The Evolution of Corporate Interior Design

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The Evolution of Corporate Interior Design: 
A Changing Workplace for a New Generation

There is a new generation of employees in the workforce today. They are the first generation who have grown up with technology at their fingertips, and they have a different perspective on the workplace that more closely resembles a coffee shop than an office building. This perspective is catching on, and this new generation of workers is changing the way they do business – or at least the way they approach their work environment.

The biggest change? Community workspaces. Once nearly unheard of, apart from the occasional conference room, shared space is fast becoming the next big thing. An evolution is taking place slowly, but persistently, that fosters an atmosphere of collaboration and allows for maximization of available technology.

Before we talk very much about this evolution, perhaps it’s best to begin with why this is important, and why corporate space planning and interior design is of any value at all. 

WHY DESIGN?

One North Dallas Corridor design firm knows firsthand what an impact a business’s “face” can have on employees and their potential clients. Interprise Design will celebrate its 30-year anniversary in 2011. Kaye McCallum, vice president at Interprise, says that longevity is something she and the firm are very proud of.

“We have long-tenured staff,” she said. “About half of our staff has been here for more than 10 years. We all know each other really well, and it’s a close-knit group.”

McCallum says that making interior design a priority for your company is simply good business. Paul Osborn, also of Interprise Design, agrees. He says first impressions are very important and that the atmosphere of your offices can set the tone.

“We see the first impression happening before you even walk into the building,” he said. “It happens as you’re driving up to the building, when you see the parking garage and the elevators.”

But Osborn says that it’s not just about the look. He says that the aesthetics are only a fraction of the overall job – the function is really more critical. The aesthetics are simply a benefit to a functional space.

Debbie Munson, of North Dallas Office Furniture, says that among the most important reasons is the employees comfort.

“Most of us spend a lot of time at work and it is important to be comfortable and happy,” she said. “A happy employee is a profitable one. If a space is planned out well, it takes into account the processes of each employee and each department, and the space is planned to flow with these processes to make it easy for employees to access what they need in order to get work done quickly and effectively. All in all, it makes a company more profitable.”

Another reason to take a second look at the office’s design is simply to retain employees. Debbie Hawkins, of Miller Office Interiors, says that the new generation of employees is not staying with one employer as long as previous generations.

“Employees used to stay at one job for 10-15 years,” she said. “But today, it’s more like 2-5 years. Employers today are seeing faster turnover, so they have to adapt their workspaces so that it appeals to their employees in an effort to keep them longer.”

Hawkins says it’s becoming more and more important for businesses to make their workplaces conducive to their employees needs and wants in an effort to maintain morale and a sense of community.

EVOLUTION

Just like the major shift to mass cubicles in the past 20-30 years, there is another revolution in the culture of the workplace that is happening right now. Interprise Design offices in Addison’s Spectrum Center – and they also redesigned the building. Part of their project was creating community areas in the lobbies and concourses, and McCallum says she quickly saw a shift in employees using the space for their needs.

“One thing you will see when you walk the concourses is more lounge seating,” she says. “That’s something that we’re seeing more of all over – hospitality seating. It’s amazing to see how people in the building started to utilize these spaces. They would bring their lunch and sit and talk.”

This mentality and trend is something that McCallum and others say is breaking into the office space as well.

Hawkins says that it’s not something we will see happen overnight, but that the changes we are beginning to see today will continue to progress into the next 5 to 10 years.

“The newest generation of workers communicates differently,” she said. “They are collaborators and they prefer to work in a way that allows for that more easily.”

In response, several changes are being made to both individual workstations and the office as a whole.

“Over the years, panel heights on cubicles have started to drop,” Hawkins says. “That is in part because of the new generation of workers and the way in which they communicate.”

With lower panels on cubicles, there is more ease in working with your neighbor and even with someone several cubicles away.

Hawkins says that, while there has been some concern over the level of noise increasing with the lowering of separation walls, this generation already has a remedy: texting. This allows for quick, clear messages to be delivered across the room – without all the shouting. Gone are the days of hiding cell phones in locked drawers. Today, it’s part of the workplace.

Munson says the lower walls are not only practical, but aesthetic as well.

