Bye-bye, private office: Workspaces are all about openness
October 23, 2012
by Deborah L Cohen, Crain's Chicago Business
Chalk it up to a younger generation, technology that lets workers untether from their desks, the pressure to keep overhead down and a shift in cultural norms. Whatever the cause, more companies are opting to minimize the private office spaces that once separated higher-ups from underlings.
"I think we're in a transformation from me space to we space," says Todd Heiser, design director at Gensler, the firm responsible for open offices including the Merchandise Mart's 1871 co-working space and the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana. "We know that most successful companies collaborate more, they socialize more and they learn more."
Gensler found a direct link between higher profit and collaboration. Employees at top-performing businesses spend 23 percent more time working together than average companies, according to its 2008 workplace survey, which polled 900 workers nationally. The study suggests that effective office design correlates to improved business performance.
The push for more public space is playing out in design selections by companies throughout the Chicago area, from Groupon Inc. and technology incubators to traditional corporations such as Hillshire Brands, formerly Sara Lee Corp.'s North American meats business, which is moving to more open offices in the West Loop. Even tradition-bound industries such as law and accounting are embracing the trend.
"It's not necessarily where do I work, it's how do I work, who do I worth with," says Michael Berger, partner at architectural firm Partners by Design Inc., which designed the open offices on North Canal Street that house credit-card processing company Braintree Inc.
Some companies see these collaborative layouts as opportunities to showcase their work, providing more transparency to customers at a time when budgets are tight and every dollar counts.
"The power of the space to communicate our identity and who we are is very convincing," says Peter Dixon, senior partner and creative director at brand consultancy Prophet, whose West Loop location features collaboration space for employees and clients. "I would venture to say that the office has sold enough business to pay for itself."
Jennifer Nicks, director of operations at Two by Four, an advertising agency that occupies two floors at 10 N. Dearborn St., agrees. The agency's central open area has metal walls and whiteboards for brainstorming and bleachers for presentations.
"Sometimes we have client meetings out in the open area," she says. "It's easier to just walk your client through the work that's hanging on the wall during the concepting process."
Meanwhile, with the lines between home and work continuing to blur, real estate developers are giving more thought to elements that offer flexibility to workers, considerations that often translate into shared space.
Bradley Business Center, a 350,000-square-foot commercial space on the North Side that will house up to 15 business tenants, has communal spots that include a two-story glass atrium lounge, an event space and outdoor areas for grilling and recreation. Part of the roof will be dedicated to a large urban farm.
Concerns such as increased noise and lack of privacy can be overcome with the right planning, says Chantal Lapointe, an interior designer at Gary Lee Partners. On the plus side, an open design typically results in a smaller overall footprint and lower rent for the corporation, she says.
Even so, the United States is considered by some to be a latecomer to a movement that is already prevalent throughout Europe. And for many U.S. companies, the switch remains a tough sell.
Says Partners by Design's Mr. Berger: "America is about the great American frontier, and people want to understand what they own. People are hesitant to give up their space."
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