How to design a truly open office

How to design a truly open office

Archilogic helps office providers better understand and visualise their spaces through 3D floor plans, office design simulations and data analytics. Here we look at how office designers can help their clients use 3D floor plans and simulation tools to understand the impact of a truly open and accessible office space.

There’s a trap architects and workplace planners fall into. Buzzwords like “transparency” and “openness” get interpreted very literally, with glass walls and communal work areas, and the designers pat themselves on the backs for how well they’ve delivered a modern working style. The thing is, though, the modern workplace needs to be far more inclusive than traditional offices, and too few designers are aware of the physical implications.

For instance, while open-plan offices have established themselves as the standard, it’s become clear that they raise problems for certain groups of workers in particular. Research shows that women are especially uncomfortable in open offices. The same is true for workers prone to anxiety. And these environments are also rich in distractions, putting extra stress on neurodivergent employees.

Evidently, accessibility demands a lot more than just putting in a wheelchair ramp. So how can you design for true inclusivity? And why should you bother?

Talent doesn’t all look the same

Embracing diversity enables employers to draw from a wider pool of talent, and even better, to embed those diverse perspectives in your company at all levels. It means being able to understand, serve and communicate better with the full range of potential customers. Having a team who don’t all think the same drives more creative thinking and problem-solving. Perhaps that’s why employee diversity has been strongly linked to better competitive performance.  

This isn’t a new idea. It’s been a long time since the workforce consisted of white men in corner offices, and women in the typing pool – but although hiring practices have evolved, the broader implications of this changing workforce have not yet received enough attention. If employers are serious about inclusion, they’ll find themselves with a staff whose backgrounds, religions, life circumstances and physical abilities vary widely. It stands to reason that their needs will vary too.

A failure to meet different needs can be as subtle as temperatures optimized for men’s larger bodies, or as glaring as narrow doorways that don’t accommodate wheelchairs. Accommodations for parents and diverse religions might also go beyond policy to provide physical spaces that support them. Could you create a prayer room, or an on-site crêche? What impact would that have – on your culture, on employee motivation and loyalty, and of course on your real estate costs?  

While some companies have built, say, family-friendly policies right into their culture and premises, the reflex reaction to these above-and-beyond measures is often, “It’s not possible.” Or at least, “That wouldn’t work here.” But what could it be costing you not to accommodate parents? Or employees with disabilities?

The benefits are bigger than you think

Looking at statistics, it turns out that a huge proportion of employees will face some form of an accessibility barrier. Accidents or ill health can strike at any time – and not all disabilities are visible. It’s become clear that many workers are dealing with some form of neurodivergence; not just forms of autism, but also attention disorders and other mental health challenges. The good news is that, just as parent-friendly flexible working policies help the entire workforce, inclusive office design is good for everyone.

Flexibility and space-saving

Basic measures to protect and support employees with disabilities include providing an ergonomic environment, and protecting hearing and sight. Replacing fluorescent lights with LEDs and installing acoustic panels are an excellent start (while improving the environment for everyone). Modular furniture that can be rearranged as needed, with work surfaces at a range of heights, is helpful for wheelchair users. It’s also well suited to multi-functional office design, especially where space saving is a priority.

Focus and productivity

Similarly, designing for neurodiversity will enable you to create a workplace that promotes concentration and productivity for all. It’s about reducing distractions and improving concentration (which will be welcomed by everyone working on a task requiring intense focus), and providing more choice through different work zones. Sound familiar? That’s also best practice in designing a multi-functional office to support collaboration and creativity.

Think different – design better

It makes sense, then, that inclusive design is also known as “universal design”. The goal is to remove potential barriers, rather than making specific adaptations. That promotes a sense of belonging as well as maximizing chances of success. Whether you’re hoping to improve inclusion with the minimum outlay, or looking to raise the bar, here’s what you need to consider.

  • Remember the closed-fist principle: every handle, switch etc should be operable using a closed fist. So flat light switches are better than toggles, for instance, and levers are better than knobs.
  • Avoid reliance on a single sensory input: employ both sound and lighting cues for alarms.
  • Spatial organization should be clear , helping users to orient themselves through lines of sight to outdoors, distinctive features etc.
  • Since you can’t predict every possible need, maximize choice . Make quiet areas available for focused work (and be sure to place them away from high traffic flow). Provide social clusters as well as refuges.
  • Remember to consider mobility challenges . If your social zone takes the form of a staircase, whom are you excluding?
  • Be careful with color use . High-energy, bright colors can be overwhelming, so you may need to keep brand colors to small touches. Orange mugs are fine, whole walls not so much.  
  • Biophilic design (incorporating a sense of the natural world through everything from wooden floors to plants and windows) is recommended for supporting autistic employees, and has been shown to benefit productivity all round.
  • A games room could be helpful for everyone from sensory-seeking employees to parents who sometimes need to bring their kids to work, as well as for anyone who just needs a break.

Some of these improvements will, of course, have an impact on space. Archilogic’s 3D floor plan software can help you to measure the impact through checking data such as the spare footage per desk, and to test out the possibilities. Look at micro office and flexible office designs for ideas to make the most of what is available – these trends will provide a wealth of inspiration for your inclusive office.

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