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5 Principles for Designing an Office Common Area That Isn't Terrible

The days of your grandfather’s office design, with rigid cubicles and an office floor manager demanding why so-and-so isn’t at his desk, are (thankfully) in the past. Modern office design theory places less value on the grind of huddling over a typewriter in semi-terrified silence and more value on the new ideas and increased productivity that comes with interaction within and between teams.

As a result, using common areas to create inviting and productive spaces is becoming a focus for business leaders. There are endless ways of pursuing that goal, here are 5 principles to keep in mind when you’re planning out your office common areas.


1. Vittles are vital

Pinball is a nice perk, but coffee is a requirement. If your main common space doesn’t have convenient access to a high-volume coffee maker and a kitchenette with (at minimum) a refrigerator and a microwave, your workers are already grumbling.

In larger companies, a small cafe stocked with espresso drinks, teas, and pastries that run directly counter to your doctor’s advice can make a common area feel like a welcome change of pace from the rest of the office. In smaller ones, the kitchen area often becomes the social center of the workplace.


2. Use mixed or reconfigurable space

Comfortable chairs and coffee tables are great for working quietly, but they aren’t great for the office lunch rush. Long tables and picnic chairs are the reverse - great for lunch, but a little bit too large and uncomfortable for working. Using mixed or reconfigurable furniture can make a space dynamic, letting employees switch from use to use without encountering friction.

Taking this concept further, designers sometimes include private rooms and nooks in or adjacent to common areas. The thinking is fairly straightforward: When two employees are talking and strike on a potentially valuable idea, you want them to be able to sit down immediately and hash it out. By the time they’ve booked a conference room, the magic is often gone.


3. Put conference rooms in the common room

One interesting design trend being put to use in modern offices is the central conference room. The idea is that, by putting a glass-walled conference room in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the main common room, some of that energy will work to counter the soporific effect of that third post-lunch meeting.

Does it work? As with most new ideas, time will tell.


4. Cede control to the employees

At the end of the day, they’re the ones using the space and they know what they want. While you should consider your business goals first, there's an advantage to ceding some control. Every company has different tastes and habits. Some might prioritize a meditation room and a high-powered blender for liquid lunches, while others might want a keg and a Nintendo 64, or CNN and an espresso maker. Why waste your time trying to predict your tenants’ or employees’ wants when they can handle it themselves?

Often, the best way to handle this is to allocate a budget and let the employees decide amongst themselves. In smaller companies, asking for submissions and conducting a digital poll is usually reasonable if no immediate consensus emerges. In larger ones, it might be necessary to have employees designate a representative to act on their behalf.


5. Provide purpose

Sometimes an area can flounder in disuse because of a lack of perceived purpose. If there’s nothing in an area besides tables and chairs, employees might not feel like they have a reason to go there. Working or socializing in the space may feel unnatural until it’s already in use, which presents a difficult catch-22.

Providing a “purpose” for the room doesn’t have to be difficult though. Even a spare coffee machine or a ping-pong table can bring the room into use. Think about what you want the space to do for your workforce and design accordingly.


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