woman sitting in chair at end of hallway with exposed brick

(Photo by Shai Gil, courtesy of Dubbeldam Architecture + Design)

Features | From Pivot Magazine

The Great Divide

Tech giants popularized the workplace-as playground, a communal space where offices give way to hangout zones. But too much together time was a problem. The best new office spaces give people the freedom to roam, and places to hide out and focus.

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Tear down the walls. Or, maybe, put them back up again. These are the competing imperatives in office design today, as employers struggle to figure out how to accommodate shifting models of work, mobile technology, new employee preferences and that guy on the phone who just can’t keep his voice down.

What’s emerging is a new consensus: the open offices now in fashion won’t spur creativity and productivity unless they strike a critical balance between shared and private spaces. “What we’ve learned is that open office space actually doesn’t work,” says Toronto architect Heather Dubbeldam, “without space for people to focus.”

The conventions of office work have shifted since the 1960s, and the physical realities of office buildings have changed accordingly. The Mad Men norm of private offices for senior staff and cubicles for everyone else was rapidly altered in the 1990s by a new set of preferences among creative industries. Tech and media companies favoured less hierarchical organizations and more communication. This prompted the creation of large common spaces, where staff were meant to bump into each other and set off creative sparks.

With the rise of remote working and the growth of freelance and contract work, the office continues to evolve rapidly across sectors. Which leaves some difficult questions about office space unresolved: How do you work in a small cubicle when confidentiality is crucial? How do managers balance the competing imperatives of free-flowing collaboration and head-down productivity?

Deloitte: Its space is meant for hoteling. Each staffer has a locked drawer for possessions, and is expected, each day, to find a place to sit. (Courtesy of Kayla Rocca)

Deloitte Canada aimed to do just that when it combined seven Toronto offices into a new tower in the city’s downtown core in 2016. Working with interior design firm Arney Fender Katsalidis, Deloitte planned their space around “hoteling”: each staffer has a permanent locked drawer to hold possessions and is expected, each day, to find somewhere to sit. This made some nervous, says Deloitte vice chair and FCPA Jane Kinney. “We did a certain amount of change management to prepare people for a new space and new practices.” For Kinney herself, it meant saying goodbye to her permanent private office and constantly adapting to a new place to sit.

Now, she says, she loves it. For one thing, the office “is bright and beautiful,” she says. “I’m happy to be here, and I’m proud to bring clients here.” For another, the offices present a variety of different spaces—ranging from cubicle spaces to meeting rooms—all fully equipped with the cords and cables needed. “You choose the space that suits the work you’re doing for the day,” says Kinney. It’s expected, even encouraged, for staffers to shift around the building daily, choosing spots to be near—or away from—colleagues, as their work demands.

Staffers are encouraged to keep shifting around the building, to be near—or away from—colleagues, as needed

Such flexibility is becoming the new norm, and was built into the plans for Dubbeldam Architecture + Design’s redesign of a 23,000-square-foot office for the tech firm Slack in a downtown Toronto brick-and-beam building on John Street.

In the process, they looked at recent research and design projects, examining a number of open offices. One common problem: “The acoustics often are terrible,” Dubbeldam says. As staffers are trying to work, she says, they “are constantly distracted by people walking around, by conversation, on top of the constant distractions we’re all dealing with on our screens.”

Amazon: Its new campus in Seattle includes breakout workspaces called the Spheres, conservatories stuffed with lush foliage. (© Bruce Damonte, courtesy of NBBJ)

Endless communication and a surfeit of openness can reinforce a dystopian culture. Take Amazon. The company has embraced the open office, and its new campus in Seattle includes a lush open area called “the Spheres,” a conservatory stocked with tropical species that’s meant as a breakout workspace. And yet, while employees can choose a green, lush, seemingly un-corporate environment to spend the day in, the company’s culture has been characterized as a notoriously brutal one, in which employees are encouraged to harshly criticize one another’s work and to report their colleagues for poor performance. One former employee told The New York Times that “his enduring image was watching people weep in the office.” When you’re dealing with constant surveillance, cubicles with walls probably look like a good deal.

A healthier balance would encourage productivity while supporting people’s comfort and confidence. Dubbeldam describes Slack as thoughtful about the culture among its staff. Because its business is all about productivity—the company’s main products are communication apps that link colleagues—it put plenty of emphasis on getting its own space right.

