaces and amenities viewed as optional expenses. In some companies where communal spaces are the norm, those relaxed areas go unused. Employees are loath to sit on the couch in the lounge if the boss automatically views that time as slacking rather than valid work. These attitudes will slowly fall in the coming years as designers create viable, individualized spaces.

"People are not swayed by statistics," Becker says. "They are swayed by evocative stories of what works and examples of what other companies are doing." He believes workplace choice can be made viable by learning what computer firms and others have done with mass customization, which combines efficiency with variety and choice. Rather than doing one-off designs for individual departments or people, designers can strike a middle ground by using a rich menu of shared spaces that offer real choices and variety in working environments. These could be in addition to—instead of replacing—individual offices or workstations. It's not that one office framework is correct or best, Becker says, but that every environment needs requisite diversity.

He's also impressed by the mass customization offered by Dell computers. Consumers can order the features they want from the company, and both parties save money. It's a model he'd like to see translated to office design. Another key to the puzzle may be getting design professionals to work more closely together. "There's not quite a connection between architecture and interior, not quite a connection between building and furniture," Reuschel says. "There's an overlap rather than a gap." He believes there are some fairly valuable lessons to be learned if everyone involved in creating an office environment worked in greater tandem.

Next Steps

The lesson of the day: Don't throw the baby out with the bath water. "Dot-coms failed because they had useless business plans, but their workplace strategies were pretty good," Becker says. "They were able to generate enormous energy and innovation for their people." Now it's up to designers to harness that spirit of innovation as office design continues to change and evolve.

The question is no longer whether open office designs are superior to private ones or whether alternative setups are better than the traditional variety. The new goal is to provide workers with a menu of options. "What's happening is a wide variety of choice in where, when and how people work," Becker says. "To a point where the whole notion of alternative officing disappears."

Who's the Boss?

Every employee knows the pecking order in a company, regardless of whether it's reinforced by traditional office design. It's the clients and customers who may need a few clues when they walk into an alternative environment. "I actually think we might learn something from the military," says Franklin Becker, Ph.D., Professor and Chair, Department Design and Environmental Analysis, and Director of International Workplace Studies Program at Cornell University. "There is zero question about status and rank. They do that through patches and insignias."

Becker thinks one ought to consider whether a similar system could work in the office. Different types of jewelry or lapel pins might replace corner offices as the next big status symbol. Anyone who cares to know an individual's standing can figure it out with a quick glance.

Another option is to take a cue from the Japanese. "Every customer wants to deal with someone who is important," Becker says. "In Japan, they use high-image conference rooms to convey status." As a result, the customer feels he or she has been treated well without ever stepping into an individual worker's space. It's another way to work around the rigid ranking systems built into many traditional office designs.

Rules Have Changed

Larger corporate culture issues overshadow the success of any design effort. Designers must navigate this ever-changing landscape, and observation is valuable well above surveys or figuring out the amount of space available per person. "Spend time in the setting," says Franklin Becker, Director of Cornell University's International Workplace Studies Program. "It takes someone who can be a careful observer. What's the pattern?"

Once you've seen the office in action, Becker suggests asking questions—even seemingly naive ones—to gain more insight into the culture. Why do those people have offices with doors? Why doesn't anyone use this lounge area? The answers to these questions form the basis of a dialogue for what kind of workplace situation will work in the culture.

Another tactic is to rely on solid scientific research over casual surveys or intuition. "I would like to see us base our decisions on what we know rather than guesses," says Jeff Reuschel, Manager of Ideation for Haworth. "I see research that substantiates things that already exist." He'd prefer the research came first, so changes could truly improve people's working situations. It's an approach that may eventually prove far more powerful than case studies and surveys.

Ultimately, there's only so much that design can do in the face of an office culture that's gone astray. Designers can talk with management about making changes and create systems that work with the current management style. An office design alone, however, can't correct poor management structure or other business issues.