Office Space: observations from coworking
Updated: Jun 8
What I’ve learned about office layout and space, I learned from Coworking.
I’ve been working remote part of the week for more than 10 years now. During that time I’ve worked in many different places - home, cafes, rented office space, and coworking centers.
In light of all the discussion about office space and layout, I thought I'd toss in my 2 cents. In preparation for this post, I caught up with some more recent articles about office space layout.
Some of them are listed in the sources section below just in case you want to explore this topic further on your own.
Thinking about what I've read and my first-hand experiences, I'd like to share some personal observations about what works and what doesn’t.
Coworking centers that have regular clientele, quickly start to seem like a very informal, non-political, support oriented Alloyed Teams. I believe many times when companies reorganize space they are trying to achieve that same supportive, collaborative, dynamic environment. Office layout can help.
First the big questions:
Why are you doing this? Out of room? Want to get people to interact more naturally? Breaking down cube walls that define fiefdoms? Getting people out of offices? Want to set the stage to change culture?
Who will this impact? Who in the company will use the new office layout?
Do you know what people do and how they do it? What are their communication needs? What are their working needs?
Be Honest: what is your corporate culture - Is your culture ready or just about ready for a change like this? How will you encourage conversion to the new layout? Are you ready for an more modern office layout? Are you willing to change your behaviors and lead by example.
The coworking centers I’ve worked in have been startup focused. Often I am one or two of the only “corporate” remote workers in the place - all the others were building startups or were free-lancers. The cultures were high energy, positive, supportive, relaxed, and networking oriented. The lessons I’ve learned in those situations might have limited value to “corporate” office design - but since many organizations seem to want to capture the startup culture there might be some value.
Lessons Learned & Observations
Here are just a few things that I’ve learned:
CASTERS - put everything on CASTERS so that your space and be quickly and easily moved around.Wiring - While wireless may work in many instances, I still prefer a wired location connected to a properly configured LAN. That way I get the best video/audio quality when using chat, video, etc.
Avoid System Furniture - Avoid expensive system furniture. Look to furniture auctions, closing hotels, restaurants, businesses. One cool tactic I observed was getting a unique furniture or art piece and then building a room around it - e.g. a conference room built around a bargain find of a 70’s kitchen table. Get eclectic. Conformity and sameness do little to stimulate creativity and thought.
Personal Dedicated Space - we all like to have a little space to call our own. A space to personalize to some extent. This helps us feel comfortable, connected, and somehow belonging . The primary location should be in an area that makes sense for the role/team. If you have people who are in the office more than one or two days a week think about allowing them to have a permanent camp somewhere in the office -- if that works for them.
Mixing Space(s) - Having a community space, a watering hole, matters -- and is important. Use a long table and diner booths so that when folks feel social they can work at a LONG table, if they want to work where there’s background noise or have a semi-private conversation they can use a diner booth. Ideally this would be somewhere by the main entrance to that people can SEE into the space and see who is arriving - all with the idea of engaging in conversation, greetings, and the “Hey, Fred, got a sec we need to ask you something….” moments.
Private Communication Spaces - Setup a couple of places that are small like a phone booth where someone can go, setup a computer, or have a phone call in total privacy. This is an important feature - a well designed space will also be like a studio and could be suitable for recording podcasts, having video conferences, or practicing presentations. One doesn’t need many of these, but a couple makes sense.
Conference Rooms / War Rooms - You need to have a few rooms that can support 4 or 5 people around a work table, with a white board, that folks can just POP into to have a conference, problem solve, or even make a quick phone call that won’t disturb others. No scheduling. An over supply of these isn't a bad thing since they'll get used frequently, even if just for quiet work.
Formal Conference Rooms - You probably need one or more of these depending on the number of people and this type of activity you have. These get setup for the more formal meetings and client/prospect visits. These rooms should support 10+ and get equipped with all the fancy conference room stuff. Conference rooms can expensive - but spend a little more and THEME each room so that employees can evolve and develop their own names for the rooms.
Quiet Zones - setup zones or spaces that are designed and intended for quiet work and focus, talking, phone calls, video conferences are prohibited in this area or on these workstations. You can use affordable cork-board, screens, some blinds, plants, or other little improvements to isolate the space(s). They should be setup so that someone who goes to the space to do focused work can rely on not being disturbed.
Work Areas - This is where knowing what people do and what they really need matters. The general or primary work area for people may be best organized by team or function. Try to avoid creation of fiefdoms marked by barriers. Keep it all function and mission oriented.
Paper Storage and Files - depending on the files these could be stored at someone’s main work area. How much file space people need can be high variable. Try to define it. AND don’t confuse SHARED team/function files with individual papers.
TEAM / PROJECT Rooms - Rather than individual private offices, think about setting up rooms for Teams or Projects of a certain size or business volume. A project room would house the team’s files, offer a table for group work or meetings, and each team should be given latitude to decorate, configure and put a personality stamp on their project room. Generally these should have a white-board and space for at least 4.
Culture - Build a very loose initial set of rules. The community should be encouraged to create and define it's own culture. Minimize the formality, maximize evolution of culture through your leaders (formal and informal) who work within that space.
Changing your office space and layout can help encourage cultural change, but should only be considered after you learn more about what people are looking for. Think through and talk through the personal interactions needed to accomplish certain tasks, take a sober look at the political mix of your environment and how it functions, and decide early on - is space and how it is allocated a status of office or needs based?
Personally, I think once you start changing your approach to space by focusing on functional needs rather than one focused on status, you will be well on your way to a space/culture overhaul. Once you've turned that corner - go find out and collect information about what people do and need - in their own words. If your culture is still "old school" corporate where the corner office is allocated based on rank - perhaps look to changing that first before investing in space changes.
How to Make Sure People Won’t Hate Your New Open Office Plan - 2018 - https://hbr.org/2018/01/sgc-research-when-moving-to-an-open-office-plan-pay-attention-to-how-your-employees-feel
7 Factors of Great Office Design - 2018 - https://hbr.org/2016/05/7-factors-of-great-office-design
Balancing “We” and “Me”: The Best Collaborative Spaces Also Support Solitude - 2014 - https://hbr.org/2014/10/balancing-we-and-me-the-best-collaborative-spaces-also-support-solitude
How To Leverage Activity-Based Workspaces In Your Office Design - 2017 - https://www.teem.com/blog/how-to-leverage-activity-based-workspaces-in-your-office-design/
15 Creative Office Layout Ideas to Match Your Company’s Culture - 2018 - https://www.snacknation.com/blog/office-layout-ideas/