workspaces are still growing up

living in a gray world

Photo credit: Robert S. Donovan via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC

office space of the last millenia

When I began my first office job I was relegated to a gray cubicle surrounded by other gray cubicles that were just tall enough so that if I stood I couldn’t quite see over the top. Outside of the gray cubicles the office walls were painted beige, the ceiling was t-bar with drop in fluorescent fixtures and the only adjustment on the chair was the wheels that allowed it to roll from here to there.

If we were late to work, meaning arrival time after 8:05, we signed in. Breaks were at 10 and 3 and lunch was at noon. There was no lounge area, no ping pong table, no nap room. We had a cafeteria. Also beige. In those days we worked quietly, alone, in our cubicles and on average each employee was expected to take up about 400 square feet of space over the course of a day. If we collaborated at all it was very quietly in our own cubicles.

google zurich-camenzind evolution

Google Zurich meeting pods, photo courtesy

office space in this millenia

Then Silicon Valley took off. Laptops were born, wifi became commonplace. Telecommuting became a possibility. And the buzzwords of the day/year/decade became design-thinking and collaboration. No longer were employees expected to work in a vacuum creating whatever it was they were tasked with creating.

By 2014, employees in the US were allotted about 190 square feet. Offices don’t look anything like that first office I worked in and employees aren’t relegated to their own cubicles to spend their eight hours. Amenities can include things like:

  • flexible spaces for work and meeting/collaboration
  • casual lounge spaces with living room furniture, bean bag chairs, hanging chairs, hammocks
  • water features both inside and outside
  • nap rooms and nap pods
  • healthy vending machines
  • gardens
  • whiteboards everywhere to aid collaboration
  • food….lots of food
  • coffee….possibly surpassing the food
  • party rooms, slides, fire poles, ping pong, billiards, foosball and arcades
  • exercise rooms, swimming pools and spa areas
  • pet friendly spaces
  • color everywhere….is that an amenity?

office space that really works

It’s a whole new world out there. And yet, have we achieved the ideal? Are all of these amenities giving employees what they need to do their best work happily and creatively? An Oxford Economics’ survey executed at the end of 2015 says no, we’re not there yet. According to respondents, what employees are missing is quiet.

photo courtesy

photo courtesy

Fast Company put together a list of how we designers can work with employers to remedy the noise complaints and keep some of the other amenities that employees enjoy. Some of the suggestions are well worth considering.

  • Address adjacencies…keep quiet spaces near other quiet spaces.
  • Designate spaces for concentration…spaces can be visually connected and still be separated by doors that close.
  • Offer choice…provide enough differentiation in space that employees can relocate to whatever space fits their current need.
  • Include phone booths/rooms…give loud talkers a place to talk.
  • Provide movable partitions…movable acoustical partitions allow employees to create quiet spaces.

We’re getting there. Office space is certainly more inviting, and a lot more interesting, than it was once upon a time. But it’s not time to get complacent yet designers. We still have work to do.

Keep in touch,

can you hear me now?


noise vs sound

NOISE: that would be the down side of sound. Restaurants generate an inordinate amount of it….kitchen pots, dishwashers, bus tubs, clinking silverware, conversation, ringing phones, music, etc. In restaurants some sound is sound and some sound is noise and all of it is part of the acoustics of your restaurant. Acoustics is one of the invisible design elements that many restaurateurs ignore until they start getting complaints. STOP IT! Ignoring the acoustics of your restaurant until after you open is more expensive than addressing acoustics during the design process. In both dollars and lost customers. And as we, your customers, continue to age, we get more and more sensitive to noise.

#2 customer complaint? noise!

This year’s Zagat survey puts noise as the #2 complaint of restaurant goers (service was #1….and we’ve already talked about that). I’ve gotta agree. Hubby and I ate at a local restaurant a couple of weeks ago, one that we really enjoy most of the time, and nearly had to walk out. It was early and the restaurant wasn’t very crowded. So the large table of women at the front of the restaurant, who were apparently having a very good time, were painfully audible. Their shrill laughter bounced off the brick walls, ricocheted off the very high plaster ceiling, and reverberated with deafening clarity in our eardrums. The server kept apologizing, or at least that’s what it looked like she was doing since we couldn’t actually hear her. Once the dining room filled with more diners, the sound level evened out and, while this table of women didn’t quiet, the ambient sound of the room backfilled the sound of their laughter. Those in the world of acoustics call this masking.

don’t wait till noise is a problem

So, would you have known that what was needed was more sound to ease our pain? Guessing probably not. One restaurateur had the good sense to realize that what he knows is food and service, and he hired the experts to deal with noise BEFORE he opened his restaurant. During the design process John Paluska, of Berkeley’s Comal, hired engineers to create a system to dampen, move and adjust the sound of his restaurant. While this is a very sophisticated system and may not be necessary in your restaurant, you do still need to address your room’s acoustics. That is if you want me, or anyone like me, to eat there more than once.

Back to our local eatery, as a designer I would recommend the owner hire an acoustical engineer to work with a designer (yes, me) to create something to ease the acoustical pain. If even that is too big an order, then at the very least hire a designer who has done restaurant work (again, me) to at the very least put some bandaids on the pain. We can add acoustical panels and sound absorbing materials to dampen and separate some of the sound. And do it soon….because you have some of the most delicious green chile stew I’ve ever had!

good acoustics is part of good design

When you open your next restaurant, be a hero. Hire whoever you need to get your acoustics right…this may be an invisible design element, but your customers care about their auditory comfort. They may not compliment you on your acoustical brilliance, but they’ll certainly complain if you ignore their ears. And we all hate whiny customers, right?

Keep in touch,

ps….you can totally ignore my blatant self promotion, but please don’t ignore my message. You are an amazing restaurateur, hire someone with amazing acoustical chops to deal with the sound of your restaurant.