Eddy Wang | August 27, 2015

Office design offers a window into company values

When Wombat Security Technologies moved from North Oakland to the Strip District last year, the company listened to employee feedback and changed parts of its office design.

Marianne Chatham, software quality assurance manager, asked and got her request fulfilled: The software quality assurance and development teams now have lower cubicle heights. Ms. Chatham can see everyone, enabling her to communicate more quickly with her team.

Product manager Chris Luedde was initially skeptical of the lower cubicle heights and dog bone-shaped pod units but now admits, “I have completely changed my tune.”

Wombat also engaged in heavy-duty renovations to its Strip District office, tearing down walls for six offices to give employees more access to window light.

While Wombat’s office design was a success, in recent years there have been others who have criticized open plan offices, lambasting the excessive noise and loss of privacy.

In fact, “open plan office” is a catch-all term that encompasses almost any open office space, no matter how high the cubicle wall. According to a 2010 International Management Facility Association survey, 60 percent of office plans were defined as “open plan,” while 8 percent were “open seating.”

Open plan offices are defined by the association as “spaces/cubicles divided by movable partitions,” while open seating offices “have no partitions or are separated by low 30-inch partitions.”

So while many may imagine open plan offices as the one Ms. Chatham is a part of — where everyone can see everyone — in fact, tall cubicle offices that silo employees are also considered open plan. Noise and privacy levels are very different in these two types of offices, yet they are both considered open plan.

And for those who think open plan offices are a new thing, think again: The proportion of offices defined as open plan and open seating (compared to private, closed-door office plans) have each increased by only 2 percent since 1997.

In Pittsburgh, a variety of firms have implemented strategies within their open plan offices to enhance employee interaction and protect privacy.

Wombat’s two-floor, 16,800-square-feet office has a mix of public and private spaces. There are conference rooms for private meetings, a “common space” on each floor for companywide meetings, and a foosball table for stress relief.

The software quality assurance and development teams were granted lower cubicle heights, but the sales team has maintained higher ones because sales employees often want more privacy. Departments that often collaborate sit adjacent or close to each other for more convenient communication.

Eric Booth, principal and one of the owners of Desmone Architects, said designing open plan offices with areas of acoustical privacy is a challenge. He acknowledged that while the layout can ease collaboration, it can also become a problem for employees doing more concentrated work.

Higher cubicle walls, phone booths or impromptu conference rooms are all possible solutions for more privacy, he said.

His Lower Lawrenceville firm has an open plan layout and four private offices. At Desmone, first-floor employees sit in pods of two that are generally filled with one senior and one junior employee, a setup that allows for mentoring. Side tables that extend from the pod are useful for impromptu conversations, and there are stools outfitted for just this function.

Downtown’s Maya Design also tries to strike a balance. Yes, the design consulting company has an open plan, but desks are situated along the perimeter of the building with access to natural light and a view of the city.

Employees who want more privacy or a change of scenery can slide into booths for meeting, eating or working; close the door of the quiet room to take a nap; or congregate in circular meeting rooms called kivas.

Inspired by the eponymous social spaces built by the Anasazi Native Americans, Maya’s kivas are built with wraparound whiteboards. Rather than putting a rectangular table in the center, there are smaller desks and chairs that can be wheeled around to form different configurations.

Dutch MacDonald, CEO of Maya, said the abundance of whiteboards allow employees to draw and jot down ideas for all to see, which allows for multiple interpretations or recombinations of an idea.

Stephen Spencer, senior designer and inventor at the Downtown company, said his favorite spaces are the neighborhoods — clusters of desks where members of different departments sit across from and next to each other. A typical neighborhood can consist of at least one visual designer, engineer and researcher.

“It’s an uncommon way to work together,” Mr. Spencer said, noting that the neighborhood design encourages the exchange of different perspectives.

Neighborhoods at Maya are not only interdisciplinary. Mr. Spencer said the company also makes sure there’s a junior, mid- and senior level employee in each one. And for even more exposure to different ways of thinking, employees change seats once a year.

Traci Thomas, designer and researcher, said her favorite spaces are the booths. She said the booths feel private and cut off from the action yet still connected to the office space.

Jed Link, spokesman for the International Management Facility Association, said facility managers who wish to improve their office space should follow a three-step plan: identify the problem, use online and print resources to see what kind of office space is best for them; then measure the impact afterwards in a survey.

Like Wombat, the association surveyed its employees for feedback in 2013 before moving to another location within Houston.

To encourage inter-departmental interaction, the company instituted a new policy upon moving: no fixed seating.

Mr. Link said employees are more satisfied with the new location than the old, in part due to the new seating configuration. Although people move around, the company’s fairly small size — 60 to 70 employees — means department members don’t have trouble finding each other.

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