Human spaces

How do you enable people to retain a modicum of privacy in crowded, open-plan offices? Pamela Buxton argues that it’s vital to provide alternative spaces within the traditional office environment and give workers more control over their surroundings



Sandbags, green netting, camouflage and hard hats – it’s not a scene from the movie Mash, but part of Google’s new London headquarters, designed by DEGW and now adapted thanks to a company-encouraged team personalisation project.


After all that careful planning, for some designers this customisation would be galling at the very least. But DEGW’s director of interior design Terry Gunnery is sanguine. ‘I think it enhances it. As long as what we’ve done is strong, I think it’s fine,’ he says.


And, as open-plan becomes the norm and desks get smaller because of technological advances, it’s more important than ever that designers can find a way of ensuring that clients feel at home in their workspace, whether by offering alternative, more private spaces, scope for personalisation, or simply coming up with a physical and visual barrier that offers a greater sense of privacy. It’s not just a question of a shelf for the family photo – indeed, these are now migrating to screensavers and phones – but an environment where staff feel they have some sort of control over where, and how, they work.


Yet, concepts of privacy are intangible, says DEGW environmental psychologist Carolyn Whitehead. ‘Privacy is not a universal truth.


You can’t tell just by looking at a space what it’ll mean to someone, because it’s the space plus the culture of the organisation that generates [different] meanings,’ she says. ‘Privacy is a construct and, as designers, we should unpick that – for example, differentiating between privacy and concentration.’


DEGW’s mantra is that people should have a range of spaces – from their desk to a quiet room, and even their home – and that all are part of the workplace, rather than seen as alternative to the workplace. With cordless technology, the desk has well and truly ceased to be the main event. And surely with the right attitude, this self-determination can only be good for morale.


‘When people have a choice over where they work, this in itself can add to the quality of their working life. Adults generally feel better if they have control over what they do and where they do it, than if they are told what to do and where they have to do it,’ says Whitehead.


But, what options are open to designers to provide some sense of privacy within an open-plan environment? In some ways, even attempting this can be seen as a contradiction in terms. It can be as simple as giving more space around desks, particularly for senior managers. Bennett Interior Design used screen-printed banners at Accenture. Another, non-acoustic option is beaded curtains, which Morey Smith is considering for Sony BMG’s new headquarters. Its > design takes an ‘offices without walls’ idea, giving staff everything they may have had in their previous cellular office such as desk, sofa, storage, but each far enough away from each other for privacy. In such a music-led company, acoustic privacy poses more of a challenge, with staff maybe having to change their protocols to either use headphones, or get used to sharing an office with different music being played.


Lydia Randall, director at BDGWorkfutures, suggests careful planning – sensitive departments such as human resources can be located in low-traffic, no-through areas to avoid overlooking, or desks can be arranged so that backs are to the walls to avoid anyone unexpectedly approaching.


‘The key is to give people task-based environments to do what they need to do,’ she says.


Simon Flint, design director of Sheppard Robson’s interior design division, agrees that clever planning can give the impression of privacy without destroying the open-plan aesthetic. ‘Privacy is perhaps not meeting people’s eyes, so you can play around with the shape of desks so you’re at a 45º angle, which will enhance the perception of privacy,’ he says.


Where more privacy is required, screens are the obvious option, but run the risk of working against the spirit of open-plan by creating corrals. For Google’s London and Madrid offices, DEGW got around this by designing glass screens that gave some acoustic and visual privacy, but were nonetheless transparent, with interlays in Google’s four corporate colours. They are also wipe-clean blank canvasses for staff to personalise.


Beyond these tactics, the now routine solution is to offer privacy away from the desk, for both concentrated work and relaxation.


‘It’s about choice – giving people a choice of where they want to work. You get less privacy at individual workstations because more people are sharing so the answer is to provide different environments,’ says Flint. Sheppard Robson recently completed the headquarters for the London Development Agency, with no screening around desks, but instead a variety of break-out areas, quiet rooms, touchdown areas, some with screens covered in graphic images such as leafy views of parks. This, of course, is made possible by enabling technology.


‘Workstations in certain market sectors are getting smaller so you’re sitting closer to colleagues. You have to give something back,’ adds Enrico Caruso, principal at workplace design specialist Gensler. ‘So, people are expecting little quiet rooms – where they can have a conversation, or maybe call their doctor – or spaces that are visually private, say if you’re lactating and need to express. More and more employers find they need to provide these. With our last three law firm projects, these kinds of rooms were needed for prayer rooms.’


‘For proper privacy you need lots of meeting areas,’ says Linda Morey Smith of Morey Smith. At its new offices for Nokia, for example, this includes rooms with comfy armchairs in the centre of the floor plate where people can go to take a call away from their work bench.


Another strategy to make staff feel more at home in a large office environment is to give them some degree of control over their personal workspace.


‘People do want the ability to personalise. There’s more of a need for choice over where they can work,’ says Richard Beastall, principal of Bennett Interior Design.


In terms of configuration, Vitra’s Joyn system is cited again and again by designers as a good way to denote territory within open-plan, and afford some customisation with add-on elements such as screens, storage and tables in addition to the main work bench. Furniture consultant Robert Webster says it is head and shoulders above other systems and recently recommended it for Unipath’s new headquarters in Bedford.


Where a more personal intervention in the office design takes place, this is more often company-sponsored personalisation by group, rather than individual, whether taking place in the main office, as at Google, or in break-out zones in the name of team-building.


‘As a designer, the fascist in me comes out and says the environment should be more about the organisation’s brand,’ says Caruso. ‘But I’ve walked through some call centres that are grim, super-branded and with a churn rate so high that there’s no time to pin up a picture of your daughter,’ he adds, admitting that some degree of personalisation should be possible at the workplace.


‘It does depend on what industry you’re working with as to how much they care about allowing you to build in individuality. In the media, they’re happy for people to personalise their space and have some control,’ says Morey Smith.


For the design of Sony BMG’s offices, Morey Smith is planning to give the various record labels scope for their own identities within the open-plan environment. Different, and easily changed, wallpapers in meeting rooms can give alternative vibes, for example.


‘We want there to be a sense of cohesion, but with separate elements – as long as they’re all chosen by us to work together,’ she says.


Without a clear framework for where this takes place, the results can be messy. Webster suggests keeping ephemera away from the desks and instead in more communal areas, such as the coffee point. For Nesta’s new offices in the City of London, Bennett Interior Design provided a space where everyone could pin up their holiday photos.


‘You set the boundaries of what’s acceptable so it isn’t complete chaos,’ says Beastall. ‘It’s nice and adds to creativity.’


Even so, designers shouldn’t leave it too long to take the publicity shots.

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