The field of workplace design can feel absurdly like political debate. You’ve got experts on one side barnstorming for freewheeling open-office plans and experts on the other side espousing the 9-to-5 equivalent of a sensory-deprivation chamber, with each concept held up as an affirmation of some all-important corporate value. (Creativity! Privacy!) The whole thing’s terribly reductive, and it glides over the fact that different organizations benefit from different office arrangements. Not only that, the same organization often requires a variety of layouts.
Planning Office Spaces: A Practical Guide for Managers and Designers, by Juriaan van Meel, Yuri Martens, and Hermen Jan van Ree, is the rare bipartisan primer. First written in Dutch and now available in English, it presents the pros and cons of a raft of workplace features, from team spaces and locker rooms to cubicles and private offices. The point is less about proving the superiority of one plan over another than helping managers, employees, and others decide on the design best suited to their company. That, in turn, can vastly improve worker productivity and even reduce the cost of doing business. “I get a little tired of this formulaic thinking,” says van Meel, who, like his co-authors, has spent his career analyzing and researching workplace design. “If you look at the existing literature, people are saying oh, ‘Everybody needs a hot desk.’ But companies should make up their own mind. What works for a creative start-up won’t necessarily work for a well-established law firm.”
Consider the open-plan office everyone goes gaga for nowadays. As the authors point out: It makes efficient use of space, which managers loves because they pay less rent; it’s easy to reconfigure; and it eliminates pretty much all barriers to communication. On the negative side: Open floorplans are noisy, depersonalized, and they’re lousy for confidential work. You don’t see many lawyers sharing enormous craft tables.
Or, think about game rooms. They’re practically mandatory at studiedly casual Internet startups nowadays. But while they can improve morale and help employees unwind, they’re also a waste of expensive office space — especially if they’re underused.
To help managers make design decisions, the book includes a handful case studies. Among them: a refurb of an insurance office that was spending 25 percent more on operating costs than comparable institutions and as a result, decided to place the entire workforce at shared desks; and a media company that filled its office with designer furniture and brainstorming space to stimulate creativity.
Here, van Meel takes us through some of the key factors to consider when piecing together a new workplace.