Designing for Employee Interaction

“Everybody wants a place where they can get people together to collaborate,” said Marc Schneiderman of SmithGroupJJR at the inaugural Work Design Talk on Designing for Employee Interaction, hosted at Kimball Office in Washington, DC.

“Planning is becoming about how to use negative space to encourage groups to interact with each other, whether those people are employees, customers, or community members.”

Susan Orange of Baskervill, Catherine Heath of HOK, and Andy Yeh of FOX Architects joined Marc for a panel discussion moderated by John Lemen of Washington Group Sales, a host sponsor with AVI/SPL. The event attracted 125 designers, architects, strategists, consultants, and end-users from around the region.

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Five key themes about designing for employee interaction emerged from the panelists’ case studies and the audience’s questions:

1. Formal v. informal interactions

Susan talked about “cul-de-sacs,” the kind of collaboration area that’s easy to get into and out of, and where everyone determines the rules when they show up. Sort of like the “kick the can” games you spontaneously planned with other neighbor kids growing up.

“Snagajob is informal. They’re in a 1980’s suburban office building, complete with the acoustical tiles ceiling and mauve carpet. We created a town center where the staff of 400 can get together anytime, seated on a riser system that’s six feet deep so you can fit two chairs on each riser if need be. There are whiteboards and bean bag chairs for the staff to use informally, and we included a poured concrete, 20-foot bar with beer-tap where they have parties.”

“On the other hand, collaboration can be formal — like the 17th floor of the Chesapeake Capital Corporation that views the James River,” Susan said. “There’s no reception area per se, so they used the space for employees to step away from their desks and relax and enjoy the view. It’s amazing how interactive people can get when there’s a wall of windows and excellent coffee nearby.”

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Baskervill – Formal collaboration areas at the Chesapeake Capital Corporation overlooking the James River in Richmond, Virg.

Catherine agreed, citing the balance of informal versus formal areas in a 100-percent, open-office environment such as Deltek.

“All workspaces work off the window line; it became a place to draw people. We gave the window to everyone, and we use benching, moveable tables, and extra chairs to encourage collaboration. This found space and extra circulation space has become impromptu meeting space.”

HOK - Deltek
HOK – Deltek open-office benching shares the window. Photo credit – Eric Laignel

Andy talked about the role of circulation at CQ RollCall.

“I’m not sure if the clients are asking for these ubiquitous bar areas or if we designers and architects just love them that much,” he quipped. “This space focused on bringing together different business units to gather and work together. So we made the space part of the circulation, rather than a formal destination. Fortuitous interaction happens here; different types of seating, banqueted with square tables that could push together, use of lighting, was really to promote the people component of the culture.”

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FOX Architects – Multi-use kitchen area at CQ Roll Call in Washington, DC

2. Business-driven

According to Marc, “People are finding spaces in an office wherever they feel comfortable — corner of a lounge, open space, quiet conference room. There’s a much bigger concern about acoustics and lighting to support these different kinds of spaces. Glare is something we never thought of, and that’s huge now.”

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SmithGroupJJR – Multi-use kitchen area at BizSpark in Silicon Valley

Andy described how Sapient explicitly wanted to encourage business-driven interactions.

“Their Nitro group wanted a destination interaction zone; a place they go to come up with ideas. And as great architects and designers, sometimes the best thing we can do is take away the barriers that inhibit collaboration and interaction. So we created dedicated spaces with a healthy amount of negative space and moveable seating surrounded by chalkboard paint. It’s there to support the business component more than the people component; it’s not meant to be serendipitous.”

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FOX Architects – An interaction area for Sapient’s Nitro Group

Over the past year, Catherine interviewed more than 100 attorneys to learn about how they worked. What she discovered was that the partners had a lot of storage area, but their critical need was to be able to meet with 3-4 people in their own office.

“Jumping onto conference calls or bringing people in was crucial, and the associates didn’t have room for their devices let alone to accommodate new people amid the furniture, storage, and stacks of paper on desks,” she said. “The storage and work surfaces are now much smaller, but each office has a table in the center of the room where group discussion can happen. Four people easily can sit in a single office. There’s a credenza that can house a separate monitor to project documentation. The spaces are only 195 square feet; not big, just re-thought. They willingly gave up storage to take on ease of collaboration.”

Lawfirm
HOK – Collaboration inside a Partner office at a law firm in Washington, DC. Photo credit – Eric Laignel

Integrating collaboration and interaction spaces in the work environment, rather than break areas, was Catherine’s design strategy for a pharmaceutical corporate headquarters in Raleigh.

