How to Make Your Workspace Work Better

Clever companies are redesigning their offices to make collaboration and teamwork a more essential part of every employee's day.

By Michal Lev-Ram, Business 2.0 Magazine writer-reporter

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- The configuration of an office can have a dramatic impact on how employees do their jobs. No secret there.

Yet since the late 1960s, corporate workplaces have been dominated by cubicles and private offices - an arrangement that does little to encourage interaction and communication.

MOBILE FORCE: Desks, chairs, and dividers on wheels give Cisco employees the freedom to arrange their workspace to meet their needs.

Some have tried eliminating private workspaces altogether, but a few early experiments, like ad agency TBWA/Chiat/Day's infamous mid-1990s "virtual office" in Manhattan, flopped, leading only to turf wars and employee strife.

Nevertheless, after sifting through the ruins of such high-profile disasters, smart companies are rethinking the fundamentals of office design, led by the realization that collaboration is an increasingly critical ingredient for business success.

"There are few organizations that don't rely on some kind of collaboration today," says Franklin Becker, director of the international workplace studies program at Cornell University. "But to make that work, you have to create a motive for people to get out of their individual space."

One-size-fits-all approaches seldom work. Software engineers need more privacy than salespeople, for example, yet they also need more encouragement to mix and mingle.

To turn a familiar maxim on its head, when it comes to office design, function often follows form. That is, when an office is configured to maximize employee interaction, collaboration becomes an integral part of every workday.

Here's how three companies redesigned their offices to make their workers more effective.

1. Killing Off the Cubicle

Cisco Systems

The Challenge: Cubicles sat vacant 35 percent of the time; surveys revealed that workers came to the office primarily for meetings and to socialize.

The Design: Since few were using their desks to get work done, Cisco tore out the cubicles and converted the office into a flexible, multifunctional space where employees can plop down their laptops to work wherever they want.

Also Ideal for: Mobile workers or sales, marketing, and biz-dev teams.


Desks, chairs, and dividers on wheels give employees the freedom to arrange their workspace according to their needs.


Enclosed offices have transparent glass walls to discourage employees from "parking" in the space reserved for phone use.


Staffers can transfer all their calls to any phone in the office.

2. More Sociable Engineering


The Challenge: Foster employee interaction while giving software engineers the privacy they need to crank out code.

The Design: Workers are assigned desks and offices, all of which are arrayed around "Main Street" - an airy central atrium that employees traverse several times each day. Popular Main Street amenities help lure employees away from their computer screens and into common areas.

Also Ideal for: Collaboration-oriented companies staffed with employees - such as analysts, writers, or accountants - whose jobs also require intense concentration.


Engineers work together in office pods of four or five people - a configuration derived from Google's grad-school roots.


An inviting slope of Brazilian hardwood doubles as an informal meeting space. Electrical outlets built into the steps keep the conversation juiced.


Collapsible conference rooms are scattered throughout the office, so workers can always find a private place to huddle on specific problems.


Kitchenettes stocked with snacks are never more than 100 feet away from any desk, while pool tables provide an excuse to linger and talk.

3. DIY Team Building

Gravity Tank

The Challenge: At a Chicago-based design strategy firm, create a flexible layout for project teams that work together for months at a time.

The Design: Groups of four or five employees cluster in semi-enclosed "bays" built from thick cardboard. The bays are easily reconfigured to suit the needs of each team. The entire workspace was built on a $20,000 budget.

Also Ideal for: Startups or small professional services firms where intense collaboration is essential but remodeling budgets are tight.


Lightweight dividers hang from an overhead grid, making it easy to adapt workspaces to changing project team requirements.


Each bay houses a conference table and two small desks, but space is tight, so employees naturally gravitate to the larger table.


The cardboard dividing panels also provide plenty of pinup surface area to display drawings, project timetables, or works in progress.


Power outlets, Ethernet cables, and trays for office supplies are built into each large table, so employees always have convenient access to the tools they need to work. Top of page

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