Steelcase’s Merchandise Mart showroom in Chicago was abuzz during NeoCon last week as show-goers checked out the office-furniture maker’s collaboration with author and champion-of-introverts Susan Cain. Quiet Spaces is a collection of five limited-stimuli rooms each designed to accommodate different types of office experiences—such as small meetings, individual work sessions, or an afternoon nap—with occupant-controlled integrated lighting and media, seating, acoustical panels, and privacy-glass walls.
This isn’t the first time that Steelcase has turned an office concept into a product (see its 2013 media:scape TeamStudio). And despite its niche branding, Quiet Spaces’ value proposition extends beyond the introverted. In an era of noisy, wall-less offices, the research (examples here and here) shows it can be just as important to create havens for quiet workers as it is for their boisterous peers.
Designed to make intra-office communication more efficient by (literally) knocking down the conventional demarcations of workplace hierarchy, the open office has proliferated since the 1960s, writes Julie Beck for The Atlantic. But as early as the 1980s, she reports, researchers studying the open spaces’ effects on workers were finding holes in the model. Among them: distracting noise, a lack of natural light, and pronounced differences in worker personalities. More recently, a 2013 survey of more than 42,000 office workers in the Australia, Canada, Finland, and the U.S. by researchers at the University of Sydney’s architecture, design, and planning school determined that the benefits of having ready access to colleagues afforded by open-offices were outweighed by the spaces' tendency to negative effects—including poor indoor air quality, temperature fluctuations, unnatural lighting, high noise levels, and limited private space per employee.
"Open-plan office layouts have been touted as a way to boost workplace satisfaction and team effectiveness in recent years," said Jungsoo Kim, a doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney and co-author of the 2013 paper, in a press release. "We found people in open plan offices were less satisfied with their workplace environment than those in private offices.”
Steelcase isn’t alone in looking for ways to balance workers’ often-divergent needs. Herman Miller’s Living Office, which was introduced in concept last spring, rolled out in application to its Merchandise Mart showroom this year. The system aims to match 10 models of work that the company says occur globally (including impromptu chats, team status-report huddles, and concentrated individual work) with one of 10 physical settings (such as a bench desk, a small meeting room, and an open forum). Designers can combine the module-like settings into a landscape that forms the basis of their floor plan and generate downloadable 3D models from Herman Miller’s website.
While Steelcase and Herman Miller combined separate products into sellable configurations, Teknion introduced a casegoods system with a 10-foot-by-12-foot imprint designed to enhance the versatility of a single space—such as the office of an itinerant executive or a meeting room that is frequented by individuals as often as it is by groups. Journal (above) includes an adjustable-height table, high and low seating, integrated technology, a pivoting bench, and cabinets. “We don’t see the private office as redundant. We just need to rebrand it,” says Chris Wright, a design principal at Toronto-based firm Figure3 and a co-designer of the product. “It is a cultural shift and mindset in the world of the workplace. We’re all getting used to sharing space … but the office—that’s the last haven [of personal space].”
Still more smaller-scale development is occurring around low and high partitions that enclose chairs, sofas, and tables in materials such as sound-muffling mesh and wool felt. BuzziSpace, known for its quirky office components, introduced a system of nook-like workstations (above) at NeoCon. And Haworth formally launched its Openest system (below) of sofas, partitions, and tables that can be used to create enclosed meeting and seating pods.