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VOL. 127 | NO. 196 | Monday, October 08, 2012

Collaborative Zones

Interior designing moves toward creating cost-effective flexible space

By Sarah Baker

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The practice of designing office spaces is trending away from inhibiting cubicles and foreboding conference tables and more toward creating collaborative zones.

RedRover Sales & Marketing, which has nearly doubled its staff size in a year, has implemented an office design featuring spaces that can be collaborative, mobile and, when needed, private.

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Tenants are demanding alternatives that cut costs, improve productivity and increase morale. That’s because flexibility is key for modern-day office users, said Heather Averwater, interior designer with brg3s architects.

“None of us can know what our future will be, but if we plan a space that offers options for upsizing or downsizing, we can sustain success much easier,” Averwater said. “Many small businesses are nervous to invest a large amount of capital until they know they will be successful.”

Averwater said the furniture industry currently has a large amount of pre-owned furniture that can be purchased at a much lower price point that still satisfies the needs of employees. Systems furniture is also appealing due to its flexible setup, ability to be easily reconfigured and less expensive price tag than permanent wall build-out.

“We designed an interior renovation for UT Medical Group that incorporated a variety of collaborative zones, modular walls and systems furniture. … Basically a consolidation of all of their business functions to get everybody under one roof,” Averwater said. “They really needed a way to bring together all of those different types of people and working styles.”

Then there’s the concept of hoteling, which provides “touch-down areas” to employees on an as needed rather than the traditional, constantly reserved basis. Hoteling is especially practical for companies with sales teams or other staff not working full time inside the office like consultants or contract employees.

“The workplace is mobile,” said Emily Rolwing, workspace consultant at Memphis Business Interiors. “Some workers that we consider highly mobile are not in the office for more than a few hours each day and need little more than a place to plug in and charge their devices. The days of one dedicated space per person are quickly coming to an end.”

Other footprint-shrinking trends include digital document storage and replacing the conference table with a flexible meeting space and huddle rooms. What’s more, the 350-square-foot CEO offices are quickly becoming a luxury of the past.

“Large private offices are no longer an option for most companies,” Averwater said. “Companies have had to take a hard look at their bottom line and escalated overhead cost and real estate square footages are the first to go. Many private offices today are in the range of 120 to 150 square feet, with meeting space outside the CEO’s office so that it can be shared by others.”

But not all shifts toward collaboration entail reductions. Virginia Norman, senior associate with The Crump Firm Inc., said more companies are requesting employee recreational areas like pool and foosball tables, fitness centers, coffee bars and fireplaces.

“Just to kind of break the tension,” Norman said. “Break rooms are no longer just that frame with a door on a window with a microwave and a coffee pot. People are bringing them into the open space and creating more of a Starbucks-type environment that’s more out in the open space.”

The Crump Firm helped Smith & Nephew with this model when it relocated its offices to Goodlett Farms Business Campus “by moving employees that were previously in private offices into open … and recreational areas.”

Norman said one of the main challenges with an open and collaborative floor plan is that it does not always equate to less square footage. It takes creativity to achieve that balance and to bridge the gap between younger and older office workers.

“The open environment is more suitable to the younger generation as they are able to tune out the person on the phone in the cube next to them,” Norman said. “Their headphones are their door.”

Along with areas that yield more light, and recycled furniture, fixtures and equipment, businesses are also focused on decorating its spaces with their brand, font and color scheme.

“Branding is a definite trend that was previously only a focus for larger corporations,” Norman said. “We are seeing it with our smaller corporate clients now. They want the look and feel of their space to convey the company’s mission as well as create an environment that inspires the employees to be part of the team.”

RedRover Sales & Marketing recently used MBI to not only brand its office at 415 S. Front St., but encourage teamwork as well.

“MBI has really gotten a handle on who we are as a culture, our quirky design and the need to have our branded look to everything we do,” said Lori Turner-Wilson, CEO/founder of RedRover’s Memphis office. “Back in our sales training area, those trainers … have mobile desks and it’s just a little bit easier to move around furniture. Then in our big bowl pen where most of the marketing folks are, we’ve got desks that give a little bit of privacy but also allow you to peer over the top and collaborate with your neighbor.”

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