Making space for minds to thrive in the freeform office

15 December 2011 -


Unorthodox spaces designed to inspire staff are replacing open-plan offices in America, writes Leon Walker

Whizz-kids coding in ski gondolas while analysts move from “huddle-room” meeting to table-football brainstorm on scooters, accompanied by their Bernese mountain dogs. Is this a bad dream? Guess again. Welcome to Google. Welcome to the modern workplace.

The internet giant’s idiosyncratic interior design may well be a world away from the aesthetics of your office, but its lava lamps and massage chairs represent the vanguard of an increasingly free-form and relaxed approach to office aesthetics. Yet, as modern as it may seem, the approach has its roots at the very beginning of the 20th century.

Man with an open-plan

Arguably, the first nod towards the accommodation of workers’ needs in office design came from US architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo, New York. Built in 1906, the building was revolutionary in the way it was designed to be attractive to female workers through an on-site YWCA and lunch hour pipe organ concerts – presumably the ski gondolas and scooters of their day. The building was also a pioneer of open-plan design.

But, despite early experiments in open-plan space, it was not until the advent of the 1950s German school of Bürolandschaft – which took its cues from the socialist views of 1950s Europe, – that worker/management integration became a fixture in the workplace. Major office furniture company Herman Miller later jumped on this concept to provide a rapidly expanding middle-management tier with mobile, miniature workspaces. Herman Miller gave its product the rather grand name Action; you probably know it as the cubicle.

All open-plan workspaces based around the cubicle can be traced back to Herman Miller’s Action office. Yet the democratisation of information, ideas and the quest for a work/life balance have led to the proliferation of even more fluid workspaces, like those at Google. In the most progressive of workplaces, the design is now aimed at offering flexibility to the worker, allowing them to make the choices as to where and how they want to work. Businesses hope that the increased freedom will lead to clearer minds and better output.

“It’s a big deal,” says Cornell University’s Professor Franklin Becker, who has written extensively on the subject of workplace design. “The flexibility of working practices that used to be the reserve of upper management has, in a way, been pushed down to rank-and-file workers.” And it’s not just hi-tech, youth-focused companies such as Google that are adopting these practices. 

Embracing the happiness drive

Scan Health Plan specialises in pensioner health insurance. It has recently incorporated café-style enclaves, private “phone-booths” and brightly coloured contemporary furniture to its office. Scan’s statement of intent was to provide an office updated with “panache and entertainment”. “Ten years ago they would have had completely traditional offices,” says Professor Becker.

But office design is not just about aesthetics, it is also about encouraging a certain work culture. Battery 621 in Denver, Colorado, is one of a new breed of shared workspaces popping up in major cities across the world. Owned and operated by design company The Public Works and media firm Wink Inc, two of the dozen or so companies that call it home, the 30,000 sq ft facility aims to build productiveness and success by nurturing an energetic, creative atmosphere through cohabitation.

“Tenants can be pretty small companies,” says Mike Arzt, co-owner of The Public Works. “But they can reap the benefits of the energy of having more people around them. People come to work with a different mindset. There were always going to be some issues sharing space with different companies. But, on the whole, these problems are outweighed by everyone’s happiness.”

That is a key word: happiness. Although US firms are leading the way in inspirational workplace design, there are moves afoot in the traditionally more conservative UK too. Award-winning interior consultancy Peldon Rose has embraced the happiness drive with gusto, by acting on research by University College London that reveals proximity to green space improves employee well-being and designing a roof terrace for Capsticks Solicitors LLP. “Designing green areas outside the office where staff can go for a change of scenery can be a great morale booster,” says Jitesh Patel, Peldon Rose chief executive. Anyone fancy stretching their legs? My Bernese is keen.

Be a space ace

DO think about what you are trying to achieve

If you are looking for a relaxed free-form approach to the work culture in your office do “a Google”. But, if you need to cut costs, a ski gondola is probably not the most efficient use of space.

DO consider furnishings

Studies have shown that many people naturally concentrate better when reclined – think about how people put their feet up on desks or lie on a sofa while reading. With this in mind, is the straight-backed chair the best choice for your office?

DON'T encourage clutter

It doesn’t mean you’re working harder; it just makes the place less inviting.

DON'T alienate your workers

Respect their needs and their time at work will be more comfortable.

Image of quirky office courtesy of RedTango / Shutterstock

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