Office Space Design: Q&A with Anne Regan

The environment around you can greatly affect your mood and productivity. Think about days when you wake up to gray skies and endless rain. You have zero motivation to get out of bed. By contrast, when you wake up to the sun and 70 degrees, you have all the motivation in the world to get up and get moving. This translates to your work environment as well. You hear about new office spaces – like Facebook or Google – that are designed to motivate a desired behavior (be that creativity, innovation, collaboration, etc.) and reflect a company’s culture and brand. This is what Anne Regan does for a living – she designs office space as a Senior Manager at DBI Architects, which is a DC-based, full-service architecture and interior design firm.

Their belief is that “beautiful environments foster meaningful human interaction and successful business outcomes.” I sat down with Anne, who has been with the firm for eleven years, to better understand the role of office space design for organizations, how that reflects a company culture, and how it impacts a workforce.

Lexi Gordon, exaqueo (LG): Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, Anne. At exaqueo, we often recommend to our clients to consider renovating their office space if they are looking to make a culture shift. Why do you think the physical space of an office is important to the way a company works?

Anne Regan, DBI Architects (AR): I am happy to be here Lexi. If I didn’t think the appearance of physical space was important, I should probably have a different job! The place in which you work has an outright effect on your product as well as your daily mood. Sadly, Americans spend way too much time at their desk and in their office so it should be a place where your employees like to work. It also helps you sell your product. A company is more willing to have meetings in their office and promote their culture/brand and product if they have a beautiful space to show off.

LG: What process do you go through to determine your client’s needs? How does learning about their culture play into that?

AR: The basic answer to that question is, we hold programming meetings where we ask the client a lot of questions and try to LISTEN to all of the answers, but honestly every project is different. Some clients want to tell you everything about their company, their brand, and the vision for their new 'home,' while other clients need some extra coaxing to pull the information out of them. We use visuals, such as photos for inspiration and sometimes we take clients on tours through spaces we have recently completed. The culture has EVERYTHING to do with the design and the goal for the project. That actually might be the first question we ask a client – what is your 'culture'? Are you an open environment with teaming and collaboration? Or are you a secure and highly contained group with enclosed offices and closed doors? The answer to this question dictates everything from the space plan to the art you hang on the walls at the end of the project.

LG: Once you understand a company’s culture through that initial consultation, how do you pull it through to the office space design?

AR: To us, the 'culture' of a company is more about how the employees work. A company that is regularly in collaboration mode and constantly talks to each other should have an open office environment with impromptu meeting space and areas for personal phone calls. A company that handles secure data or personal/highly sensitive information should have closed door offices for security. The 'brand' of a company is a different story. To us, the brand is the 'who' of a company. Who are these people? What do they do? We discover this through the company logo, marketing materials, and company colors. These two items go hand in hand - the culture of a company is what has moved the brand forward, bringing the company to life.

LG: Since you work with many different clients, and see many different things, what are some trends you are seeing with office space design?

AR: The most common trend these days is multi-functional space. The days of large boardrooms used once a quarter are no longer the norm. We design large boardrooms, but a lot of the time that same room can be divided into a few rooms, such as small conference rooms that can be used on a daily basis. With real estate being so expensive (especially in the DC area), it is most efficient for the client to utilize all of their spaces 24/7.

Another trend we are seeing a lot of is more companies going to an open plan workstation (cubicle) layout. Enclosed offices are going away, or at least the quantity is being reduced. We don't like to use the word cubicles because there is a negative connotation to the word. We like the word workstations, because that is really what they are - a station for you to work, not some terrible fabric paneled hole that you are made to sit in for hours on end. Open workstations can be very nice and still allow the occupant to have enough privacy. They can help a budget, and in some cases, can provide more storage and workspace to an occupant.

'Green design' used to be a trend but that has become the norm, which is a nice thing for us to see - we no longer have to explain environmental design to a client. Now it is just a function of the project/design.

LG: Do you see trends that differ across industry and location?

AR: We work with many different companies from government agencies to small business firms to large technology  companies. I do not think that industry plays a role in the trends we see. Because we are trying to design for that specific organization, and every place has their own set of needs and goals.

LG: Are there common recommendations or concerns you typically address with clients?

AR: A main concern we typically address is 'cultural change.' A lot of companies are trying to downsize their footprint, but they are still keeping their staff size the same. When you are trying to downsize your footprint, so you pay less rent, you end up turning that small office into workstations. That is one of the hardest things for a company – facilitating change for staff. We try to help by presenting the design to the staff once the C-level team has finalized it. We can have a mock up of the workstation placed in the current space to make sure everyone sees what it will look like. We also encourage our primary client contact to take the staff on a tour of the new space before they move in. People are much more accepting of change if they are aware of what the change will be.

LG: Open space is really popular now especially at startup and growing companies. But it comes with drawbacks. What do you warn your clients about design when it comes to open space?

AR: An open plan is really based on how the company works. For some companies, an open plan just does not work, and that is okay. We try to present our clients with all of the pros and cons. For instance, one pro is it utilizes space much better than offices. You can get a lot more people on a floor with open workstations than you can with enclosed offices. A con is that workstations are not a sound proof space and can be loud, depending on how talkative the staff can be.

LG: How have you seen the positive effects of office design on a workforce?

AR: Yes, definitely! We did a large project a few years back where the client was working out of a first floor basement space that was built in the early 1960's. There were not a lot of windows. They had occupied the space for almost 20 years and were moving to a brand new 5-story building, which belonged completely to them and was full of light. We moved about 800 people from small offices on the basement level to large, open workstations with windows and light on all four sides. We educated the staff and the facilities team to prepare them for the change. We did a furniture mock up, a full site tour (during construction), and shared a short presentation explaining what the new space would be like. They loved it! Upon the first week after the move, the facilities team had nothing but compliments to share about their new space.

LG: How about the negative effects?

AR: Yes, for every positive there must be a negative. We recently did a project where the company was consolidating 3 separate offices around the Northern Virginia area into 1 full floor space. With that consolidation, they had to double up staff into offices. This did not sit well with the staff as you can imagine. People went from being in their own small suite in a completely different building to all being together and sometimes in the same office. This change was dictated by the President of the company as they were trying to reduce the amount of leases they had, and they wanted to promote more of a 'team' experience.

LG: Final question, what’s a design feature you think should be in every office and why?

AR: I think every office should have a community breakroom. Every company should have an informal space where the staff can hang out. We design a lot of breakrooms that are multi-functional with a TV, Internet, and cable set up for an impromptu internal meeting (for when all the meeting space is occupied). These spaces are fun and available for the staff to just relax and be themselves - have lunch, maybe have a happy hour (depending on the company culture). The breakroom is the new water cooler. It is a space where you can whisper and not be judged – it is a judgment free zone.

LG: This has been fantastic - thank you so much for sharing your perspective on office design!

AR: It was my pleasure, any time.

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