Form and Function: The Formula For Designing Productive Shared Spaces

Steelcase’s Rebecca Charbauski shares the formula for designing shared spaces where people can actually get real work done.

A dramatic shift has taken place in offices around the world. Once mired in a sea of sameness, today many are moving  toward a collection of bright, diverse spaces that might more likely be found in a café or an abandoned warehouse-turned-loft apartment. The power of the employee is evident. Most organizations no longer need convincing that place is a powerful lever for attracting talent. And, they’re employing other amenities as well. Many paved with good intentions but ending in the extreme — from see-saws to swings and doggy daycare to dry cleaning.

The problem? In an effort to set themselves apart and dream up all the ways they can make people happy, some workplaces have lost sight of what people actually want. These new casual spaces are taking up valuable real estate in today’s office landscape, but despite significant investments to create inspiring spaces that attract talent, many of these informal and fun spots sit empty. The question is why?

Recent research confirms that what people really want is form and function. And, they begin to suggest a formula for designing casual, shared spaces where people actually want to work.

The Little Diversified Architecture offices in Washington D.C. where new shared spaces were added, tested and evaluated.

Putting Space to the Test

To understand reasons why people use certain spaces and not others, our researchers and designers have conducted 23 experiments in multiple facilities. They compared identical spaces side-by-side — only one attribute was different. So, which spots did people use more, and why? First, let’s peek inside a few of the spaces put to the test.

Experiment #1: Task or lounge?

People had the choice between an enclave with a desk and a task chair and one with a lounge setting.


The desk and task chair were chosen almost twice as often as the lounge chair — with one exception. People under the age of 35 tended to pick the lounge.

Experiment #2: How important is access to power?

Tables were placed in settings with or without power nearby.


People chose tables where power was easy to reach — especially for individual work over long periods of time. Power access proved less of a factor on seat location for groups or more short-term work.

Other proof points — people picked a table with a large oversized lamp over one without. Researchers hypothesized the lamp created a boundary that gave people territorial privacy and made them feel protected. And, people overwhelmingly chose a lounge setting with a footrest over one without, underscoring a desire for ergonomic comfort even in more relaxed spaces.

“These experiments confirm we have to start applying the same level of scrutiny to the details in these spaces as we do when we design workstations for individual work,” says Steelcase Applications Design Manager Mary Elaine Roush.

Six key drivers for use

The workplace is being asked to do so many things today. It’s a lever for attracting talent, spurring collaboration, creativity and innovation, and supporting a variety of work modes from focus to teamwork. People need access to a diverse set of spaces, but many shared spaces are designed to encourage social connections, not to help people actually get work done. Why can’t these important parts of the workplace do more, and, as a result, get used more?

A console table, access to power and, territorial and visual privacy all contribute to the performance of this shared space.

Experiments as well as other research from observation studies, surveys and sensor data identified six key drivers that increase the use of the shared spaces:

  • Task-oriented amenities – People pick spaces with amenities similar to those they would find at their primary workstation like digital displays and seating with posture support.
  • Working surfaces – Surfaces should be available to let people work easily and set down their belongings.
  • Access to power – People are more likely to work where power is available and easily accessible.
  • Privacy – Whether it’s visual, acoustic or territorial, people gravitate toward places with some level of privacy.
  • Permission – People need to feel like it’s okay to use the space for their needs (i.e. can they do work in the cafe without feeling like someone will question their behavior?).
  • Context – Where the space is situated often determines use. Shared spaces should be closer to people’s work areas so they can stay connected. Destination spaces are important when people want to escape.

While no one space can support every type of work, it’s important to consider how collectively shared spaces can help people focus, socialize, collaborate, learn and rejuvenate. Every space needs to help people feel comfortable and offer them a sense of psychological comfort. So, if you’re going to add a ping-pong table in a social area or build a workcafé to generate buzz, will other shared spaces let people get away to do heads down work or provide them with a spot of respite?

Activating performance

Here’s what we’ve learned about how to activate performance in shared spaces. High-performing spaces think holistically about the relationship between posture, privacy, proximity and personality.


It seems so obvious, yet it’s one of the things at work people crave the most. They need a sense of security and the right level of privacy based on the work they need to get done. Privacy doesn’t always mean four walls and a door. A rug or change of flooring can define boundaries to provide territorial privacy. Shielding elements can block out visual distractions. Consider if someone’s back is protected to add to a sense of safety. And, think about acoustics to add another dimension of privacy — which could mean furniture or fabrics that block or absorb sound.


Very few people spend all of their time at work in the same chair all day long. By providing a range of postures across shared spaces, you can make it easier for people to do different kinds of work, comfortably. A shared space designed for ideation might include stool-height seats to encourage people to stand up and get engaged. A space designed for hospitality and informal connections may include more lounge postures. One created to support longer work sessions should consider a high-performance task chair. The formula is in the mix, so as people move from task to task, their bodies welcome the change that comes from new locations.

By offering different postures within shared spaces, people can pick the spot that works best for the type of work they plan to get done.


When designing these shared spaces, it’s crucial to be intentional about the relationships between people, their tools, their furniture and the overall space. Designers have an endless amount of choices today, but that can make it all the more difficult to do a great job designing shared spaces. Just like in your living room, you want to create comfortable spaces for conversation with consistent seating heights. You might want personal console tables in multiple locations so several people can use laptops (and these have to work in concert with the furniture so they aren’t too high or too low). Or you may need digital screens to let people project and share content (that aren’t too far away from where you’re sitting).

At the same time, you have to think about where the space is within the overall workplace. Take workflow and work modes into consideration. Adjacencies and proximities are important. “You can put the same setting in two different places and in one area it works really well and it’s always highly utilized, and in the other no one uses it,” says Roush.


Finally, the energy and vibe of a space still matter. These shared spaces can express the unique brand and culture of an organization. Personality is a powerful tool to add a signature stamp to a space when used in the right places and combined with other performance principles. And, it’s great to offer a variety of aesthetics because everyone responds differently.

No one wants to invest in a space that looks great, but isn’t getting used. And, no designer intends to create a space that’s only used for an hour or two a day. So, while fun and flashy amenities still have a place in some organizations, the amenities we’ve put to the test, and that we know work are built into the places that help people feel good and get real work done at the same time.

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