The Case of the Incredible Shrinking Office

Two articles on February 23, 2015, one in The Wall Street Journal and the other in The New York Times prompt this post. Both relate to what the WSJ article by Dr. Ethan Bernstein of Harvard Business School terms the Transparent Workplace, and how the Times reporter James Barron links shrinking office space to shrinking worker privacy.

We call this “the case of the incredible shrinking office.” The cause, in major growing markets, is the increasing cost of office space that forces the reduction of square footage allotted to each employee. In our presentations we note the reduction to 175 SF from 225 SF. But we have made offices as small as 64 SF.

The challenge is finding an office plan that supports both collaboration and the need for private thinking time without the noise distractions. Interestingly, the Bernstein article includes transparency in its title and lists in a table unintended consequences of open offices across the intended objectives of accountability, collaboration, innovation and knowledge sharing.*

*Dr. Bernstein’s article describes transparency in terms of open office collaboration, feedback and evaluation.

Workplace Transparency and Glass Dividing Walls

Demountable glass and solid dividing walls, we believe, are an attractive and effective solution to reconciling the conflict between quiet privacy and non-distractive collaboration. As more staff are shoehorned into smaller spaces glass walls provide visibility and a sense of spaciousness. In a properly designed floor plan they also admit natural light from exterior windows. Small offices seem bigger and natural light feels warmer. The added benefit of the ALUR system is sound privacy delivered by its ½-inch thick tempered glass with a 36 Sound Transmission Class (STC) rating. This means that normal speech is practically inaudible at this rating.

ALUR glass walls Overlays provide privacy without sacrificing openness.

Ad hoc and scheduled collaboration sessions are supported when office planners provide team-meeting rooms enclosed with demountable glass wall systems. As small private office glass walls keep out external noise and distractions, glass walled collaboration areas contain noise so as to not distract occupants at neighboring workstations. In this way conference area “noise management”, as we like to call it, without imparting a feeling of confinement.

And as noted in our post on collaboration and socialization, company facilities once relegated to back corner “out of sight out of mind” status (cue the office kitchen) have gained new prominence. When the “company café” is brought out of the closet with stunning glass wall partitions, attractive and comfortable furniture, network access and perhaps artwork and plantings, it not only improves collaboration and productivity but also helps attract new talent. Some call it community space.

Dividing Options for Demountable Glass Wall Offices

Demountable glass wall offices can be much more than glass boxes. Most glass systems offer insulated solid dividing options that serve as simple space dividers between offices or to provide support for shelving, bins, cabinetry, AV screens, whiteboards and similar functional attachments. When feasible these dividers should be positioned perpendicular to exterior windows so as not to block natural light.

Dividing walls have typically extended from the front to the back of individual offices or conference areas. But as the square footage allotted to employees drops these solid dividing walls tend to create a more confined feeling despite front and back glass partitions.

We’ve addressed this by introducing the ALUR nib wall design. This is simply glass sidelights butted against solid dividing walls and attached to the front by transparent polycarbonate dry joints in an L, T or 135° 3-way configuration. This option not only makes the office appear larger to the occupant, but also admits more light. The L and T polycarbonate joints also allow for a continuous glass wall across the office fronts (i.e. no mullion or posts) for a cleaner more elegant look.

Glass Wall Design Options for Light and Privacy.

Visual privacy may be a requirement for certain offices in businesses fitted with glass wall systems. Examples are HR offices where confidential discussions take place and where employees or prospective hires may be uncomfortable being viewed by passersby. The same requirements may apply to the company’s legal department.

In these instances applied or decorative film and frosted glass panels provide light and privacy without detracting from the overall office ambiance.

Another glass treatment is a new technique that allows digital printed images on glass. While it does not contribute to privacy it provides contrast and can be used to visually distinguish various departments in the company. There is also switchable glass that uses electric current to change the visual appearance of glass from opaque to transparent.

Space Saving Advantages of Sliding Glass Doors

As office space per employee shrinks consideration must be given to the space taken up when opening conventional hinged office doors – approximately 9 SF that intrudes into the office. The beautifully designed ALUR sliding glass door addresses this head on. This configuration is also called by some as a barn door design. But unlike conventional sliding glass doors the ALUR design has a hidden mechanism and slides silently open and closed to indicate that the occupant is open for a visit or engaged in private think time.

Cost Saving and Tax Saving Movable Glass Walls

As companies, building owners and designers cope with packing more into less the benefits of movable glass walls becomes more and more appealing. We have seen in this post how they can be configured to accommodate smaller workspaces while providing a feeling of openness and privacy at the same time.

These systems are less costly over the long term than conventional stud and drywall configurations because they can be reconfigured to accommodate changes in floor plans, eliminating construction debris associated with knocking down and rebuilding stud and drywall construction.

And don’t overlook the fact that the ALUR system is considered furniture and qualifies for accelerated depreciation from a tax standpoint.

All in all the ALUR glass wall system provides an elegant, cost effective solution to solving the collaboration and privacy issues that arise with the emergence of the incredible shrinking office.