“Cubicle walls are going lower – 53” tall, if not lower – to open up the space and utilize the sunlight at windows and give a very stark, clean white space overall and using the light colors to help reflect sunlight and use less man-made lighting,” she said. “The stackable look with glass is something you see a lot of – it gives a nice look but also again allows light to open up the space.”

Osborn says there is a huge emphasis on lighting in the workplace, but that it hasn’t always been the case.

“In the old days, there would be offices around the exteriors by the windows for those with seniority,” he says. “And there were work stations and secretarial stations in the center. Now, it’s completely flip-flopped. That natural light is available to the majority of people working in the space, not just for those on the exterior. Lower panels on cubicles and more open, collaborative spaces are accomplishing that.”

Another change is in the overall design of the workplace as a whole. In the past, the goal was to fit as many cubicles into a space as possible. Today, things are changing rapidly. An evolution is taking place that is transforming spaces from individual slots to open, community spaces that allow for shared areas and easy collaboration.

“Break rooms are becoming more like town squares or like a café,” Osborn said. “People aren’t punching clocks so much anymore. There’s a more relaxed schedule. Interactive spaces may have a pool table or video games depending on the demographic of the company. There’s a blurring of the lines between what an office looks like and what a residence looks like.”

Osborn says that this trend is something that grew out of the dot com boom and bust.

“During the dot com boom, you wanted to make your staff feel like they never had to go home,” he said. “That didn’t quite work, obviously – there has to be a balance – but this is what’s come in the aftermath of that idea.”

Hawkins says employers are focusing more on how the workspaces can promote productivity and creativity and less on how many cubes they can fit in a space.

GENERAL TRENDS

ERGONOMICS

Ergonomics is always in style, and is as important as ever. Today, there are a lot more options for those who want something that will keep their body in line and look classy as well. Munson says there are certainly ways to achieve both.

“Herman Miller has done a great job with the Aeron chairs and still to this day most people, if they have a preference, are asking for “mesh like” chairs because they have seen the Aeron and want that look, but not necessarily the price,” she says. “There are many manufacturers out there that have clones of this chair.”

Plus, Munson says, more manufacturers are adding ergonomic options to their standard chairs to make it easier to work healthier.

“All of your grade A quality task chairs have all ergonomic options available to allow all sizes of people to sit and work properly,” she says. “That is, if the company chooses to go that route. With the economy, many companies are tightening up their belt and buying a less expensive chairs and that is the No. 1 most important item you can purchase for an employee.”

When it comes to desks, Munson says the trends – although shifting from private offices to cubicles – are dark wood finishes like Mocha and Espresso.

GREENING OF THE WORKPLACE

There are many ways that the workplace is becoming a greener environment, from paperless storage to working from home to green materials. Munson says she is happy to see this change.

“We are seeing the storage needs decrease,” she said. “People really are going paperless – or are trying to – and so there is less storage needed in today’s office space than ever before. I think this is a great move to see for our ‘green office space.’”

The other most obvious green initiatives are in the efforts of businesses to cut down on the amount of space they are using and the amount of people working in the office.

“Many employees share a desk at the office and work from home,” Munson said. “Some only have a drawer or a file cabinet at the office as their ‘office’ and the rest is on a computer so they can work from home.”

This cuts down on the amount of space being used, the amount of commuting the office and the amount of paper used for filing – all of which help to keep a business green.

“We have seen the green initiative really take hold in the design community which dominoes into furniture,” Munson says. “Many furniture manufactures have products that they tout as green – or are made with recycled products.”

Munson gives the example that the Herman Miller Aeron claims to be made from 94 percent recycleable product.

“This is great, but I think it is very important for people out there to remember that buying pre-owned office furniture is a great way to be part of the green initiative and to help recycle,” she said.

Hawkins agrees, and points out that certification from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system is becoming more and more important to businesses and they are taking that into consideration when planning their space.

LEED awards points for certain things, like lower cube panels that allow more natural light to come in, as well as using sustainable materials for building and office products,” Hawkins says. “This is becoming more and more of a trend and the cost for sustainable materials and products is gradually going down, which makes it easier for businesses to make sustainability a priority.”

-By Michelle Devereaux

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