6 Open Office Design Tips that Increase Productivity

Furnishings and space layout play a vital role in the success or failure of open office design. But an intuitive layout and fun furniture alone won’t ensure a productive open office workspace.

The best open office designs account for all factors that affect productivity, such as comfort, noise and ease in finding a space to work. Create a well-rounded design that supports workers’ needs with these six pro tips.

Open Office White table

Photo: Ceilings make an important impact on scale and acoustics. The Boston office of the Bridgespan Group has a white drop ceiling that makes this workspace feel bright, yet cozy. Credit: CBT/Anton Grassl Architectural Photography

1. Account for Thermal Comfort

As an interior designer, you probably can’t choose the HVAC system, but you can group like spaces together to make it easier to zone the HVAC. Dave Madson, principal at CBT, an architecture, interior design and urban design firm, recommends anticipating how a space will be used and by how many people first.

“It’s about being smart with the zoning and putting similar anticipated tasks and densities of people on one zone,” Madson explains.

“Think about a huddle room with an open office space right outside. The second people go into the huddle room and close the door, the temperature will start rising. Turn on the wall display and it will increase the temperature even more. Make sure the engineers understand the intended uses of each of the different spaces.”

Open Office people working

Photo: Consider putting open-plan and respite spaces along the perimeter to maximize the value of the daylight the space receives. Credit: CBT/Anton Grassl Architectural Photography

2. Encourage Environmental Exposure

Consider putting open and group spaces along the perimeter and saving the private offices for the interior of the space, recommends Angie Lee, vice president of buildings for Stantec, a global design firm. Ample natural daylight can reduce your need for artificial lighting, and employees appreciate the view.

Use glass fronts for interior private offices so that they can utilize any daylight that penetrates into the core.

“Access to daylight is incredibly important in a space,” Madson says. “The fewer walls or barriers you’re putting up near the exterior, the better.”

Open Office Stairs in center

Photo: Glass fronts on perimeter spaces allow daylight to penetrate further into Base Camps core. Credit: Bruce Quist

3. Make Smart Surface Choices

Walls, ceilings and floors all have important roles to play in creating workspaces where people can thrive. Walls in huddle or brainstorming rooms are a great place for whiteboard paint. Lighting brightness and luminaire types can help differentiate spaces for each other.

For example, a place intended for focus or quiet could have calmer, more serene lighting from wallwashers or an indirect luminaire on the ceiling, while a collaborative space might have brighter lighting with visually interesting pendants that engage people.

Ceilings go hand in hand with lighting, Madson adds. “Changing the height of the ceilings or going from an open ceiling to something that might bring the scale down helps, too,” he says. “Your mind subconsciously understands that there’s something different about this location vs. that location as you’re walking through the space.”

[Related: Smart Design for Shared Spaces]

Madson also suggests using flooring and finishes to set spaces apart. Visual and textural differences indicate to users that they’re entering a new space.

Hallways might have a certain treatment to suggest that they’re pathways, while a casual, information destination like a huddle room might have an area rug or a plush shag carpet to invite people to stay.

“Changing flooring as you’re walking—not only the color, but the materiality—is also a great subconscious cue,” Madson explains. “When you move from carpet onto polished concrete or tile, your footsteps feel and sound different. It’s a signal that this is a different type of space.”

Open Office Long Hallway

Photo: Employee wellness was an important consideration for Interface during the planning stage for Base Camp, its Atlanta headquarters, which was designed by Perkins+Will. The flooring giant opted for thicker glass to help block distracting traffic noise from outside. Credit: Bruce Quist

4. Implement Strong Wayfinding Cues

Create interior landmarks, such as art or familiar views, to help people orient themselves within the office, Lee recommends. Surfaces can also serve as a wayfinding device in addition to their other roles in the office.

“One of the strategies we use in planning is that there are always viewpoints, sightlines and key interior landmarks that will orientate people,” Lee says. “It could be wall art. It could be sculpture. It could be a sightline toward a formal collaborative space that looks different from this side of the floor vs. that side of the floor, or a sightline toward the outdoors.”

Chip DeGrace, chief design officer of global commercial flooring company Interface, says designer Perkins+Will implemented varied floors and ceilings throughout Base Camp, Interface’s Atlanta headquarters.

“We use the floor for a lot of tactile and color differences to help you understand what floor you’re on and the function of the space,” DeGrace explains. “We have branded graphics on the core walls and color changes, which is fairly traditional when it comes to differentiating floor to floor. But because that’s what we do for a living, the floor is pretty amped up.”

Open Office Chalk Board

Photo: Thoughtful respite spaces allow people to recharge and connect with coworkers. At Base Camp, Perkins+Will’s biophilic design for Interface makes ample use of neutrals, natural daylight and wood, including these log-like end tables. Nearby wall graphics assist with wayfinding. Credit: Bruce Quist

5. Pay Attention to Acoustics

Concerns around privacy and noise are not to be taken lightly in open office design. Poor acoustic design makes it harder to work.

“If you don’t have any acoustical barriers in the office, you’ve got an acoustical problem,” explains Andrew Cisisly, Western regional director of sales for HAT Contract, a contract office furniture company.

“The real question is, how are people adapting to this? They’re putting on headphones, making calls in other areas and talking lower because there are no barriers in front of them. They’re adapting, but there is a problem.”

There are a few things you can do to improve acoustic performance in existing spaces, such as:

  • Designating smaller enclosed spaces as huddle rooms
  • Installing phone booths or privacy pods for one-on-one meetings and private phone calls
  • Sound masking
  • Acoustic retrofits, such as panels and baffles
  • Spray-on acoustic material for exposed ceilings
  • Light fixtures made with acoustic materials such as felt

“One of our favorite materials is FilzFelt,” Madson says. “It’s a natural wool material that you can put almost anywhere, whether it’s on the wall, the ceiling or a fixture. K-13 is our go-to spray-on ceiling—you can color it, and the before and after of what it can do acoustically to a space is amazing.”

Perkins+Will’s acoustic plan for Interface’s Base Camp starts with smart layout. Private, assigned pods break up runs of workstations so that the office doesn’t have too many workstations grouped next to each other, creating a noise buffer. Circulation paths separate the workstations from lounges, libraries and other collaboration spaces.

Base Camp also uses sound masking and movable panels.

A holistic approach to acoustics is key to creating spaces in which clients’ employees can succeed, Madson explains. He recommends keeping track of the acoustic qualities of products in the space. If you use a hard surface such as tile, make sure you add a sound-absorbing element, such as panels, baffles or an acoustic wall relief.

Open Office Sunlight

Photo: Thoughtful respite spaces allow people to recharge and connect with coworkers. At Base Camp, Interface’s biophilic design makes ample use of neutrals, natural daylight and wood, including these log-like end tables. Nearby wall graphics assist with wayfinding. Credit: Bruce Quist

6. Culture

Organizational culture should drive not just the adoption of the open office concept, but the way you create open office designs for your clients. Understand what your clients need by understanding their culture. You can accomplish this by getting to the heart of what the people who are using the space want and need.

Consider conducting organizational surveys with employees and make sure your design charrettes include a representative sample from across your client’s organization, not just a few key decision-makers.

“Any organization that’s embarking on a new workplace design, whether it’s a slight modification or an enterprise-level workplace strategy, needs to weave change management into the conversation,” says Lee. “Designing spaces is getting space ready for people, but change management is getting people ready for the space. The two need to go hand in hand.”

Successful open office design ultimately depends on the execution of the design and the organization’s willingness to embrace the new space. The right design for your clients is the one that mitigates common open office drawbacks, fits the existing office culture and makes it possible for everyone in the space to do their best work.

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