To do so, the designers stepped away from one tech sector cliché: the office-as-playground. There are no slides or foosball tables here. This is a workplace, designed for productivity and also for humans.

It seems the ultimate un-corporate environment. But some see the corporate culture as less nurturing.

The architects dispensed with private offices, putting staff into open workspaces in areas that share access to natural light. But Slack staff in these open spaces have library rules: phone conversations and meetings are frowned upon in these areas, which are reserved for quiet work.

Chatting, including frequent teleconferencing, happens elsewhere. Breakout spaces that resemble restaurant booths are carved out of the interior walls, perfect for one person with a laptop or two for a quiet conversation. While the “library” desk areas are furnished and finished in neutral grey, social spaces are marked by vivid colours: red, blue, orange, purple. The perimeter of the building includes a series of lounges and meeting rooms, each again dominated by a strong colour palette.

two photos next to each other of slack's meeting rooms and boothsSlack: At the communications tech firm, restaurant booths create privacy, while lounges and meeting rooms support collaboration (Photos by Shai Gil, courtesy of Dubbeldam Architecture + Design)

Those colours echo Slack’s branding, and they also perform an important task of adding some vibe to the place. Dubbeldam and her team developed the metaphor of “threads of communication,” expressed in rainbow-coloured networking cables that run through the ceilings of the space; long, zigzagging light fixtures; and a felt installation by the artist Kathryn Walter. The textile metaphors build on a sense of place, drawing on the loft’s history as a knitting mill. But if a tech firm in an old loft building reflects one model of office design, what about employees in more buttoned-up sectors? They, too, are being moved around by new architectural thinking.

There are a variety of imperatives here. One is the desire of employers to operate out of more sustainable buildings, which offers payoffs for employee happiness too. According to a 2016 report from the World Green Building Council, “the design of an office has a significant impact on the health, well-being and productivity of its occupants” in ways that track closely with sustainability measures.

Open spaces with a grey palette have “library rules.” Social spaces are marked by vivid colours.

At the same time, as employers seek to reduce their environmental footprint and their costs, office workers are getting closer together. “Large employers are saying, ‘We want more people in less space,’ ” says the architect David Pontarini of Hariri Pontarini Architects, “and the real estate industry is being caught off guard.” The current rhetoric of “lean” and “agile” management has informed physical and organizational rethinks. Take Scotiabank’s Digital Factory, a sort of think tank devoted to tech and organizational change. For CIBC, that shift will be reshuffling head office staff into a new complex.

This means change for CIBC’s current headquarters at Commerce Court. This complex in Toronto’s central business district was designed by the architect I.M. Pei in the early ’70s. Now, with the bank moving out, its landlord QuadReal is doing a rethink of its own: it will tear down two low structures and add a new type of space—a tower with bigger, open, highly flexible floors, explains Pontarini, who is one of two architects, along with Dialog, designing Commerce Court 2.0.

Where a decade ago large employers were planning their offices with roughly 180 square feet per employee, Pontarini says, current designs account for about half that— roughly 90 square feet per person. Such tightly packed office floors put all sorts of technical demands on buildings—including the need for more elevators.

The redevelopment at Commerce Court, if approved, would include the bulky new tower, plus retail and room for some unspecified cultural programming. Already the bank tower’s lobby, designed as a pristine space for a bank branch, has been refitted with a caf. and casual couches. “It’s much like condo design,” Pontarini explains. “As the units get smaller, you drive people out to the cafés.”

But employers have to be smart enough to provide the caf.s themselves; too much work outside the office, as a Harvard Business Review article argues, creates all sorts of distractions. In other words, amenity space within the office itself is critical. Lounges, kitchens, outdoor terraces or green space offer staff somewhere to work with a laptop at their own pace or simply take a breath and return to themselves.

Texture and visual detail—like Slack’s exposed brick walls, nubby felt surfaces and rainbow hues—play a similar role. These elements respond to employees’ needs as people; they engage us and give us something to hold onto. This is a need that even the world’s most valuable company, Apple, has perhaps overlooked in its new $5-billion headquarters, known as Apple Park, designed by the architects Foster + Partners. That building bets heavily on the open-office model, and massive curved panes of glass connect the interior to the landscape. The problem: some employees found themselves walking into the glass and injuring themselves. Some boundaries are never going to disappear, as much as the most idealistic designer—or manager—might wish them away.