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Where will your best, brightest want to work?

Dan Kahl

Where is work getting done these days? Just about everywhere.

Smart phones and high-speed digital networks allow us to work while boating on Tahoe, on hunting trips and while watching our kids’ practices and ball games. The trend for office workers is not so much working from home as it is working from anywhere. While technology is driving more and more work being conducted away from our desks and cubicles at the work place, what is happening to the traditional office furniture plan? Real estate professionals across the United States have reported for years the corporate trend of eliminating private offices and planning more employees into smaller leased spaces. The obvious purpose, of course, is bottom-line cost reductions and increasing the ability to maintain and increase staff levels in smaller spaces. What is far less obvious is the benefit that smaller work areas and more open cubicle environments can increase collaboration and creativity for our talented workforce.

“(Our employees) are more concerned with being around other people who do cool things, than bigger paychecks”, says executive Zach Ware, an executive with Nevada-based Zappos.com told USA Today in June. Mr. Ware seems to be speaking of the importance of the office “culture” that our business leaders and owners seek to create. As a long-time office furniture dealer and planner, I’ve heard over the years my clients often discuss the needs for increased efficiencies, productivity, and lower costs. However, what I’m hearing more and more from Nevada business owners of all sizes and sectors is their perceived need for more collaboration as a key driver, and as the culture they desire. Managers and owners want their employees to interact more in order to solve problems faster and better serve their customers’ needs. Collaboration seems to benefit management’s basic goals and the young workers’ basic needs. Even with dramatic changes, most of us believe that the office still remains the critical place that work gets done and for client interactions. So, if a collaborative office culture a more beneficial trend, what does it look like and how can you change an office set up around without spending a bundle?

Collaboration is simply the culture of being around people, so an office furniture layout should encourage more interaction, beginning with how people arrive and leave the work place. Open office spaces can have areas and furniture layouts that encourage spontaneous meetings employees bumping into one another, rather than quietly slipping out and into the parking lot. Studies have shown that in an office overrun with technology, quick spontaneous direct communication is often more productive for employees than time-consuming, impersonal voicemails, texts, and emails. Personal communication also eliminates the dreaded unintentional email that comes across cold or angry, unnecessarily causing drama and discord in the office.

Elaborate cubicle panel systems were originally designed to accommodate professionals who felt they should have their own private office, so the norm was high divider panels, at seven feet or more and large cubicles (8 feet by 10 feet), which often became a rat maze, a “Dilbert” world. In a collaborative work environment, the divider panels and desks are more open and inviting for employee interaction with smaller personal spaces (6 feet by 6 feet). Collaborative office furniture is primarily accomplished with lower divider panels of varying heights (four feet to no more than 66 inches high), often incorporating glass segments on the upper portions to create an open, airy feel. Divider panels, no matter the height remain the primary source for delivering power and network cabling to users in large open office spaces. The employee still has their individual work space to personalize, but not so private to effectively shut out themselves out from fellow associates in the office.

Collaborative work areas can be centered around teams, and not necessarily with the same job functions. Clients have requested office furniture be set up in bullpen style work areas of four to eight staff members where customer service and technical staff work in a very open work area setting with curved, connected desks and free standing tables separated from the rest of the open office with higher panels and a specific entrances to the bullpen. Bullpen collaborative areas are very effective for teams working on a specific project or client. Collaborative work areas and bullpens are not suited for all types for work. Attorneys, executives, and some financial professionals may require their own private office space. Human resource professionals often have small shared conference rooms at their disposal for their private use.

A common pitfall that management must be prepared to deal with in a more open office culture is noise levels and the perception of excessive distractions. Proper acoustical properties in an open office are very important and acoustic panel dividers are actual less impactful than a proper acoustic tile drop ceiling and commercial grade carpet over pad. I’ve installed offices where they have cement floors or hard dry wall ceilings and worse both. Noise level in offices with hard surface elements above and below often create excessive and problematic noise level environments. Employee distraction is a serious issue to consider as well, but I would I argue another matter completely, as it may be more a generational issue. The younger work force with the myriad technology at their disposal, often simultaneously, is far more prepared to maintain productivity in a busy, distracting work environment if proper acoustics are maintained.

Lowering cubicle wall heights and reducing employees cube sizes can foster employee collaboration. And for owners and managers employing the next generation, collaborative and creative work environments just may be a foremost factor in successfully recruiting and retaining the best and brightest.

Dan Kahl is the owner and founder of KAHL Commercial Interiors Inc. in Reno. Contact him at 775-284-3600 or through http://www.kahlnv.com.