Optimizing Interior Spaces For The New Workforce

Post by 
Noosha Hodges
June 30, 2020
The post-COVID world will give rise to new definitions of “optimization,” but many fundamental aspects of effective interiors will remain.

By Charlotte Wiederholt, President & Creative Director, Studio Other

Historically, with the ever-increasing cost of real estate and other concerns, there has been a push toward space optimization in commercial office interiors. Since the decision to commit to a space is a significant one, there is a natural desire to accommodate as many people as possible while meeting the organization’s goals.

However, the post-COVID world will undeniably give rise to new definitions of “optimization” in terms of headcount and space allocation. But many fundamental aspects of effective interiors will remain. Now is the time to review some of those concepts and blend them into the new framework over the months to come. Moreover, if done right, many of these best practices can contribute to a feeling of comfort and confidence as people return to work.

Evolution Continues

Twenty years ago, offices were typically populated by 8’x8’ or 8’x10’ desks with a big CRT resting on top, lateral files full of paper and overheads full of binders. Then it was 6’x6’, L-shaped stations, then 6’ straight stations.

The technology revolution became a primary driver and enabler of space optimization. People shuffle dramatically less paper, while using laptops and personal devices instead of large desktop computers. Along with these trends came an ability to bring more people into spaces.

In addition, an overall office space may have housed workstations, a small kitchen area and perhaps one reception area. Contemporary interior spaces have been developed to accommodate people plus one or more lounges, multiple cafes with pantries, collaboration areas, phone pods and conferencing spaces. In other words, the overall footprint may be the same, but the space has been broken up to serve a multitude of flexible uses.

People still want and expect to work in different ways. For example, the younger generation doesn’t want to be hemmed in sitting at a desk. Workstations in rows or cubicles are fading away. They want to be able to collaborate and interact with other people in different combinations. Responses have included an informal lounge, a sofa, or movable, modular tables.

These amenities are essentially a given, but how they are implemented may change significantly.

At Home in the ‘Hood

Alongside these ongoing developments in office, planning has been conversations around “neighborhoods.” It’s very similar to the philosophies of urban and city planning applied to the office.

Neighborhoods in office spaces often revolve around a specific identity. An example is a project in Boston that reflected different areas of that city with details captured in neighborhoods. The core idea is to give people a sense of place and of ownership while anchoring them in something that feels like a home.

Just as infrastructure is important for a city, so it is for an office space. Where do people “live”? How do we provide a convenient area for coffee with a refrigerator and microwave so they have a place to congregate within their neighborhood? How can recreation opportunities be offered?

This neighborhood concept is why we’ve seen integrated spaces featuring ping pong tables, sofas and lounge seating as well as areas that encourage collaboration, much like a community center. Meeting areas may include high-top tables or different open-plan meeting tables. The idea is to consider these amenities for the space at the planning stage so that teams feel like they’re supported in their neighborhood.

Another aspect not to overlook is paths of travel within, to, and from the neighborhood. This consideration also should address sources and levels of distraction for people working at their desks.

One technique is to make sure people are not located right next to a hallway or at least are next to a secondary hallway with less traffic and noise. A collaboration area or community space can be positioned on the primary hallway, with working spaces on the secondary route.

Window, Window on the Wall

In addition, we’re seeing that people want to get away from the window wall. It’s been an interesting flip-flop since traditional single offices were often placed around the perimeter window walls with other staff in the central area of the floor.

What we’re finding is that the variable heat and light near windows are causing discomfort. In fact, incoming light that is intense and bright can be quite distracting and even cause headaches. In addition, tech workers generally prefer to work at their computer screens in relative darkness, which also helps relieve eye strain.

For these kinds of reasons, many companies are pulling people away from the window wall by about two feet all the way around the perimeter. People can still have a nice view with some natural light and perhaps nature to see. This technique also helps heat and cool the space at a more consistent level.

Making It Unique

Custom furniture can create a marked difference for organizations and people within their spaces. There is no longer a desire to line up a set of rectangular desks in a grid pattern. Instead, it can be very exciting to explore organic shapes and break the space up so people are not simply facing directly across from each other.

Organic shapes fundamentally change the feel of the space by creating a much more dynamic environment. Simply put, it’s no longer just an endless sea of desks with Mary slotted at number 37 in row F. This approach also creates a more inspiring ambiance that reflects the organization’s brand and personality.

Other Goodies

There are several other techniques that can instill a feeling of individuality, privacy and flexibility to help people work productively.

Adjustable Panels
Adjustable desk panels provide easy options for various work needs. They can be lowered or taken off to collaborate with a neighbor. When an individual is on a deadline and needs to concentrate, they can raise the panel in 30 seconds to adjust their space. It’s important that this process be quick and simple. Other folks will simply set their panels in the up position and never adjust them. The point is that each worker has options to set up their space in a way that suits them best.

Easy Connectivity
Desks now offer ease of connecting devices, to facilitate sitting down and getting to work quickly. Those connections should include surface power as well as USB. Drawers can have charging on the inside or somewhere on the drawer. We’re also seeing in-surface induction chargers. Beyond convenience, there are health and wellness benefits in not having to get under the desk to try to connect things together.

Storage

In the “old days,” people typically had file cabinets or built-in lateral files or perhaps a mobile box file. These were fine for handling large amounts of printed materials. Now that the information is stored on a laptop or central server, people often come to work with just a personal bag or laptop case. On some days, they may have an extra pair of shoes or a gym bag. The answer is a single pull-out drawer in which to drop those items. Another option is hooks attached to the underside of the desk to hang these out of sight. There are also very simple, streamlined cases for such purposes.

In colder climates, there are often jackets and coats to address. That can mean allocating space for a 50”x24”x15” closet with a door. Alternatively, attractive sheet metal can be bent to provide a small hook on the inside. Or wood can be used.

The bottom line is that interior real estate will remain at a premium for all organizations and, in fact, may expand to accommodate distancing. The trick is in balancing economics with worker satisfaction and safety.

As President and Creative Director of Studio Other, Charlotte Wiederholt oversees a team of industrial designers, engineers and a customer service group. Her team works closely with each client to reflect and reinforce a distinctive culture through innovative interior solutions and a process of collaborative input and planning, conceptualization, prototyping, engineering, fabrication and installation.