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Thursday
Apr122012

Beta Space: Innovating the Workplace by Going Back to Basics

Amsterdam’s Alphabet Building is a prime example of Beta Space in action.

The idea of sharing office space has been around for over a decade, but only in the past few years has that idea evolved from employees simply sharing contiguous physical space into something much more exciting: coworking. Coworking’s simple tagline: “Working alone sucks so come and join the coworking revolution” says it all, as do the metrics associated with coworking environments: According to Global Enterprise, an economic think tank based in Brussels, about 87 percent of coworkers start new projects with others they meet in their space. Other statistics from the Global Coworking Study shared by DeskMag, a magazine about new type of work places, indicate that 86 percent of coworkers have increased their business network; 57 percent work in teams more often.

Coworking spaces favor the startup, but what if you’re a larger firm looking to capitalize on the coworking revolution in your own organization? At Gensler, we’re taking the concept of coworking a step further, applying it to private companies. The result is Beta Space, which I believe is the next evolution in office design. Beta Space takes the social and informal nature of a coworking layout, as well as its flexibility and bare bones approach to building out a space, and applies it to a corporate setting. Rather than approaching an office from a facilities perspective—putting X amount of desks here and Y amount of conference rooms there—Beta Space focuses on what can enhance the immediacy of interaction amongst employees. It allows occupants to modify the space as they need and want to. Allowing workers to tweak a layout in a way that enhances opportunities for social interaction among employees will keep them interacting on a weekly, daily, and hourly level.

The design industry has long used the term plug-and-play to describe flexible work spaces. Beta Space supersizes this concept by creating a highly flexible workspace that fosters more immediacy of interaction. It is what I call accelerated serendipity amongst occupants. I have clients who envision their ideal space similar to the very coworking spaces we are designing for entrepreneurs, like the 1871 coworking and incubating space Gensler is currently building in Chicago and opening this May. These clients are looking for a workspace that is flexible for now and years into the future, highly “hackable” by the employees themselves, and above all laid out to encourage accelerated serendipity. Beta Space is what they are asking for.

Beta space also opens up interesting opportunities for real estate developers. It allows them to create new models of leasable, cost effective, quick turn-around work space properties that deliver significant value to companies. Case in point: Amsterdam’s Alphabet Building (pictured above). The office block is intended for small to mid-size creative agencies that often are challenged by the costs associated with taking on traditional office space, such as long lease terms, space improvements, etc. The Alphabet Building appeals to these firms by providing space designed to be up and running quickly, and likewise broken down fast, to be ready for the next tenant. It is fully ‘hackable’ and very flexible in nature.

Given the growing popularity of coworking, it’s safe to say that large companies and even developers are going to be taking cues from how coworkers approach and use their space. Coworking was the seed, and Beta Space is the logical evolutionary leap for the office environment of the future.

Carlos Martinez is a hybrid architect, designer, innovation seeker, and strategist. He passionately advocates for the strategic importance of great design and is constantly seeking to create memorable spaces that honor their roots, delight users, and elevate expectations. And while he considers himself to be an eternal student of the power of design, he is also an instructor, serving as adjunct professor of design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Send Carlos your ideas and questions at carlos_martinez@gensler.com

Reader Comments (16)

This only works when employees travel more than 15 days a month. People need privacy to be productive.
04.23.2012 | Unregistered CommenterShannon Officer
This is surely a budget-based concept. Senior staff would only approve this for clerical staff use. It would be helpful if designers considered these things before publishing this type of article.
04.23.2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Winchell
Beta is hype! Let's get back to good design basics.
04.23.2012 | Unregistered CommenterLawson Kostka
Lawson, get back to work~
04.23.2012 | Unregistered CommenterShannon Officer
This is an academic concept that doesn't work in the real world!
04.23.2012 | Unregistered CommenterDenny Wagner
Denny, get back to work~
04.23.2012 | Unregistered CommenterShannon Officer
Thank you all for your comments.

