Observations on the Evolution of Workplace Design

By Jennifer E. Klein, AIA, Principal, DBI Architects, Inc.

As the design industry continues to focus on the evolution of workplace design, I find it interesting to take a few steps back and look at various projects that I’ve been involved in over the past several years where the design of the space really reflected the culture of an organization. There are three themes that seem to resonate for me:

  • Cultural change needs to come from the top
  • Form should follow function
  • Less is always more

Examples of that Evolution…

As a start-up company in the mid 1990’s, Winstar Communications approached their initial office space with the industry standard of perimeter offices and open cubicles. As the company grew, they started to think more about their corporate culture. In 1996, I attended a meeting with the CEO who asked if I could create an environment like the Ritz Carlton’s Tea Room for Winstar’s Executives. His rationale was based on the fact that the Executives in the company had large private offices and they spent most of their time traveling, leaving the offices unoccupied over 70% of the time.

The Executives would meet in different cities in spaces like the Ritz and found that they accomplished more in a living room-type setting than they ever did in their private offices with the doors closed. All they really needed to perform their jobs was an effective space in which to touch down, communicate with the other Executives, store their belongings, and accommodate an administrative staff.

The resulting design was a modern interpretation of the Ritz Tea Room, with a central coffee bar and a living room-like setting that incorporated all of the aforementioned elements and reduced their space needs significantly. This approach was quite visionary in the mid-1990’s as the impetus for the cultural change came from the top. Key to the cultural change was also implementing it first at the top. The Executives worked effectively with less in order to affect change throughout the corporation.

 © Prakash Patel
 © Prakash Patel
 © Prakash Patel

With the success of the first Executive Area, DBI was engaged to duplicate this effort in various cities across the U.S., and to translate this concept to all of Winstar’s office space– more one million square feet in at least 35 cities.

Workstation standards were set by work style and function. Sales workstations had 3:1 or even 4:1 ratios and hoteling policies were set in place. Corporate spaces were 1:1 ratios for full time employees. Each location had the same amenities and collaborative spaces as the Executive Area including a large coffee bar with touchdown spaces for the traveling sales force and a conference facility. These common functions were vertically stacked for easy wayfinding.

With Team rooms and support functions located on the interior, the naturally lit open workstation environment created a positive atmosphere which energized and motivated the workforce.

The workstation “kit of parts” was standardized utilizing one manufacturer and a corporate buying agreement was established. The standards were modified by finish palette only from one location to another to acknowledge the different climates and styles of a city. This accelerated time to market in terms of office set up and it significantly reduced the overall real estate footprint for the company.

 © Prakash Patel
 © Prakash Patel
 © Prakash Patel

The culture of our design studio has always been one based on collaboration, so we began the design process by hosting a brainstorming event for staff to further refine our program requirements and vision for the space.

One of our goals was to bring as much of the natural environment into the space as possible, allowing the seasonal changes to enhance our neutral palette and create a positive, energized environment.

Another goal was to encourage collaboration to occur throughout the space – one on one at the workstation with the addition of a seat pedestal, at a centrally located worktable in each bay, from bay to bay with the use of low height workstation panels and at the Open Coffee Bar where Lunch and Learns, Design Presentations and Social Events occur. The open bay worktables contain flat files and bins for storage of drawings and finish palettes.

The Coffee Bar has library storage below the perimeter banquette seating and a 140 foot long wall captures a row of structural columns and provides additional library storage, so every square foot is used efficiently.

There are Conference Rooms and a Team Room for private meetings and one shared office for private conversations.

 © Prakash Patel
 © Prakash Patel
 © Prakash Patel

While working with Google in 2007 on their DC Policy office, the goal was to provide an environmentally conscious, fun, modern office environment. Google, who has well established Corporate Design Standards that reflect the Google culture, believes that all square footage is to be used at all times, so almost all spaces are multi-functional. Collaborative spaces such as Huddle Rooms easily become 2-3 person offices. Phone Booths can be used for interviews, and the “Tech Cafà ©” can be used for “Tech Talks”. The Main Conference Room is separated from the Secured Reception by roll-up garage doors that open to create one large area for conferencing, training or entertaining. The Google standards right sized each space type to allow the optimal multi-functional use to occur.

Team collaboration and sharing of ideas can occur while meeting in one of the conference rooms or informal meeting areas, eating a free catered lunch, competing in the Game Room, lounging on a couch, or sitting in beanbag chairs. It’s the ultimate user-friendly space and it speaks to the concept that individual work and collaborative work can really occur anywhere, given the right environment.

What I found most interesting about Google was that even though they had standards established, they were non-manufacturer specific, leaving the door open for the best market pricing and encouraging the use of local products to populate their offices. As long as the Google standards were followed and the corporate colors were incorporated in the design, the outcome could have a very different look and feel for each space. Included in the standards were sustainable practices that reflected the right thing to do regardless of whether or not LEED certification was obtained.

 © Prakash Patel
 © Prakash Patel
 © Prakash Patel

In Summary…

I believe that, as architects and designers, the most important thing we can do is to communicate and collaborate with our clients to understand their work style so their space can effectively reflect their culture. And, if the new design creates a cultural change for a business, obtaining Executive buy-in is critical to the project’s success. But isn’t this really just part of the design process?

Throughout my experience, these three themes still resonate:

  • Cultural change needs to come from the top
  • Form should follow function
  • Less is always more

What are your experiences telling you?

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DBI Architects, Inc. I believe that, as architects and designers, we must communicate and collaborate with our clients to understand their work style and effectively design for their culture. And throughout my experience, these three themes still resonate: (1) Cultural change needs to come from the top, (2) Form should follow function, and (3) Less is always more. But what are your experiences telling you?" />