May 1, 2011

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Think Outside the Cube

Re-inventing Modern Office Space

Hilary Ingoldsby Whitesides

May 1, 2011

The cubicle—the bane of comic strip engineer Dilbert’s existence. In one cartoon, Dilbert exclaims that his cubicle is sucking the life out of him, and by the end of the strip readers find out that aliens have designed cubicles to do just that. In another, a monkey (it is a cartoon after all) draws a comparison between caged animals and cubicled humans. With more than 20 years of cartoons depicting life on a “cube farm,” it would seem Dilbert’s story has struck a chord with many working Americans. The cubicle began uniformly taking over office space in the 1970s. It was practical, gave privacy and organized a large number of employees into minimal space. The bland maze so often created seemed like an unavoidable side effect to the practical solution. And while the cube farm hasn’t changed much for Dilbert in the last 20 years, offices across the country are currently tearing down the walls, literally, that stand between them, their colleagues and a new kind of office landscape. Open Space, Open Mind According to Galen Natt, design manager at Henricksen/Butler, modern offices are moving toward a more open design and bidding farewell to the traditional cubicle. The shift may have something to do with Gen Y workers who “are more mobile and are more attracted to an open workspace that is better for collaboration,” he says. Shane Phippen, Inside Out Office Interiors designer, agrees. “It fosters a social setting that helps with collaboration, idea exchange, positive energy and excitement, and an overall feeling of being a part of something more,” he says. A more modern office space can also go a long way in attracting and retaining employees, adds Julie Attick, director of marketing for Henricksen/Butler. Furthermore, the lowering of panels or complete elimination of cubicles isn’t just good for employees, but can also benefit the environment and the company’s bottom line. An open office space allows for increased use of natural light, which for many companies means lower energy bills. Businesses might also see savings over time as office needs change. “An open office space gives you a lot of versatility in the present and flexibility for the future,” Attick says. “It allows you to adapt and provides more affordable change in the future.” Making it Work The key to a successful open workplace is space planning. According to Phippen, the most common open office space downfall for companies is a lack of organization. To enable employees to concentrate and maintain productivity, companies should set aside quiet areas as well as breakout areas for meetings or brainstorming sessions. With this in mind, Natt suggests paying close attention to office acoustics. The next big issue is storage. With the retirement of the standardized cubicles comes the risk of exposed mess. Natt suggests looking into wall storage options, and Attick encourages companies to think about ergonomics and technology support. “There are fun and effective ways to clear off limited space on a desk while addressing ergonomics,” she says. For smaller offices, Phippen says it’s all about minimization. “Minimize aisles with effective use of walls and modular furniture. Consider eliminating the break room and making a combo break area/copy area. Strongly evaluate the footprint of the employee. If they sit in a six-by-eight cube but can work just as well in a six-by-six, make the change.” And not to be lost in all the functionality is the importance of atmosphere and décor. To spice up a small office, Natt suggests unique artwork that speaks to your company’s personality and uses bold colors. Not only will a dash of color brighten up the office, but some colors can make a space appear bigger. Phippen agrees that an accent wall has the potential to quickly change the work environment and also suggests adding greenery whenever possible. “Even horribly claustrophobic spaces are livened up with nature being so close. It gives the impression of being outside,” he says. More than anything, changing an office space takes courage and the ability to think outside the cube. “Cubicles are a hard habit to break,” Natt says, “A lot of people are just afraid to take the first step.”
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