One of the more positive changes in workplace design is that a single type of workplace is no longer appropriate for everybody. Enclosed (i.e. traditional) offices will always be around. So will mixed environments that maintain a certain ratio between private offices in relationship to open plan workstations (50:50, 80:20, etc). Beta Space acknowledges that for the right type of company and the right type of business culture, a more flexible design is a welcome approach. It’s highly welcomed by an emerging kind of office users.

The true evolution of the workplace is the clear acknowledgment that "one size no longer fits all." In other words, just as we now understand the importance of talent diversity in companies, we are also welcoming a much broader understanding of the variety of workplace designs. For some companies, Beta Space will offer what is not appropriate for others.
04.25.2012 | Registered CommenterCarlos Martinez
You know this is a great concept for smaller companies with limited resources or larger corporations that have smaller satellite offices. There is a lot of appeal in how this could be sold to the end user but designers have an obligation to take these spaces to full adaptability. We need to adopt the European philosophy of “take it with you.” All elements that are enclosed with in a space should be demountable – millwork, restrooms…all of it; just the warm building shell remains the constant. This is responsible design because it allows buildings to always be what ever the next best thing is and with out having to introduce any construction above the shell itself. This clearly isn’t anything new but, I feel, Architects have become complacent to the market here in the US and have lost their ability to really push the “envelope.” I think Gensler, or all architecture firms inthe US for that matter, needs to determine ways of incorporating design elements and most certainly technology that allows a building’s exterior to adapt visually to a changing commercial and business world. We throw away our buildings too much here but worse we create what becomes outdated and for as much technology as we put into the inside I don’t really see the push to really change the outside “envelope.”

What say you Gensler folks – you pride yourselves on staying above the mark…so what can you do to shape the visual of our 21st century cities? How can we create a skyline that doesn’t change any structures but constantly changes appearance? The truth is we have enough tools out there to make a work place – work. Now you need to concentrate on the cover.
04.26.2012 | Unregistered CommenterRoberta
Seriously, this is a fad. We've all been doing this long enough to know that - but nice try Carlos!
04.27.2012 | Unregistered CommenterShannon Officer
And these spaces tend to be very loud.. I don't see much acoustic support in the rendering..
04.27.2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Winchell
Get back to work Pete~
04.27.2012 | Unregistered CommenterShannon Officer
This type of space, as an option for corporate users, will become reality sooner than you think. While I agree standard cubicle design will exist, more and more companies are moving towards flexible, collaborative work environments.
05.2.2012 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie
This concept might be intriguing if the people in the rendering were actually working. These photos never show the real world of tangled computer wires, stacks of files, reference books, rolls of plans, piles of samples, jackets, foot warmers, staplers and paper clips, coffee cups and candy dishes, family photos. As long as we have all those things we will actually work in any environment our employer provides.
05.3.2012 | Unregistered CommenterNelson
'Pink Noise' Grows as Offices Go Open Plan
FINS US Apr 17 2012
It sure sounded like a good idea.

When Tuft and Lach Law, a small law practice in St. Paul, Minn. opted for open, shared office space, they didn't expect to hate it. After all, numerous academic studies have shown that workers are more productive in open offices and, in the trendsetting tech industry, open plans are standard.

For the law firm, it didn't work out that way. "We had a receptionist and secretary sharing a workstation," said Thomas Tuft. "The one with the biggest voice could be heard on the other's phone calls and in attorney offices by clients on the phone with the attorneys." If two people had to take a call simultaneously, they were forced to whisper.

So Tuft and Lach reverted. Despite the expense, they built individual offices for each of the company's employees, excluding the receptionist. Now, said Tuft, "everyone is more productive and can close the door and focus when they need to. Employees who have their own office feel like they can make it their own and do things to make it their space, and they are more comfortable."

