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Communication and Open Concept Work Spaces

Open concepts are not something new to the office scene. Going way back in time and depending on the business large offices featured multiple desks crammed into a single big room. Partitioned offices were reserved for the boss who sat, usually in a sunny perimeter spot if one was available, overlooking their employees who were crammed together in bull pen fashion in the center of the space.  What drove the open concept in the good old days however, were the limitations of the furniture systems and the spaces they occupied. Communication was regulated by the boss who either allowed employees to speak to each other or came down hard on employees seen talking to their neighbors.

First Generation Open Concept

First Generation Open Concept

Times changed and office furniture designs began to incorporate systems that separated and segregated employees. High panels, lightweight and modular, became available and found their way into most office spaces usually in the service of increased privacy and reduced distraction for the employee. Privacy panels became a bit of a status symbol as well not to mention a boon to employees who – how shall we say – liked to engage in non-work related activities. Communication and collaboration between employees became an issue the bosses worried about less because the furniture took what was often viewed as a problem off their hands. But is communication and collaboration between employees a problem?

 The answer seems to be a resounding NO!

My clients are always pushing to do more with their people and I notice that collaboration is one of the tools they embrace with increasing frequency and enthusiasm. Employers, especially in companies that operate on the edge of today’s creative and information critical fields are encouraging ground level communication between employees. More and more business owners seem to know and understand and value the informal sharing of information, experience, and creative problem solving that naturally emerges when their people communicate. Clients tell me that employee learning is expanded and solidified as well and I found this very interesting. Apparently employees learn as much from each other as from what they have been taught in a training seminar and, in fact, the two learning methods seem to reinforce each other in a “whole is greater than the sum of the parts” way. By augmenting training systems with a collaborative work space clients are taking full advantage of their employee’s natural tendency to pursue usable knowledge and skills. By putting their team back into direct contact with each other employers are empowering their people and that is good for business.

If work space communication and collaboration is something you have thought about then you will not be surprised at all to see how contemporary corporate office spaces and office design has changed to facilitate in the past 5 years. In general collaborative spaces incorporate intentional design features and tools that encourage communication and collaborative activities, or at least do not inhibit those activities. Office furniture and furniture systems play an obvious and critical role in creating your new collaborative work space. Barriers are coming down in contemporary corporate office spaces, figuratively and literally, and open concept environments are making a comeback.

“Can we reconfigure existing furniture to create communication and collaboration?”

The answer is yes.

An open concept office can easily incorporate much of your existing furniture and furniture systems. Obviously you will likely need to incorporate a new design and purchase some additional product, but getting to an open concept is not difficult and won’t give you sticker shock. Here are some ideas…

First of all you have to know when and where to use the components of your existing furniture and furniture systems. Your seating can clearly be reused and with good planning much if not all of your existing surfaces and storage as well. Partition panels create a challenge but not one that should discourage you, even if you have nothing but tall partition panels in your existing installation. A good open concept incorporates a blend of low, medium, and tall panel heights that provide both open communication and sound barriers where needed.  Lower spine panels, usually 54” or less in height, are used to divide employees and support their surfaces in areas where communication is encouraged. If your present office furniture system incorporates tall spine panels exclusively then lower spine panels will need to be purchased. In general, your taller panels will be reconfigured as department dividers or noise barriers at department perimeters.

Workstation Benching System 09

Open Concept Work Station with Shelf as Privacy Dividers

Workstation Benching System 04

Open Work Station with Slotted Divider

Specifically, tall partition panels can be reconfigured as barriers along high traffic areas such as entrances or corridors, or parameter walls for conference and eating areas. Partition panels are required to support workstation surfaces and for that reason they will be required along building walls that host workstations. When building walls do not incorporate windows they are another good place to reconfigure tall partition panels which can be used to host electrical and data services as well as provide some acoustic suppression.

The key to re-configuring is to understand how and where we can re-use the existing system.

Collaborative workstation using existing taller systems panels for electrical/data and acoustics

Collaborative workstation using existing taller systems panels for electrical/data and acoustics.

A good use for the taller components such storage cabinets can be re-used within the station to create privacy.   Remember to keep your direct line of view between the users open by using the lower panels (48” – 54” height).  By blending the two you can usually create a marriage of the old and new and still get more openness within the area.  Small clip on desk dividers will give enough separation between the stations without having to use a full panel.  You will also save on space this way as the width of the older acoustical panel is usually in the 3” to 4” range which can use up your space whereas the clip ons do not take up the space.

Generally I would always use a new shorter panel or clip on desk tile divider to allow for a small amount of privacy as you have to have some sort of privacy within the stations.