Reimagining allocated office space

Bringing a little new office space design to nonprofits with tight budgets and allocated workspaces.

Collaborative, open, fun office spaces are a movement sweeping through corporations in technology and creative fields. Lessons from the corporate: The trendy open office explores this trend with support of research from a University of Detroit Mercy architectural thesis project by designer Dima Daimi. The two challenges from this movement are how to avoid adapting change to become trendy, and how to make spatial office change in the nonprofit world—when overhead funds are rare and workspaces are often allocated. Daimi’s research answers both of these questions by pointing out that the ultimate goal is offices function better in response to human needs; a goal that has spatial implications but can also be accomplished through other intermediate methods.

One of the underlying elements of this trend is “fun” office environments. For a company like Google, this might mean slides through atriums and a game lounge in a newly built office space. For a community service agency occupying the basement of an apartment building, slides and game rooms are not possible. Still the principle behind this is to create spaces that are enjoyable and even attract talent to the company. Often times, in community serving organizations, we think a passion for the work is enough motivation. As in the private sector, there are numerous community organizations with inspiring mission statements. What more can your office do to create an enjoyable environment? It could be simple solutions like letting a staff member choose their office paint color or encouraging door signs and posters that express an individual’s perspective. More involved “fun” efforts might be storing project equipment in a group meeting space so staff can explore curriculum and equipment in a collaborative space. Encouraging occasional staff events and social events are a non-spatial way to embrace a fun office culture.

Another consideration for open office concept is creating spaces that encourage greater communication and collaboration. In the traditional walled or cubicle spaces, common in public service offices, there are still options to encourage communication. One key element is to ensure meeting space is readily available to staff and that they have priority of using these spaces. Consider distributing non-confidential storage into a corner of everyone’s individual offices so that the storage room can be a meeting space. Basic systems like whiteboards in individual offices can indicate if a coworker is busy as closed doors do not always indicate “I’m not available to talk.” As technology improves, instant messaging and video chat can eliminate those physical barriers in older offices and connect staff across distances as well. Ultimately, as Daimi shares, the goal is “serendipitous interaction,” when an office environment encourages effective, seamless communication.

Potentially more fundamental than communication and having fun, open offices intend to respond to individuals’ needs to be productive and happy at work. Open offices meet this need by providing a menu of unique workspaces that staff can chose from on a daily basis. Community organizations can do the same in a slightly more static way, but are equipped with commonly used personality and work style tools. Often we use tools like “Real Colors” or “Meyers-Briggs” to build awareness of coworker’s differences. Translating that information into office arrangements and spatial considerations is a great way to meet this goal of individualized office space. It might be as simple as putting a very focused staff member who thrives on social interaction near the front of your office suite or understanding an introverted coworker’s personality by placing their desk further back, surrounded by coworkers they connect with. On top of considering personality traits, keep in mind projects and teams when arranging space so there can be cross-project communication, and at the same time, team members are not spending five minutes just to get to a coworker’s workspace to collaborate.

Ultimately, Michigan State University Extension says the open office trend is something community serving organizations can learn from and adapt to with existing space and limited resources. The key is tapping into the underlying goals of the movement and finding creative ways to meet those helpful objectives. Keep in mind, the underlying spatial elements, design considerations and systems of any organization can have direct impact on office culture, productivity and public image.

Special thanks to Dima Daimi (M.Arch), architectural and interior designer, for her input and feedback on this topic!

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