Tuft and Lach's decision to revert to a traditional workspace is just one example of the buyer's remorse companies are experiencing after installing open-plan seating. Promises of more efficient, productive and collaborative teams of workers aren't always delivered on, leaving many companies grappling with the pitfalls that come with new, nontraditional office designs.
Cost-cutting is driving the move to open, collaborative spaces as much as the desire to create a non-hierarchical corporate culture. A 2011 survey from corporate real estate consultancy Jones Lang LaSalle in partnership with Thomson Reuters said 97% of corporate respondents planned to implement one or more cost-saving measures relating to real-estate, such consolidating into fewer buildings, in response to the financial crisis.

Employees are less enthusiastic. A 2009 Swedish study published in the Journal of Architectural Planning and Research concluded that when it came to office design, employees were least satisfied with open-plan workspaces. Those in medium-size and large open offices reported the most dissatisfaction.

Most workers just don't like the noise and loss of privacy when talking on the phone or to one another when barriers between desks are eliminated. A survey from the American Society of Interior Designers found that 70% of workers feel they'd be more productive in a less noisy environment while research from the University of California at Berkeley found that 72% of workers are unhappy with the level of speech privacy they have in their workplace. A study from Bosti Associates found that 59% of employees' time is spent on quiet, focused work rather than collaborating with others.

"When you're in an open office, your brain becomes perceptually loaded," said Steven Orfield, president of Orfield Laboratories, a Minneapolis-based architectural and product-research firm. New open-offices are just modern versions of old line factories or call centers, he said, where workers were seated shoulder-to-shoulder with no divisions between them.

"Working in a collaborative cubicle office is kind of like working in a call center, and call-center workers last nine months before they get out of there," said Orfield. "When you can work better from a Starbucks than you can from your own office, that's an issue."

Menachem Wecker, who worked for the daily news service of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., can attest to that. Once the school transitioned to an open, communal space, "the noise level was really high," said Wecker, particularly when his co-workers brought their dogs to work.

Many GW folks conducted conference calls on speakerphone, talking over one another while sitting next to employees working quietly, Wecker said. Private conference rooms were scarce and carefully hoarded by those with access to the reservations system. "You would get certain people in the office who would reserve those spaces on an ongoing basis," said Wecker.

"I tried to use Google chat and email as my primary mode of communication and tried to use the phone less as I was self-conscious about my own conversations and how loudly I was speaking," Wecker said. "There is no benefit to the open office if everyone is just plugged in with their headphones."

Badly planned open offices, however, are creating a boom for workplace design companies. Dave Sauter, president of Pittsburgh-based Workscape Inc., which provides modular walls, cubicles and "sound-masking" systems to workplaces throughout the U.S., said his sales have increased by 41% since 2009. More than 70% of his clients with open offices retrofit with sound masking systems.

"Every time we see the floor plans of collaborative offices, it usually means that there will be a high number of people who are dissatisfied with their speech privacy," Sauter said. "When we see these kinds of opportunities, we start coming up with solutions right away because we know it is a problem waiting to happen."

Pink Noise

To reduce noise levels, Sauter's firm installs speaker systems that play a continuous stream of pink noise, a modification of white noise that is ideal for covering up the spectrum of human speech. "When we hear even a few words out of every sentence, it is human nature to try to fill in the blanks and complete the puzzle," he said. By adding a layer of sound, it interferes with our understanding of individual words.

"The only time we get a complaint is when the power goes out," Sauter said. "People feel naked without it, they're screaming at us to get the system back on."

Retrofitting also involves raising the height of cubicle walls. "One of the key selling features that most manufacturers offer is stackability," he said. "It's a way to commit to the open plan but have a way back to taller cubes if the troops revolt."

For Peter Miscovich, the open-plan office works only because he rarely works from the office in the first place. "The way I work and the way a lot of people are working today is much more mobile and flexible," said Miscovich, a managing director with Jones Lang LaSalle. He goes to his office once every couple of weeks, he said, preferring to work anywhere from hotel rooms and clients' offices to shopping malls and Starbucks.

