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From the Design Quarterly: Culture 2.0 in the workplace

July 03, 2018

By Colleen Arria and Kate Ryan

Taking company culture to the next level with interactive, engaging social spaces

In the tech world, the idea of social spaces is already baked in. Many of these tech firms started as garage and basement operations without private offices or even desks and grew into workplace environments where almost anything goes.

These workplaces (like tech industry workers) tend to blur the lines between what’s personal space and what’s focus space and collaborative space. Competition for talent is intense in every industry.

Of the four kinds of spaces that define today’s workplace—focus, collaborative, learning, and social—the social space is sometimes little understood. 

Social space at Mapbox in Washington, D.C.

But a robust company culture can be the factor in securing the brightest and best talent. As a result, we’re witnessing more companies adopting a similar approach to workplace environments. Even more conservative financial organizations are starting to understand that social spaces have a critical role in developing and maintaining a vibrant company culture and engaged workforce.

Alongside this, we see generational demographic reshaping expectations of the workplace. As Millennials and Generation Z occupy a greater share of the workforce, we see a deeper yearning for an office that’s social, that feels like home or a comfortable third place rather than one that’s formal and utilitarian.

Spaces like the hospitality lounge for tech hospitality company Social Tables in Washington, D.C., are generously-sized, open, loosely defined, and multipurpose by design. Staff can informally gather during the day for meetings and meals or come together more formally for all-hands meetings. It welcomes everyday visitors but easily transforms for large parties or client events, lectures, even a press conference. It communicates Social Tables’ expertise and ease in putting people, spaces, and events together.

Social Tables in Washington, D.C.

Making a case for social

But most clients in more traditional industries don’t come to us with a strong desire for a large new café. Rather they’re being advised by other industry experts to follow a linear process with standardized questions and metrics. They’ve never worked in a place with a third place in the office where people can gather, work, meet and be themselves so naturally they’re skeptical. Will it be a waste of space? They wonder “why do I need a 2,500-square-foot café?” Through an intensive design process and competitor analysis, we help them understand that recalibrating the size of their social or café spaces ultimately makes them more competitive, by providing space for more casual social interaction.

Social spaces are different from specified collaborative areas (where a table and chairs may be set up for on-the-fly meetings just steps away from desks and benches).

Social space is big. Social space defines a working community. It defines a culture.

But, it isn’t specifically programmed. You have freedom of expression in these spaces. A café space or a hospitality-like lobby tends to have very few rules, it’s intended to be free-form, to be flexible, to be used creatively and diversely. It creates the opportunity for people to be communal and social.

Spaces like the hospitality lounge for tech company Social Tables in Washington, D.C., are generously-sized, open, loosely defined, and multipurpose.

It can take some convincing. We hear a lot of “It’s never going to get used. Our people don’t do that, we don’t have a bunch of Millennials running around.” Recently a client was being advised to put together some small breakrooms, two or three small pantries with a table and chairs, a microwave, a refrigerator, and a place to sit—maybe it was 500 square feet total. We said no, that’s not enough and took the client to see National Retail Federation, a once-skeptical client who three years after moving in will testify that a large café space has created a sense of community and really galvanized the company culture.

Lobby as social space

The social space isn’t just a cafe. In Boston, a lot of our commercial work is repositioning the lobby in older buildings. Everybody wants that kind of hotel vibe, so we’re adding seating, bar-height tables, making these spaces multi-use.

At 117 Kendrick, in Needham, Massachusetts, Stantec’s design transformed what was a tiny little cafeteria into a huge communal space with a café in the middle.

Social space at CEB/Gartner Headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.

Location, location, location

At the Institute for Healthcare Improvement in Boston, strategically locating the big social space—a kitchen/café—was crucial. Previously, the Institute had one distracting small kitchen near the workspace and another tucked away on a mezzanine level, out of view, neither supporting the training work that IHI does.

The new space completely changes all that with a generously proportioned kitchen with a huge banquette that draws people in naturally—and amazing views of Boston’s cityscape. With its new corner location, the café activity doesn’t disrupt the focused workspace but contributes dramatically to the creation of community, stress reduction, and engagement for all.

Balancing needs

It’s great to get caught up in the idea of social spaces, but most companies still need settings for focused work and quiet dedicated work. So, it comes down to creating a balance between social and focused spaces. Providing ample private and focused spaces is what really makes the social spaces successful. Sometimes there’s a privacy emergency. With IHI in Boston, a great social and collaborative culture was marred by a lack of private spaces for Skype calls and webinars. They had an open office environment, which lends itself to being social, but was less than ideal for online training sessions at open office desks. Heads-down work, online training, webinars, and social activity were happening in the same zone.

That was a huge problem.

To solve it, we created specific zones and environments and distributed those space types, so that people wouldn’t have to travel very far to have an impromptu meeting. We infused those collaborative spaces, lounge chairs, and tables, throughout the entire office.

Why the social space is important

The social space has the potential to transform your organization in a dramatic fashion. Ideally, it takes the office from where it is today—a conglomerate of basic functional spaces—to a place where people want to come to work, want to connect to colleagues, want to engage in a personal and social way. We believe these loosely defined social spaces help team members connect, build a community at work, and bring a collective culture to life.

We think they’re essential. Without them, you’re eliminating possibilities you didn’t even know existed.

  • Colleen Arria

    As an interior designer, Colleen works to find the intersection between good design and client or occupant needs. She works on projects spanning education, residential, and workplace developments.

    Contact Colleen
  • Kate Ryan

    Kate is an interior designer and project manager with a focus on workplace and mixed use commercial design. Known for her positive attitude, she also assists with business development for our workplace sector.

    Contact Kate
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