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This is the ultimate anti-open office

Work & Co’s new Portland, Oregon, office is proof that not all open plan offices are miserable hellholes.

Open offices are here to stay, regardless of the science that decries them. That’s because, like it or not, they’re the most cost-efficient way to cram as many employees as possible into a space. Does that mean we’re doomed to deal with the noise, lack of privacy, and dearth of in-person interaction that comes with typical open offices, or could design mitigate these ills while preserving the functional benefits? Is there such a thing as a less evil open plan?

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[Photo: Nicole Mason]

The interior design studio Casework attempted just that with its new office for the design and technology agency Work & Co in Portland, Oregon. The firm’s design features smart acoustics to keep things quiet, a communal cafe-like kitchen and library, and a total lack of typical office gimmicks that might keep people around after-hours. The result? While the office’s layout is still an open plan, the ethos is decidedly anti-open office.

“We didn’t want it to feel like a typical office space,” says Casey Sheehan, a partner at Work & Co who worked on the redesign of the space. “We wanted it to feel more warm and almost like a hotel lobby or a home–a gathering place.”

[Photo: Nicole Mason]
At first glance, Work & Co’s new digs are more extreme in some ways than your average open plan–while partners and senior leadership do sit with everyone else rather than having their own offices, the desks don’t really belong to anyone in particular. Instead, they were designed to be modular and to shift so that the company’s designers and developers can sit with their teams as they move from project to project. To combat the noise that comes from everyone sitting in the same place, Casework’s founder and creative director Casey Keasler installed a wooden slat system that sits over the main work area as well as in the kitchen and conference rooms. “You want to be able to hear soft music but not the person 20 feet from you having a conference call,” she says. The wood adds an acoustic buffer and visually enlivens the space, which used to be a warehouse.

Keasler also recognized that people need different kinds of spaces in which to work. “The majority of people are in the middle when it comes to a working environment,” she says. “Some people like to be in the dark in a hole with no distractions, and others are extroverts. It’s all about thinking about different types and sizes of spaces.”

[Photo: Nicole Mason]

For those who need their own space away from everyone else, there are private phone booths to duck into. The entire bottom floor of the office is filled with different sizes of conference rooms that people can book, and Keasler worked to create particular areas throughout the office where someone could curl up with their laptop–like a small space beneath the stairs that has a rug and pillows, or a small library on the bottom floor that is focused on analog creative tools, including old cameras and a turntable. The library is part of Keasler’s attempt to provide an area that’s explicitly non-digital, where the agency’s employees–who typical use only digital tools–can go for inspiration.

The kitchen plays a central role in combating the open plan vibes as well. Because the studio focuses entirely on digital design projects, people are somewhat tied to their computers and tend to use digital communication tools rather than talk in person, a problem that’s exacerbated by the open plan. But Work & Co wanted to preserve a tradition throughout the company where employees come together for catered lunches every day, sitting together the cafe-like kitchen–no sad desk lunches allowed.

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One of the most striking elements of the design is what’s not there: ping-pong tables or game consoles, stalwarts of many tech-oriented workspaces. Work & Co’s office was not designed to convince people to hang around at work after work hours. Sheehen deliberately hopes to promote work-life balance through the place’s design by not adding any fancy extras, just providing people with enough room to work effectively.

“Our hope is that everyone leaves everyday and gets home to their families and friends and doing the things they love to do outside of work because that motivates everyone to be better designers and developers,” Sheehan says.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and sign up for her newsletter here: https://tinyletter.com/schwabability

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