Associations design offices to fit culture, encourage collaboration

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This article originally appeared in CEO Update, Volume XXIX, Number 720, July 26, 2019.

Open offices are proving to be a long-term trend rather than a flash in the pan, but they don't suit all trade and professional associations. Those groups that have moved offices in the past few years or are planning to do it in the near future do seem to have something else in common, however "open" their new office design may be: They are building in a greater quantity and variety of meeting spaces.

Professional associations tend to have more traditional offices and fewer open offices than is now the corporate norm, said Diana Pisone, team principal at design firm Ted Moudis Associates in Chicago. Recent studies and media stories about the negative aspects of open offices are not dissuading clients from thinking about a floor plan change, she said.

The controversy "has produced more questions, and it has encouraged us as designers to have that conversation with the associations," Pisone said. The advice she gives is that if they decide to move to an open-office plan, it should be done "thoughtfully. You can't just do open office and not provide private spaces."

Jamie Notter, an organizational culture consultant and co-founder of Human Workplaces, said there is little "pushback'' on the open-office trend. In his view, complaints about too much noise and distraction in an open office tend to arise "because you didn't do it right."

If associations are to go about it the correct way, he said, "you do have to be really honest about how much collaboration is required to get the job done. ... You should be really intentional about it and say, 'You know what, we're going to serve our members better if the meetings people spend more time talking to the marketing people.’ ... And if we're going to do that, we actually need to have them near each other as opposed to on different floors or different ends of the office with their closed doors."

Mindy Saffer, managing principal at Cresa, a real estate firm representing tenants with headquarters in Washington, D.C., also doesn't see the trend away from the traditional end of the spectrum going into reverse.

"No, I still feel there are many groups that are preferring to go either all open, or a combination of open on the perimeter and offices on the interior. So I'm not seeing a shift of going from open to closed again, but what I am seeing is that … the focus isn't about, 'Am I in a workstation in an open environment or an office space on a window line?' … (but rather) 'How do we create an office environment where people are comfortable working in multiple places, not just their assigned seat?"'

This means including, alongside assigned seats, collaborative areas and quiet rooms in your "comprehensive work environment," she said.

The entire building and the whole neighborhood have to be taken into account as well to build a space that "provides our employees with maximum flexibility on how they want to work during the day," Saffer added.

Better location, lower costs

One group that has gone all in on the open office concept is the Associated Builders and Contractors. As CEO Michael Bellaman tells it, the changeover brought significant benefits to the $21 million-revenue group, which has 80 staff at its Washington, D.C. headquarters. The group moved into an open office there in January 2014, after about four months of designing and planning and four months of construction.

“I’m a big advocate of open office space," Bellaman said. "One, it's a more efficient use of space. We were able to reduce our square footage needs by 25%, and that enabled us to move down to Capitol Hill, over by the Department of Labor, on the Senate side."

The new open setup also gets the staff to function more cooperatively, he said.

"Especially with computers now, email, phones and stuff, they have a tendency to nwork more independently rather than interdependently," Bellaman said. "They have a tendency to communicate more electronically and virtually than they do face to face, human to human. And so, the office stimulates more of that face-to-face collaboration, it stimulates camaraderie, it stimulates teamwork, it provokes it, and I think that's very healthy."

"Now, with that you have to provide huddle spaces, closed meeting rooms and stuff like that, so that when people do collaborate…in a meeting or they're on conference calls, they have the ability to work in a more focused setting."

The American Association of Diabetes Educators, with $14 million in annual revenue and 56 staff members, is sticking with an open design for its new Chicago office after a planned Dec. 1 move, according to CEO Chuck Macfarlane.

The building chosen for the new headquarters has all its mechanical equipment on one side, rather than forming a core with office space in a doughnut around it as is the case in many tall buildings. That, he said, was "because we wanted people to be able to interact with their colleagues a little more freely than creating (a dynamic of) one side of the building versus the other side of the building."

"As we looked at developing our meeting space, we intentionally developed different kinds of meeting room spaces," he added. This includes standard conference rooms, video conference rooms, and "other space options to fit different work styles or different moods." Since staff all have laptops, they don't have to be "tethered to their desks," Macfarlane said. However, the group is not going to be using the radical design option of "hot desks" or "hoteling" where no one has an assigned desk.

Need for private spaces

On the opposite end of the open-closed spectrum, the Infectious Diseases Society of America is moving, probably early next February, from a traditional closed space to another such space, CEO Chris Busky said. But the commonality of more collaborative space holds for this medical society, which has a total of 65 staff members (including two affiliate societies) and $23 million in annual revenue. Collaborative space will more than double in the new location in Arlington, Va., not far from the group's present office, Busky said.

"IDSA took a very deliberate approach to our office move by committing to frequent engagement with our staff," he said. "We started the process by agreeing on new office space goals. Next, our real estate broker, Cresa, hosted a half day staff session to identify key features that would support our new office space goals. We took this information back to an internal staff team who used the information to design the new space with our architect, HOK."

The goals decided on included improving office efficiency by having smaller offices and more gathering spaces; admitting more natural light; making the space more collaborative; increasing formal and informal meeting space; enlarging the kitchen/lounge area; and greater integration of technology.

When the Chicago-based Society of Thoracic Surgeons moved one-and-a-half years ago, relocating two floors down in the same building, it considered an open office design with "benching" arrangements where employees sit in rows facing each other along a long table. But the group rejected that as incompatible with its culture, said Keith Bura, director of finance and administration. As a compromise, the office design is somewhat more open, with lower cubicle walls topped with glass that still allow for privacy and a "heads-down, working" functionality.

"I think it was just a sensitivity by our executive director at the time not to dramatically change what we had," he said. "One thing was just the type of work we have, where people are more heads-down. They're on conference calls, they sort of need a little bit of privacy to do their work, versus the benching type of stuff where you're pretty much on top of each other."

Although it is a different type of group, the working style that prevails among the 70 staff members at the $25 million-revenue American Public Power Association also led to a decision not to go for an open-office design during the group's last move in 2014 to Arlington, Va., according to CEO Sue Kelly. She was not the group's leader at the time, but she did participate in the decision and the move.

"We've got a lot of subject-matter experts. I have accountants, I have engineers, I have lobbyists, I have lawyers, I have economists, IT people and a lot of those people need to be able to have a space to think and write and talk on the phone." Looking at open-office spaces, she said, "I just thought, 'that is not the best environment for most of us."'

APPA's space does include five conference rooms, but Kelly said if she had to do it over again, she might add another one or two.