“The client went from a traditional work environment to a new workplace standard – 100 percent open office, doesn’t matter what your job, no assigned spaces. Some areas are designated for senior leadership sitting at a table with five other managers. To avoid any acoustic concern, we added enclosed rooms right next to the open areas, so when the low-level interaction escalates, people can easily move their collaboration into a secure space.”

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HOK – Managers work together in an open environment surrounded by quiet meeting spaces at a pharmaceutical headquarters in Raleigh. Photo credit – Adrian Wilson

3. Technology-driven

The panel shared how technology has evolved during their careers, from putting high-end technology only in boardrooms to realizing that 2-3 people would schedule them to get to the video – and 20 people wouldn’t have a space for meeting.

Today, smaller rooms are starting to include the tech equipment and it’s coming into the individual workspace, too, particularly thanks to video technologies like Skype and increasing remote-work capabilities.

Will they replace high-tech meeting spaces? Possibly.

“We design spaces that someone is going to use for a 10-year lease,” Catherine said. “We’ll go through three technology cycles through that time. So these spaces have to be flexible enough to be able to handle what you don’t yet know. Having spaces be simple and accommodate different types of activities is the best way to scale, rather than designing for a specific technology.”

The privacy required for using with these new technologies also was discussed.

“A lot of clients are worried that when the environment is so open, there’s a lack of privacy,” Susan said. “Public places are actually very private because people are doing their own thing.”

“But there’s also the library effect; when you can see the people affected by your voice, you immediately drop your volume. Clients have a really hard time accepting that — they need to see it in action. With things like Skype and conference calls, you’re probably going someplace else. It doesn’t need to be in a private room; it can be a 3-walled space in a run of offices or a change in ceiling height to denote a level of privacy. Even a line on a carpet changes the level of privacy. And being able to see other people’s eyes helps you manage your own volume.”

Andy said that some clients may choose to balance privacy and flexibility by choosing de-mountable partitions. But he said, “Having a product without the facilities capabilities defeats the purpose. If you don’t have that, they might just be overpriced walls.”

4. Customer-experience driven

A main trend is that workplace design today feels more like hospitality,” Marc said. “The coffee bar during working hours needs to become a service bar for caterers in the evening. It seems like every project we get needs to be transitioned to a community space after working hours.”

He walked us through a case study of Microsoft, which is trying to connect better with customers by hosting four events a week.

“More than 75,000 people have come through their space this year as part of Microsoft’s customer-engagement effort. And it’s a catered affair, with music and entertainment. It’s all hospitality.”

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SmithGroupJJR – Microsoft is opening its doors to encourage more community engagement.

At a furniture dealership Susan designed, collaboration was important, but a top goal was to make the space an experience for the clients.

“We want someone who comes in to be exposed to everything. Three quarters of the space is behind a wall and it’s all storage, but the big open section in the front is their showroom. We took their idea of having two levels and created six instead; we made it fun, invited customers to walk up the showroom, interact with the furniture and with each other. We raised access floor tiles with a pit for more intimate conversations under the stairway. Garage door, food, coffee, beer… interaction happens immediately as clients come in the door.”

Susan-Furniture
Baskervill – A showroom for interacting with clients at CREATIVE Worklab in Virginia.

5. Workplace strategy and change management

“When we take a traditional user into a new space where people are excited and interacting, they realize that their paradigm is very different,” Marc said. “They realize they don’t even have a space in their building that allows their employees to actually interact with each other. Once we push the envelope, they start thinking way beyond anything they’d originally anticipated.”

Catherine said that if programming doesn’t include workplace strategy, it’s probably not being done very well. Clients will have a list, but you have to challenge them, because they’re only working with what they know. She also talked about the skepticism of the word “lounge” at places like a law firm, where time is money.

“This might be the first time a client is going through this, and so education there is key,” she said. “You need to bring them images of other projects, show them case studies, and take them to showrooms and tours to help them understand the possibilities. If they haven’t had that exposure, they really need hand-holding.”

Designing for employee interaction doesn’t work if the management leaves it up to the staff to use the space, Susan said. “‘Am I really allowed to sit on this sofa during work hours?’ is a question staff ask. We encourage the management to use it — and not only with management — to show that it’s ok for everyone to come together and interact.”

Next up: Chicago!


A huge thanks to all our generous sponsors for enabling this event.

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