2016 Trends in Office Design: Think Outside the Cube

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Office design is an underappreciated component of employee engagement and productivity. According to a 2013 U.S. Workplace Survey from architecture and design firm Gensler, "only one in four U.S. workers are in optimal workplace environments. The rest are struggling to work effectively, resulting in lost productivity, innovation, and worker engagement." When employees are uncomfortable in the office space they occupy, they tend to under-perform and become flight risks. What's the cost in terms of lost productivity due to bad office design? U.S. News and World Report broke it down like this:

Most companies pay office workers about 20 times more in salary and benefits than they pay in rent. Thus, if a 10% savings in office rent results in a 10% loss in productivity, then for every ten cents of savings the company is losing two dollars.

What Drives Office Design Trends?

Mobile technology is one of the biggest trends, untethering employees from desks and allowing them to work anywhere, anytime. A growing flexibility in working arrangements that allows employees to come and go at different times of the day or week is a major driver, as well. Workers can perform many functions remotely, perhaps from home. Employees who are in the office may also find themselves working alongside freelancers, independent contractor and consultants.

Another trend-driver is the expectation that office design should foster a collaborative, creative working style. Millennial employees — those born in the early 1980s through the early 2000s — who are now the most represented generation in the entire U.S. workforce according to Pew Research, place a strong emphasis on collaboration. Perhaps because they grew up with mobile technology, they don't often make strong divisions between workspace and homespace, or even a third space such as a coffee shop or park bench. They can work almost anywhere, anytime and reject the bygone notion of spending all day behind a desk.

3 Major Office Design Trends

1. Home-Like Offices

Millennials want to be comfortable when they work long hours in the office. So a major trend in workspace design is the office that feels like a cozy home or college dormitory. A snack area, one fully-stocked at the company's expense, is almost a must-have these days. Plush couches for lounging around, as well as plants, natural lighting and maybe a ping pong or pool table, are also part of this office-as-cozy-home trend. Any company that offers employees flexibility to come into the office or not had better make the office an attractive, comfortable place to work. If not, employees who can stay at home will choose to stay at home or maybe work at their neighborhood coffee shop.

2. Multi-Purpose Workspaces

Office designers need to adapt physical space to the increasing diversity of the U.S. workforce. Small project teams, for instance, might need a table to accommodate six people who are working or meeting together. White boards available around the office for brainstorming sessions may also be critical. Lounge and snack areas can also be spaces for one-to-one coaching sessions or spontaneous social interactions that can turn into cross-disciplinary collaboration. Office space should promote transparency and support different purposes, from individual immersion to small and large group meetings to quiet, restorative reflection.

Just as space should support collaboration, it must allow for privacy when needed. If a sales person is negotiating a big contract with a new client, the interactions shouldn't happen in an open space for all to see and hear, but in a more private space, such as a small conference room or phone booth with a closed door. If an employee needs to make a personal call, for example about a sick child, a private space must be readily available. Multi-purpose spaces effectively balance the need for collaboration with the need for individual focus.

3. Modular Layouts

As space and function become increasingly interchangeable, modular layouts are far preferable to fixed ones. Modular layouts allow companies to move furniture around quickly to meet their evolving needs. As Scott Lesizza, principal at Workwell Partners, explains it on Officing Today, "Workspaces will be customizable and multi-purpose, almost entirely eliminating the need for dedicated workstations." If the CEO calls an all-hands meeting, for example, community tables could be moved to open a larger space for the meeting.

The Takeaway

Office design matters, certainly to employees inhabiting a workspace. As working relationships become more flexible and mobile technology allows people to work almost anywhere and anytime, workspaces must match this burgeoning flexibility. Since employee productivity is becoming more about sharing information and collaborating, physical space must support these goals by literally breaking down walls and allowing space for creativity. With growing demands on companies and employees to be more adaptable, the same holds true for office space. Thinking outside the cube is a must in order to engage and retain your talent.