Bridgespan Group Offices I have been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to lead in the design of a couple of creative office environments. I am not an architect — instead I am an observant user of office space, and this has guided my office design philosophy.

Some of the biggest opportunities and challenges are in what are known as open-plan spaces, which minimize the use of enclosed rooms. When it works, it can be amazing. But designing in a vacuum, not truly understanding how the spaces are used differently by different teams, can result in less successful spaces. Its criticism is often legitimate:

"Employees in cubicles receive 29% more interruptions than those in private offices"

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"the problem with open-office layouts: It assumes that everyone’s time belongs to everyone else"

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"Some studies show that employees in open-plan spaces, knowing that they may be overheard or interrupted, have shorter and more-superficial discussions than they otherwise would."

However, when design is drawn from real user experience, as it was when The Bridgespan Group took 22 staff members from all roles and functions, and ultimately every employee that would be using the space. The results can be amazing:

"Six months in, we continue to be amazed at how differently we work in the new space and how much the spirit of our office has changed. We used to make appointments to see each other; now, we often just run into each other, and all kinds of new ideas emerge from these unplanned collisions of two or three or four people.

Formal meetings are routinely held in the open areas, where it’s easy to bring in someone else on the spur of the moment—just because they’re passing nearby, or sitting in view."

Some of the design tips used by this team to avoid the common open-plan office space include:

  • Different spaces for different uses: such as a library where people can work without interruption; glass-walled conference rooms where people can be seen; small and large private rooms for phone calls or short-term individual work; small seating clusters, sitting and standing work stations, and a large café.

  • A care and understanding of noise — how it can both offer an exciting "hubub", but not so loud you hear distinct, distracting words.

  • Effective use of multiple directions of natural light and fresh air.

A different company might design things differently. Wide and deep desks in private offices for pair-programming, with comfortable spaces outside might be better for a software company. Keeping sales and legal close together so that they can help avoid contract problems. But the the design team needs not only to listen, but to also involve the users in the spaces design.

You can find more about Bridgespan Group's office design at CBT.

(photo source: CBT Architects, © Anton Grassl/Esto)