Want to save the corner office? Move it

'Huge shift' in office space thinking emphasizes openness, light, collaboration more than ever [Online-only supplement to our Boom magazine]

By Ashley Devick

Say goodbye to hierarchy and hello to collaboration. As the corner office falls by the wayside, the open office layout is here to stay – and the walls are coming down.

This means private offices and conference rooms are moving away from the window lines – if they are being utilized at all. Low-level workstations make up the perimeter of the space so plenty of natural light can penetrate the work area, all to create an open and more collaborative environment.

Cindy Sorci, owner of Nashville-based Sorci and Swords Design, an architectural firm that has been in business since 1986, has seen trends come and go. But this is one practice she believes is here to stay.

“I think we’re at the beginning of a huge shift,” Sorci said.

Not long ago, this open design theme was reserved for the super hip and creative business platforms. But more formal industries are taking note and embracing the smaller footprint. With rising real estate costs and long lease terms, the idea is to minimize real estate expenses and maximize the efficiency of the workplace.

“They are looking to reduce their footprint, compact their square footage, reduce their filing and storage needs by doing electronic filing, and offering a smaller workstation,” Sorci said.

Sorci’s firm has been working this way for years and has no private offices at all. As owner of the company, she sits in a workstation just like everyone else and contributes to more open lines of communication.

In addition to efficiencies and some cost considerations, the move toward more open-space designs also speaks to a change in how many companies are choosing to go about their daily business. Increasingly, managers are coming to the realization that they can get more from their teams by splitting their time between direct collaboration and individual work.

“We see lower workstation heights and a lot more focus on collaboration instead of the heads-down style of working,” said Tim Butler, an account manger at ID+A, a firm that provides furniture and space planning services. “Every project that we’ve worked on recently, the direction has been to go from that traditional, offices-on-the-perimeter look, to a more open plan with the offices in the core so the light can get in.”

Many believe that this type of work environment also speaks to young workers, who increasingly are using lifestyle factors in choosing where to live and work. As such, effective and attractive office spaces can help businesses — and cities as a whole — attract new talent.

“I think that the younger generations of workers — Gen X, Gen Y and Millennials — have come to expect their workplace to not be a sea of workstations with tall panels, but a lot more open,” Butler said.

Sorci said working effectively with natural light is “a huge plus.” It also allows space planners to have a smaller office feel bigger and make its workers more comfortable — and productive.

Around the country, this isn’t a new concept. But it did take a few years for it to catch on in Nashville. David Creed, commercial real estate broker with Sperry Van Ness, said that fears of reduced productivity and the demise of corner-office aspirations was the main drawback for a lot of businesses.

“While the open-floor plan creates a beautiful atmosphere and leads to a lot of great collaboration, sometimes the same characteristics that lead to collaboration can hurt employee productivity,” Creed said.

Sorci said it comes down to learning how to make this environment fit into your company culture. Clear communication about minding your manners in open areas — having a mini-department meeting around a cube probably isn’t the best idea — is key to making open workspace really work for everyone.

“A lot of this has to do with the staff training employees in how to use an open office environment and how to be respectful,” Sorci said.

To combat workers’ objections about noise and privacy, designers and furniture vendors have created solutions to prevent a lapse in worker efficiency. Furniture makers, for instance, have developed sound masking systems that use white noise to keep large spaces relatively quiet. In addition, businesses are embracing small breakout rooms and separated spaces in the core of their floor plans so that people can have various degrees of privacy if need be.

This approach has worked in a lot of places. Creed now sees a lot of his clients gravitating towards the open-plan model. Even businesses in more traditional sectors such as finance, insurance and law are embracing the trend. When his clients aren’t completely ready to let go of their private offices, they are moving them away from the windows and building open areas on the perimeter to maximize open-feel and natural light.

“There is something inherently cool about an open layout,” Creed said. “It tends to lend itself to clean lines as opposed to the choppiness that comes along with private offices.”

So is this trend going away? Not in the near future, experts say.

“You get the blend of private offices and open collaborative space plus you’re also getting that hip, trendy, visually stimulating build out,” Creed said.

And to many business owners, that combination is becoming a valuable contributor to their bottom line.