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When it comes to Office Design, Think “Suitable” Not “Fashionable”

| January 22, 2014 | 0 Comments
Barry Poskanzer, AIA

Barry Poskanzer, AIA

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Poskanzer Skott Architects
550 N Maple Ave
Ridgewood, NJ 07450

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Release Date: Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Media Contact: Caryl Bixon-Gordon (201) 796-7788

When it comes to Office Design, Think “Suitable” Not “Fashionable”
Barry Poskanzer Reflects on Balancing Trends with What Companies Really Need

RIDGEWOOD, N.J., Jan. 22, 2014 – For better or for worse, open office layouts are among today’s hottest design trends. Advocates say that communal work environments increase collaboration and require less space, which saves money.  Those on the other side of the fence cite productivity-sapping distractions and noise. Barry Poskanzer, AIA, a partner with Poskanzer Skott Architects (PSA) of Ridgewood, believes the underlying problem is that companies are approaching their planning with a “one size fits all” mentality. In the following interview, Poskanzer, who has been designing office interiors for four decades, elaborates on this topic.

Q: The push toward open office layouts has been gaining traction for years. Why?

A: Trends in office design are like hemlines. Clothing designers change dress lengths from season to season so that consumers will have to buy something new to remain fashionable. And the same is true of office formats. But there is a big difference between “fashionable” and “stylish”: Fashionable is fleeting; stylish is forever. Open office formats are the former. Ultimately, when it comes to great design, the focus should not be on what is fashionable, but on what is suitable.

Q: When is  and isn’t  shared space suitable?

A: Shared space might make sense within an engineering or R&D department, where employees collaborate frequently. Jobs that require a high level of concentration – such as editing and writing, or working with numbers – require the peace and quiet of a private office. I have a drafting table in my company’s open work area, as well as an office where I can have privacy when I’m discussing a transaction or the financial aspects of a project. So even within a single company, and sometimes within a single position, there are justifiable reasons for an employee to have or to not have an office. Too many companies are buying today’s most popular model “as sold,” but really they should examine who they are and how they operate – and then build their plan around these needs.

Q: How can an organization find the right balance?

A: The first step is to start the process with an open mind, not a preconceived notion. Analyze the work of your people. What kind of tasks do they address? What kinds of relationships do the have, and do they need, with other employees? It may sound nice to have an open meeting area in the middle of an office, but if one of your managers has a particularly loud voice it may disturb the 20 people stationed around that gathering spot. Can your senior managers sit among their staff members, or do they frequently discuss delicate information? If you ask the right questions, the answers generally rise to the surface. Ultimately, a designer’s job is not to force their client into the design but to help them develop a design around their unique needs.

Q: With open designs, what can be done to counter noise and a lack of privacy?

A: The newest open-layout workspaces are incorporating “seated privacy.” Partitions are high enough that when the employee is seated they are looking at walls. When they stand, they can see the office in its entirety. Architecturally, this is much nicer than the traditional six-foot-high cubicle wall because it lends some privacy without feeling like a rabbit warren of partitions. We often recommend including some flexible rooms in workplaces with a lot of open areas. These closed spaces – with doors – can be used as shared offices, conference areas or for anything that mandates privacy. Consideration should also be given to using white noise and acoustical treatments to control sound.

Q: Can you provide an example of this type of solution?

A: We recently designed a new headquarters for Mediacom, one of the country’s largest cable television companies. With the exception of the highest-level officers, employees work in open areas with seated privacy – either in individual cubicles or clustered in six-person pods, depending on the type of work they do. The surrounding private executive offices have glass walls, which not only create a sense of interaction but provide abundant natural light and spectacular outside views throughout the entire building. In the loft-like work areas, we also incorporated white noise and used acoustical spray on the underside of the ceiling tiles and duct work. There is literally no reverberation in this huge, open environment. Employees say they feel like they are in private offices because they do not hear their co-workers.

Q: Do you have office-design advice for companies, especially those that may be constrained by the size of their space or budget?

A: Make windows a priority. Natural light is critical to fostering the highest level of productivity. We recently designed two branch offices for an accounting firm. The spaces we started with – one in New Jersey and one in New York City – were completely different physically, as were the concessions provided by the landlords. In New Jersey, we had more square feet in which to create roomy workstations, but on a tighter budget. In New York, the square footage was smaller but the landlord was willing to build-out hard partitions. In both places, despite the differing constraints, ample windows enabled us to bring natural light into the workplace to create a sense of quality and openness. Which leads to the most important advice I can give: understand and adopt the type of layout that will best meet your employees’ needs – regardless of size, budget and whatever length hemlines are “in” at the moment.

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