When The Frontier Project, a Richmond, Va.-based boutique consulting firm, set out to design a new studio, they saw it as an opportunity to create a place that not only reflects their brand, but also amplifies the performance of employees.
The first time I ever understood my father’s professional success was when he dragged my brother and me to his office one weekend to grab some paperwork he had left behind. His desk sat in one of the few walled-off rooms with windows, clearly setting him apart. Over the years, his office morphed in ways that reflected increases in his responsibilities, title, and status: bigger, brighter, and even higher in altitude. I soon realized that an office could be a symbol of something greater: a person’s worth.
I started my own career in Detroit’s auto industry in the late nineties, the heyday for standardization and cubicles. Ford Motor Company, for example, still had specifications outlining the exact square footage, furnishings, windows and items a person was entitled to, according to his or her level. The more important you were, the better your space. That sentiment is perhaps why cubicles, which were originally designed to be flexible and promote collaboration, ultimately became the very embodiment of soulless corporate sameness, a visual representation of how easily employees could be replaced.
Today, of course, we see corporate America bucking this trend. Offices across the country are embracing the open office concept. No walls, no offices, no cubicles. Just expansive spaces designed to foster collaboration and communication. And yet, even this movement has its fair share of issues. (An open office is no doubt close to torture for the easily distracted or introverted among us.)
While it’s tempting to declare this evolutionary process a series of failed experiments, I believe it’s something more.
The way we work has changed drastically: laptops and smartphones have replaced the typewriters and Dictaphones of my father’s office. Today’s corporate workforce is made up of knowledge workers, whose capacity for creative thinking, problem solving, and analysis is critical to an organization. At the same time, organizations are flatter, yet more complex, operating with more demands and fewer resources. Employees are multi-tasking and working longer hours.
When The Frontier Project, the Richmond-based boutique consulting firm I currently work for, moved into our new studio last fall, we saw it as an opportunity to create a place that not only reflected our brand and ethos but also amplified the output and performance of our employees.
What we knew we needed above all else was flexibility. So we borrowed from the best of traditional office design as well as more creative office concepts to provide a variety of options, places, and configurations our employees could use as they see fit. We thought about the flow of the building in terms of work activity, then designated space accordingly so that we have six distinct functions: coworking, collaboration, concentration, social, private, and in-between (yes, that last one really is a designated space).
Walk through the front door of The Frontier Project, and you’ll see community tables instead of permanent desks. Employees claim a spot when they arrive and toggle between light chatter with colleagues and working on their laptops. Whoever arrives first chooses the music that plays over the speakers, which provides just the right level of ambient noise (70 decibels, according to researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana – Champaign).
The coworking space in our studio is where habitual work that requires small to moderate levels of concentration happens: email, administrative tasks, and the more mundane but necessary aspects of our jobs. The mundane, we’ve found, is a little more fun in this communal setting. As a bonus, the convenience of sitting in close proximity to so many colleagues often means emails are ditched in favor of faster, more productive conversations.
Most organizations value collaboration but give little thought to how space design actually helps or hinders this sought-after dynamic. In theory, open space like our community tables could serve as a place to collaborate; unfortunately, if there is too much talking in the designated coworking space, earbuds become standard equipment for anyone not participating in a meeting that needs to work. The value of the light chatter is lost.
Instead, we opted for comfortable, lounge-like vignettes for our collaboration areas. Visitors often comment that these living room-esqe spots are nicer than their own homes, which was a very intentional design goal. A study conducted by PWC in 2013 found that 64 percent of millennials want to work from home. Unfortunately, collaboration is contingent on having employees present. So we outfitted our collaboration spaces with furniture and accessories reminiscent of spaces we’d design for our homes (or better yet, our favorite coffee bars and hotel lobbies) in an effort to lure them from home and remote locations.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research on flow highlights the importance (and difficulty) of accessing the portion of the brain that houses focus, executive function, reason, and higher thinking for knowledge workers. One key requirement to get into this state of mind is to remove distraction. Many organizations have built huddle rooms as a refuge from distraction for work that requires flow. However, for space-constrained offices, this can be a real-estate intensive option often resulting in employees camping out all day in these designated spaces. So we borrowed a page from an old book and created a library, complete with a rustic wood table lined with table lamps and neutrally-painted walls lined with bookshelves. The design choices were functional. Drawing on Charles Duhigg’s work outlined in The Power of Habit, we knew that a library would serve as an environmental cue that would kick the brain into old habits of quiet, concentrated study and thinking. The rules of the room are clear: no meetings or conversations of any kind, on the phone or in-person. We’re even free to shush someone in the library.
One of the key drivers of engagement as measured by Gallup’s Employee Engagement Survey is whether or not an employee has a best friend at work. The right space design can facilitate social encounters that give rise to these critical friendships. In our studio, we opted to forgo the ping pong table and design space around the existing social habits of our team. Frontier employees love their coffee and don’t mind cracking open a beer near the end of the day. With that in mind, we built a large, open kitchen boasting a bar that encourages and invites employees to stay and socialize instead of going off-site for food and drink.
Admittedly, there are benefits to social space beyond cultivating friendships that organizations would be well served to promote. In his book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson explores the space where good ideas are birthed. In looking for patterns of behaviors among hotbeds of creativity across time and cultures, he celebrates the coffee house. Many of us credit caffeine as the fuel of genius; however, Johnson explains that the value of coffee houses lies not in the product they serve but the space it creates for great ideas to bump up against one another and multiply. (Take a look at his TED talk for some great visual illustrations of this concept.)
Collaboration and coworking are great, but there are both personal and business-related discussions that require discretion. A small room designated as a “phone booth” allows our employees a measure of privacy for quiet conversations without the need to book an entire conference or huddle room, depriving multiple people of meeting space during that time. And while the phone booth is comfortable for a conversation, it is small enough that it doesn’t encourage all-day encampments.
The famed Building 20 on MIT’s campus is the stuff of innovation legends. In his book How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand explains how the building’s rambling nature gave rise to so much innovation, crediting the constant accidental, daily run-ins people from different departments would have with one another. Brand referred to the by-product of these run-ins as “knowledge spillover.” Research conducted at MIT by Thomas Allen illustrates the importance of this physical proximity. The Allen Curve shows that the likelihood of weekly contact between team members drops precipitously when they are more than 10 meters (32.8 feet apart).
In-between spaces can be designed to facilitate these bump-ins. Purposely spacing work areas at distances so employees have to pass through certain corridors can help. Making the corridors functional and interesting can also be transformative. In Frontier’s space, we’ve created day storage where people keep and retrieve their space at the beginning and end of the day. We’ve put mailboxes in a space separate from the day storage. And we’ve partnered with a local museum to display a photo exhibit near our front-door entrance for added visual pops and intrigue.
The flexible workspace has been a boon to the culture and performance here at The Frontier Project. While stylish and hip, the intentional design goes beyond form and actually facilitates function. By borrowing from the best aspects throughout the evolution of workspace design — from the days of my father’s work to the days of cubicles — we’ve created a space that supports the needs of a changing workforce.