Once in a while it’s a good idea to take a look around. Sure, you can tilt your head down and keep on working in a comfortable lane — but then you look up again and it turns out the landscape has really changed. Design trends are like that. That’s why they’re trends. Although this particular moment doesn’t strike us as one of those times to expect a seismic shift, there are always some new ideas on the horizon. Let’s tease a few of the things we’re seeing — and expect to see even more of — in office design.
SEEMS LIKE WE WERE JUST TALKING ABOUT OPEN OFFICES
Yes, absolutely we were. Open-office arrangements are still a big part of where the contemporary workplace is headed. Largely as a reaction to all those years of hallways and closed doors that formed the basis of office design for such a long time. To bring collaboration literally out in the open — to give building occupants a real sense of shared space — these were the conceptual underpinnings for open-office designs. They’re still relevant.
Open offices aren’t going away. They’re very appealing, friendly, and welcoming. But — if you’ve spent time in one, you’ve probably noticed they can also be rather loud. That’s OK for some things, not so great for others. While cushioned carpet, acoustic ceiling tile, and thoughtful furnishing choices (among other design choices) do help to lower ambient sound levels — it’s an unavoidable fact that large, open spaces with lots of occupants are flat-out louder than retreating into a small room and closing the office door. So — does that mean it’s back to the old days?
Nope. We’ve moved beyond those offices you see in black and white movies from the 50s. Way beyond. The reaction to open-office volume levels and the potential concentration problems stemming from them hasn’t been to turn back the clock. Far from it. Instead, we’re seeing an increase in the use of self-contained, designated spaces within the overall office floor plan. Meanwhile, a parallel trend is giving rise to more flexible, less restrictive use of the available spaces within an office.
TWO TRENDS, COMING TOGETHER
The idea is to maintain the benefits of an open office plan — with its more-collaborative, less-formal structure — yet still provide places where an employee looking for a quiet spot can go. Perhaps you need to focus on a single task requiring precision and you need to concentrate. You should be able to do that. Different types of work require different environments. Whether you want creative engagement with co-workers, a place for solitary concentration, or even somewhere to sit for a short break and recharge — the very best office design should be able to accommodate all of those activities.
Consequently, the architecture and interior design for an ideal office of this type must include larger and smaller spaces. It needs areas for louder or quieter activities, and zones that can accommodate groups of widely varying sizes. The choice of furnishings and materials are probably going to vary as widely as the spaces themselves. Through the use of hard and soft surfaces — also different floor coverings, lighting, ceiling choices. Ultimately, these spaces need to be geared to allow people to find a place that suits the needs of the task at hand. You’ll see these ideas referenced in various ways, but popular terms include designated, or flexible office spaces.
THE NATURAL WORLD
You knew we’d get to this, didn’t you? Biophilic design is unquestionably all the rage — and there are good reasons for that. The most compelling one is that contact with nature has positive effects on mood and well-being. It helps with concentration. It can even improve productivity. For employers and employees, that’s an obvious win-win. It’s a big reason why wellness-driven building standards embrace design choices and workplace cultures that encourage people to take breaks — with a specific emphasis on getting outside and walking around for five or ten minutes at a time. Nature helps.
But — work is work, and we realize that people on deadlines might not be inclined to take breaks and walk around outside. In fact (surprise!), they probably won’t. We all know that people on deadlines usually stay glued to a single spot (heads down, bad for the neck) for hours on end. Not a recipe for decreased stress levels. Voilà! This is where Biophilic design comes in. To paraphrase: If the employee won’t go to the mountain, bring the mountain to the employee. Or maybe bring at least a hint of the mountain to the employee — something architects and designers can definitely do.
These days they can do it pretty effectively. The use of living green walls (moss being a particularly interesting trend) and an increase in plants and planted areas in interior design is a tendency you’ve probably noticed. But Biophilic thinking can take different forms: Like darker color schemes, or an increase in the use of unpolished wood and rock. Spaces can be designed with an eye toward intimacy, perhaps even coziness — in terms of scale, or the placement of furnishings — and extending through the textures and colors of fabrics and floor coverings. Buildings can open up areas along the perimeter to the exterior. With doors or sliding panels, or simply through a judicious use of glass in combination with design choices that take their cues from what’s outside and actively try to draw that feeling in. Any interior element is fair game in a scheme like this — floors, ceilings, structural elements, furnishings. Done well, the whole can unquestionably add up to more than the sum of the individual parts.
Acoustics are also important. Literally, through the use of fountains or the sound of running water, for example — but it isn’t a requirement to be quite that obvious. Simply decreasing the reverberation time of sound in a space will heighten a feeling of calm and intimacy. Think about the way a large room with lots of sound bouncing around compares to the feeling of sitting in a grove of trees. There are more ways than one to add naturalness to the feel of a room. Plants, choice of materials and finishes, color, sound — each of these can be a contributor to a multi-layered, Biophilic approach.
WE’RE JUST SCRATCHING THE SURFACE
We’ve picked a couple trends to highlight, but there are plenty to choose from. If you’re looking for additional reading material, you might try searching for stories about the increasing prevalence of fitness spaces in the office. Also, areas for meditation (a big-picture trend to check out is often referred to as Experience-Driven Spaces). How about the way lounges and coffee bars are increasingly making inroads into more mainstream office spaces (in some cases actual bars — but for the record, we aren’t taking a position on whether martinis will help or hurt productivity). And of course, technology in the workplace is always on the rise —2019 is unlikely to see a change in that.
We’ll leave you with this: Much of what’s trending in workplace design incorporates humanistic thinking centered around well-being. How do our minds and bodies function at their very best? Ultimately, it’s not really all that complicated. When we feel good — mentally and physically — we usually do our best work. Any office that promotes those outcomes is an office that works.