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The next chapter in the evolution of the open workplace

Now, the offices themselves are on the move

By Jane Margolies
Published: Jul 19, 2019

The next chapter in the evolution of the open workplaceIn an undated photo provided by M Moser Associates, a workspace in Lower Manhattan at offices of design firm M Moser. Designers are adding elements like walls on wheels and movable pods into office spaces to provide more flexibility. (M Moser via The New York Times)

In recent years, new office designs have encouraged employees to get moving. Cafes and lounges beckon workers when they need a break. Open staircases spur them to climb floors rather than take the elevator. Sit-stand desks offer them a chance to stretch while continuing to work.

Now, the offices themselves are on the move.

M Moser Associates, a design firm in New York, calls its office “a living lab.” Green walls of plants are set on casters and can be used to block off one end of the 6,000-square-foot open space for private meetings, or they can be pushed against other walls to make room for large gatherings. And custom birch-topped work tables have wheels on back legs so they can be tipped and easily rolled elsewhere.

M Moser continually tinkers with its office, seeking new ways to support its staff and offer a “proof of concept” to visiting clients, said Grant Christofely, a senior strategist and associate at M Moser, who led a recent tour of the firm’s office in the historic Woolworth Building in lower Manhattan.

The desire to be able to switch things up at a moment’s notice has spread to companies in other fields, too. “Businesses are changing at a rate architects almost can’t keep up with,” Christofely said.

The flux is a result of many factors, including wave after wave of technological change that has prompted repeated adjustments to office designs. (Remember the need for a 150-square-foot room for the computer servers? Now, data is likely to be stored off-site or in the cloud.)

More collaborative ways of working have also been a driving force. A growing emphasis on teamwork often requires temporary settings for groups working on short-term projects.

And there is always economic pressure to keep real estate costs down. Many companies have done away with private offices in favor of more efficient open plans, but some are shying away from long-term leases at permanent addresses altogether. The alternative: renting instant offices often called, appropriately enough, flex space.

Flex space represents 5% of overall office space in the 18 cities around the world surveyed for a recent report from real estate services company Instant Group. Demand for short-term offices in flex-space facilities and other venues increased 19% last year.

“It’s a systemic shift in commercial real estate,” said Tim Rodber, chief executive of Instant, which procures space for Amazon, among other companies, and has an online platform listing more than 14,000 flex-space locations for rent, including about 4,000 in the United States.

CBRE, another real estate services company, said that three-quarters of its large-scale clients were looking to add flex space to their real estate portfolios. Those findings are behind a new venture for the company: Hana, a flex-space subsidiary.

Hana’s first project has been leasing 67,000 square feet on 2 1/2 floors in a recently constructed building in Dallas. The company is outfitting the space for rentals that can range from hours to years, according to Andrew Kao, Hana’s vice president for product and design experience. Kao said the new space is expected to open in August.

But even some companies that sign traditional long-term leases are building kinetic elements into their designs to provide workplace flexibility.

Digital content provider Wiley has a banquet-size space at its headquarters in Hoboken, New Jersey. When folding wall panels are pulled open, the expanse can be divided into three conference rooms.

“It can accommodate a 225-person town hall or be broken up,” said Joseph Orrico, Wiley’s director of real estate and facilities for the Americas.

Law firm Nixon Peabody achieved flexibility in a different way in its midtown Manhattan offices, designed by architecture firm Perkins and Will. Its reception area is backed by a pivoting 12-foot-wide custom media wall that incorporates screens displaying branding content and company stats. When the wall pivots, reception and the cafe behind it are merged into one big space that can accommodate a crowd.

“We open it mostly for different events,” said Joseph J. Lynch, managing partner of the law firm’s New York office.

Elsewhere, companies have turned to movable pods — boxlike mini meeting rooms on wheels — to add flexibility to open plans and, maybe, recapture some of the privacy that open plans eliminated when they knocked down all those walls.

For the Pixel Factory, Hyundai’s financial tech workplace in Seoul, South Korea, architecture firm Gensler designed pods clad in plywood and outfitted with upholstered panels for acoustical absorption, cushioned benches and lighting. There are two sizes: A cube with a 6-foot-square footprint can accommodate four people, and a slightly larger one can hold six.

The pods allow employees to carve out space for meetings in Pixel’s open plan, said Philippe Paré, a Gensler design principal and director in London.

“It gives them a sense of control over their environment,” he said, adding that such pods were part of “the next chapter in the evolution of the open workplace.”

Gensler is also among the companies that have been working on collections of mobile office furniture designed to support teamwork. It collaborated with Italian company Fantoni on a modular line called Atelier, which was introduced in April.

The same month, contract furniture giant Steelcase introduced its 11-piece Flex Collection, which has movable tables, whiteboards, carts and space dividers.

But moving parts aren’t always the answer.

Ikea uses modular pods for meetings at its design lab in Almhult, Sweden, but the pods are fixed in an open office plan, which offers a mix of collaboration and privacy. But mobility is still important: Other areas have mobile pin boards and whiteboards, and workshop areas have mobile furniture.

M Moser has found that certain features, such as sliding partitions and demountable walls, tend not to be used because “people think it’s a big labor,” Christofely said. Such features “seem permanent.”

A recent post-occupancy survey done at his firm revealed that the staff there felt the workplace was sometimes distracting.

M Moser has adopted a policy of “hot desking,” meaning staff members do not have assigned seats but instead pick a place to work every morning.

Whereas traditional desks are stationary to accommodate phones and computers that are hard-wired to the floor, the firm’s tables are mobile because employees use laptops, cellphones and portable battery packs that are charged in a locker overnight. The office has 25 such packs, Christofely said, and when staff members pick a place to work in the morning, they retrieve a battery pack, too.

But as the firm’s New York staff has grown, from 22 to 45, so has workplace friction.

On a recent tour, a visitor noted that a couple of employees were wearing earphones, perhaps in an attempt to limit distractions from nearby colleagues.

To counter interruptions in the workplace, the firm is considering investing in what Christofely called “focus furniture”: soundproof pods from a company called Framery, as well as felt-covered partitions to block out the sight and sounds of others.

When asked about the reaction of visiting clients to its flexible workplace, he said most preferred a more traditional setup.

“This is not a solution that is right for everyone,” he said.

©2019 New York Times News Service