"The notion of noise in a collaborative workspace is a nonissue for me because if I need to do concentrated work, I find a space that works for me," he said. Physical meetings are still important, said Miscovich, but if the work you're doing doesn't require collaboration, the notion of being tethered to a desk seems counterintuitive.

Successfully implementing a flexible workspace requires employers to understand the diverse needs and preferences of their employees, particularly that some are more easily distracted than others, Miscovich said.

Wecker said he doesn't recall being asked about his work-environment preferences before GW changed its office style, or any follow-up after the switch. "It was something all the 'cool' offices were doing," he said.

Many employers are arbitrarily deciding on the open-plan office without measuring its success in the long run, said Orfield. None of his clients, many of which are Fortune 500 firms, have created and analyzed benchmarks between older, permanent workspaces and new, flexible ones, he said.

"They don't track user preferences in the new spaces against the old ones," Orfield said, "the only thing they're tracking is their cost savings."

Write to Kelly Eggers at Kelly.Eggers@dowjones.com
05.8.2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Winchell
'Pink Noise' Grows as Offices Go Open Plan
FINS US Career Advice Apr 17 2012
It sure sounded like a good idea.

When Tuft and Lach Law, a small law practice in St. Paul, Minn. opted for open, shared office space, they didn't expect to hate it. After all, numerous academic studies have shown that workers are more productive in open offices and, in the trendsetting tech industry, open plans are standard.

For the law firm, it didn't work out that way. "We had a receptionist and secretary sharing a workstation," said Thomas Tuft. "The one with the biggest voice could be heard on the other's phone calls and in attorney offices by clients on the phone with the attorneys." If two people had to take a call simultaneously, they were forced to whisper.

So Tuft and Lach reverted. Despite the expense, they built individual offices for each of the company's employees, excluding the receptionist. Now, said Tuft, "everyone is more productive and can close the door and focus when they need to. Employees who have their own office feel like they can make it their own and do things to make it their space, and they are more comfortable."

Tuft and Lach's decision to revert to a traditional workspace is just one example of the buyer's remorse companies are experiencing after installing open-plan seating. Promises of more efficient, productive and collaborative teams of workers aren't always delivered on, leaving many companies grappling with the pitfalls that come with new, nontraditional office designs.

Cost-cutting is driving the move to open, collaborative spaces as much as the desire to create a non-hierarchical corporate culture. A 2011 survey from corporate real estate consultancy Jones Lang LaSalle in partnership with Thomson Reuters said 97% of corporate respondents planned to implement one or more cost-saving measures relating to real-estate, such consolidating into fewer buildings, in response to the financial crisis.

Employees are less enthusiastic. A 2009 Swedish study published in the Journal of Architectural Planning and Research concluded that when it came to office design, employees were least satisfied with open-plan workspaces. Those in medium-size and large open offices reported the most dissatisfaction.

Most workers just don't like the noise and loss of privacy when talking on the phone or to one another when barriers between desks are eliminated. A survey from the American Society of Interior Designers found that 70% of workers feel they'd be more productive in a less noisy environment while research from the University of California at Berkeley found that 72% of workers are unhappy with the level of speech privacy they have in their workplace. A study from Bosti Associates found that 59% of employees' time is spent on quiet, focused work rather than collaborating with others.

"When you're in an open office, your brain becomes perceptually loaded," said Steven Orfield, president of Orfield Laboratories, a Minneapolis-based architectural and product-research firm. New open-offices are just modern versions of old line factories or call centers, he said, where workers were seated shoulder-to-shoulder with no divisions between them.

"Working in a collaborative cubicle office is kind of like working in a call center, and call-center workers last nine months before they get out of there," said Orfield. "When you can work better from a Starbucks than you can from your own office, that's an issue."

