Rethinking the Office Environment

Savvy employers are realizing the importance of balancing the corporate workspace with areas for fun and relaxation

As workers turn to e-mail, instant messaging, and networking sites for informal communication, the break rooms, pantries, and kitchens of the corporate world begin to look like relics from a more analog era. A survey conducted online in 2006 by San Francisco design firm Gensler found that of more than 2,000 workers around the U.S., two-thirds believe they are more efficient when they work closely with their colleagues. But 30% said that their workplace doesn't promote spontaneous interaction and collaboration—a sentiment that's leading many companies to rethink the office environment. In some cases, that means fashioning quiet enclaves where two people can meet; in others, it means a company basketball court for pickup games. But the goal is always the same: to stimulate interaction among co-workers and let the business profit from the creative flow of ideas and high morale.

"There are a lot of good reasons to have informal interaction areas," says Jay Brand, in-house cognitive psychologist at Holland (Mich.)-based office furniture innovator Haworth, which was recently tapped to outfit the offices of German software giant SAP (SAP) in more than 50 countries. He advises businesses to carefully plan these spaces, and to determine what kind of measurable value they're expecting—be that higher employee satisfaction and productivity or lower turnover and absenteeism. "Even though they're meant to increase informality and serendipitous interaction, an organization—at least in the long term—expects a return on that investment."

Workplace Observation and Employee Feedback

Design firms may spend months questioning employees to get a sense of where and how casual meetings might take place. The challenge then is to balance that feedback with reality, says Gervais Tompkin, studio design director for Gensler. "When people tell you what they do [at work], they tell you what they believe or wish they did. It's usually off by about 50%," he says. Gensler and other design firms commonly supplement surveys with workplace observation—for instance, walking through an office every half-hour to record what workers are doing.

That was also the tactic adopted by Chicago architecture and interior design firm VOA Associates when called on to redesign the dreary, cubicle-lined office of the nonprofit American Society of Association Executives (ASAE). After 16 years without any office makeover, and with a merger heralding the arrival of some 40 new employees, it was time for a shake-up. So VOA designers had one-on-one conversations with nearly every employee and performed routine walk-throughs of the existing space. They also held town hall meetings to get a consensus on some of the larger design issues, such as what kind of community spaces might work.

Space Tailored to Teams

One of the more common complaints was that the current layout didn't permit social interaction. As far as water-cooler talk went, says Robert Skelton, ASAE's chief administrative officer: "People went up to the roof to smoke a cigarette, and that was pretty much it." So VOA designers planned small pantries in high-traffic corners of the office, where workers could grab a cup of coffee and perhaps linger at one of the high-standing circular tables.

Another observation VOA made was that while most of the work at ASAE was done in small teams of five or fewer, there was only one place to assemble: a large, formal conference room. "There was no place for five people to meet," says Sherelle Faulkner, a commerce representative with ASAE. So VOA included several small conference rooms as well as many cozy alcoves tucked in the sides of hallways, perfect for more informal briefings and updates between team members.

Now, the five-person groups meet so frequently that the small conference rooms are booked solid weeks in advance. And Faulkner says she uses the "coves" in the hallway frequently, since they are so close to her and her colleagues' workstations. "If someone wants to discuss a meeting and doesn't want to interrupt other staff members, you go to the cove," she says.

Break for Fun and Games

Common spaces that are close to employee workstations can be convenient, but sometimes creating a sense of distance is what's needed. That's what executives at Principal Financial Group (PFG) decided after hearing persistent criticisms that the offices at their Des Moines headquarters were too uptight. The "High Street Retreat," designed by local contractor Terrus Real Estate Group, is an employee clubhouse situated a short walk away from the offices. It features pinball, foosball, air hockey, arcade games, books, and vending machines.

The retreat gives employees a chance to stop thinking about work during their breaks, which is of value to them and to the company, according to spokesperson Rhonda Clark-Leyda. "Employees are more satisfied and productive, while the company enjoys increased productivity and reduced expenses related to absenteeism and stress," she says.

Branding and Hiring Support, to Boot

Innovative break rooms can give employees the chance to interact with the company brand as well. An in-house creative team designed the new workspace at Zune, the portable audio division of Microsoft (MSFT). Inspired by the aesthetic and ethos of the Zune media player, the team built spaces designed to unite employees around the experience of music. There's a DJ booth in the cafeteria, where staffers take turns spinning turntables in a weekly "Release Your Inner DJ" competition. The central atrium plays host to the occasional large meeting, and it's also where Zune-sponsored musical acts such as Garth Brooks and Babyface frequently stop off to play an impromptu set. "We wanted to bring the brand to life for our own employees," says Jason Reindorp, Zune director of marketing.

And fun, collaborative spaces are attractive to prospective new hires, too. With this in mind, Seattle-based PopCap Games wraps up employment interviews by taking candidates to see its "rumpus room," complete with an Xbox, foosball table, Ping-Pong table, arcade machines, comfy couches, and a never-ending supply of juice. When aspiring video game designers end a tour seeing PopCap staffers shooting each other in a frantic game of BioShock, that can seal the deal. As company co-founder and director of online operations John Vechey puts it: "People say, 'Wow, not everybody has that.'"

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