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5 Creative Design Solutions To Fix The Open Office

Snack walls, plant walls, graffiti walls, and other kinds of innovative approaches to defining space.

Step into most modern offices and you’ll find some sort of variation on a theme: rooms with doors around the perimeter and an open space with desks in the middle. Throw in a kitchen area and some movable grey fabric “walls,” and call it a workspace.

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Though ubiquitous, it’s not an environment designed for everyone–certainly not if you’re an introvert, or if your job requires privacy and concentration. Yet design experts believe that the only way to improve performance among knowledge workers is to keep colleagues in close proximity.

Studies conducted by Sociometric Solutions revealed that physical closeness even boosts virtual communication. In one, engineers who shared space were 20% more likely to communicate digitally and emailed four times more frequently when collaborating on a project. The result: their projects were finished 32% faster than those from staff working in different places. And those who aren’t on the same team, or even the same division of a company, can boost their own productivity by comingling, according to the work of Ronald Burt at the University of Chicago, who found that “structural holes” improve communication.

But that doesn’t change the fact that people still need quiet spaces to focus and a safe haven from the smell of a coworker’s lunch. Enter Homepolish, an interior design firm that works on both residential and commercial office spaces. CEO and cofounder Noa Santos tells Fast Company he’s seen the pendulum swing from cubicles to openness. “Ultimately, it’s settling somewhere more productive,” Santos believes.

Workspaces are also more closely aligning with the concept that the struggle to keep the professional and personal separate is a losing proposition for many. The reality that the boundaries between work and life are blurred is being recognized by designers. Santos says Homepolish aims to make offices feel “as much like home as possible,” in order to suit the different ideas of employees and managers.

Principal No. 1: Design For The Future Of The Company

Because most of the design work Homepolish does for companies is when they are in their early growth phases, there is an added challenge to be mindful of the startup’s nascent culture. That’s where Santos’s first rule of thumb gets applied. “We start by understanding the current makeup [of the company] and the eventual makeup,” he says. “Each one is like a fingerprint. You don’t want to design for what they have now.”

Instead, the Homepolish team looks at both the human and culture components and what the founders hope that the space adds to both. In startup mode, where anything can change rapidly, there is the challenge to create an office that feels substantial and permanent. “Most startups are growing so quickly, the last thing you want to do is erect a wall,” Santos maintains. It’s too costly just to knock down in a couple of months when the staff needs more space.

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Principal No. 2: Incorporate Company Culture Creatively

The solution is to create different kinds of walls to delineate space, some of which are intended to keep the company’s culture and values front and center. But Santos cautions against creating a “branded” wall splashed with the company logo and painted in its colors.

The Bindery, a video-production company, takes its name from an old-fashioned book bindery. With respect to craft both past and present, one of the interior walls is covered with hardcover books to illustrate the tangible results of “coming to work, rolling up their sleeves, and physically putting stories together.”

Design by Homepolish interior designer Lorenzo Cota, photos by Christina Shields for Homepolish

At Appboy, there is a vibrant crimson conference room with one white wall that is designed to be covered in inside jokes and brand content. A white board blends seamlessly and allows for updates.

Principal No. 3: Choose Color Carefully

Accent walls like those can be fun, but it’s tough to pick a color that will please everyone in a growing company, even if they’re joined in loyalty to the same logo. Another way Homepolish tackled this challenge was to designate an area by function that could handle a bold accent color. He points out that at the offices of Nylon magazine, a black-and-white graffiti wall punctuated by shots of florescent pink cordons off the editorial area. “As a group, they all at least were the extroverted type, and they were cool with it,” says Santos.

Design by Homepolish head of commercial design Shelly Lynch-Sparks, photos by Claire Esparros for Homepolish

He believes neutrals like gray should dominate because it is less polarizing. Should a company’s colors be bolder like orange or green, gray provides a soothing counterpoint.

A neutral-colored wall can also be a foil for an art or inspiration collection. At Red Paper Heart’s art studio, for example, there is a clipboard gallery with different images aimed at inspiring the designers and coders who work there. The area serves as a giant mood board that can be changed from moment to moment.

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Principal No. 4: Include Natural Elements

Humans need to see green in order to function at our best. That’s tough when you work in a concrete jungle like New York, and even tougher if you spend most of your waking hours in an office. Santos notes that at the Homepolish headquarters, which often serves as a lab for creative experiments before they are unleashed on clients, they started a plant wall to add a bit of green to the indoor environment.

Design by Homepolish head of commercial design Shelly Lynch-Sparks, photos by Claire Esparros for Homepolish

Santos, a native of Hawaii, says there are certain species that work well in offices (and stay tough despite benign neglect). Their plant wall is simply a track fitted with curtain rod hooks to hold the plants that will eventually grow down to form a living barrier. The track allows the wall to open or close the space. Just make sure to designate a plant caregiver, says Santos. He learned the hard way that when everyone contributes, plants can drown or be watered with coffee.

Principal No. 5: Remember The Introverts

“Society for so long has exalted the extrovert,” says Santos, that open office concepts failed to take into account the contributions and needs of introverts. Like home, offices can be designed to facilitate solitude, by placing furniture too far away to encourage conversation.

But the team at Homepolish didn’t have the luxury of space when they tackled design for BarkBox. Some of the staff needed to sequester themselves to focus, so Santos says the design concept had to take advantage of vertical space. They created a wall of cubbies, not for storage, but for people. The cozy cubes allow one person to sit with legs outstretched and work undisturbed for as long as they need.

Design by Homepolish interior designer Casey DeBois, photos by Claire Esparros for Homepolish

At Betterment, an investment platform, the open loft space doesn’t always allow for privacy, which is crucial to a financial-services company. Phone-room walls covered in old board games like Monopoly and Junior Executive enclose the space with a playful nod to the industry.

The office trend Santos is most excited about is the one that recognizes that there are different needs within the space and different personalities that work in them. The solution is the one that best accommodates both.

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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