Menachem Wecker, who worked for the daily news service of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., can attest to that. Once the school transitioned to an open, communal space, "the noise level was really high," said Wecker, particularly when his co-workers brought their dogs to work.

Many GW folks conducted conference calls on speakerphone, talking over one another while sitting next to employees working quietly, Wecker said. Private conference rooms were scarce and carefully hoarded by those with access to the reservations system. "You would get certain people in the office who would reserve those spaces on an ongoing basis," said Wecker.

"I tried to use Google chat and email as my primary mode of communication and tried to use the phone less as I was self-conscious about my own conversations and how loudly I was speaking," Wecker said. "There is no benefit to the open office if everyone is just plugged in with their headphones."

Badly planned open offices, however, are creating a boom for workplace design companies. Dave Sauter, president of Pittsburgh-based Workscape Inc., which provides modular walls, cubicles and "sound-masking" systems to workplaces throughout the U.S., said his sales have increased by 41% since 2009. More than 70% of his clients with open offices retrofit with sound masking systems.

"Every time we see the floor plans of collaborative offices, it usually means that there will be a high number of people who are dissatisfied with their speech privacy," Sauter said. "When we see these kinds of opportunities, we start coming up with solutions right away because we know it is a problem waiting to happen."

Pink Noise

To reduce noise levels, Sauter's firm installs speaker systems that play a continuous stream of pink noise, a modification of white noise that is ideal for covering up the spectrum of human speech. "When we hear even a few words out of every sentence, it is human nature to try to fill in the blanks and complete the puzzle," he said. By adding a layer of sound, it interferes with our understanding of individual words.

"The only time we get a complaint is when the power goes out," Sauter said. "People feel naked without it, they're screaming at us to get the system back on."

Retrofitting also involves raising the height of cubicle walls. "One of the key selling features that most manufacturers offer is stackability," he said. "It's a way to commit to the open plan but have a way back to taller cubes if the troops revolt."

For Peter Miscovich, the open-plan office works only because he rarely works from the office in the first place. "The way I work and the way a lot of people are working today is much more mobile and flexible," said Miscovich, a managing director with Jones Lang LaSalle. He goes to his office once every couple of weeks, he said, preferring to work anywhere from hotel rooms and clients' offices to shopping malls and Starbucks.

"The notion of noise in a collaborative workspace is a nonissue for me because if I need to do concentrated work, I find a space that works for me," he said. Physical meetings are still important, said Miscovich, but if the work you're doing doesn't require collaboration, the notion of being tethered to a desk seems counterintuitive.

Successfully implementing a flexible workspace requires employers to understand the diverse needs and preferences of their employees, particularly that some are more easily distracted than others, Miscovich said.

Wecker said he doesn't recall being asked about his work-environment preferences before GW changed its office style, or any follow-up after the switch. "It was something all the 'cool' offices were doing," he said.

Many employers are arbitrarily deciding on the open-plan office without measuring its success in the long run, said Orfield. None of his clients, many of which are Fortune 500 firms, have created and analyzed benchmarks between older, permanent workspaces and new, flexible ones, he said.

"They don't track user preferences in the new spaces against the old ones," Orfield said, "the only thing they're tracking is their cost savings."

Write to Kelly Eggers at Kelly.Eggers@dowjones.com
05.8.2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Winchell
Roberta – The philosophy of “take it with you” is a positive direction that allows workplaces to be more flexible and also more sustainable in their resource use. I agree that we often throw away our buildings too much, but I wonder if the answer is as much about accepting a diversity of building types/appearances/ages as it is about designing our buildings to constantly change. This is of course a balance, and building design that allows for the envelope to be easily updated or dynamically changed is important for energizing and updating the skylines of our cities. But I think it’s also important to recognize that there’s often no need to change a building’s appearance to change its use – and that’s a good thing.
05.10.2012 | Unregistered CommenterTim Pittman

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