Sacred spaces and future-proof settings

Preserving collaboration space in workplace to ensure a day one design can meet the needs of day two.

Take a moment to think about workplace design a decade ago. At that time, workplace environments were shrinking. Designers began to embrace a concept that featured less space per employee while working with clients to create and furnish great collaborative settings. But the collaborative settings included in these new workplaces often quickly disappeared in the first three years of a company’s growth. And in these reduced footprint environments, there were no alternative spaces available to adapt for collaboration. No matter how great and well supported these spaces were on day one, clients quickly grew out of them.

Today, recognizing that many workplaces are designed with collaboration and alternative work settings in mind, how do we avoid sacrificing these spaces to other needs?  We need distinctions for types of collaborative space and we need to plan with growth in mind.


WeWork, Photo: Alex Severin, RAZUMMEDIA

What are sacred and future-proof settings?
Sacred settings are places that never, ever change from being collaborative. Future-proof settings, on the other hand, can be interim spaces that can easily be adapted if needed to add more seats or more benching positions for a growing company.

These distinctive space types are part of a smart occupancy strategy. When a company occupies a space on day one, there’s a day one population and there’s a future-proof growth population that’s already been tested in the planning. Let’s say you’ve designed a place of 200, but it needs to grow to 300 within 10 years. You might buy desks for 210 on day one and earmark other areas as alternative workplace settings. And within that category of alternative workplaces there are two distinctions, future-proof and sacred. Sacred spaces are always going to be there, even when the company reaches 300. There will be plenty of future proof spaces on day one, but they’re in places where desks can be added going forward.

Locating these sacred and potential growth areas in planning is crucial. This gives the operating company a plan that offers strategies for the future, “If we have ten people starting in three months, where can we strategically convert some of the future-proof settings to benching? Where is the best place to do it functionally? Where are the least popular places we can do it?”


Infor Global Solutions, Photo: Ari Burling

The 25 foot rule
Categorizing these spaces has an effect on planning, especially something I call “the 25 foot rule.” This rule basically says that an agile environment or collaborative setting of any kind, whether it’s a table, a lounge, or an enclosed room, shouldn’t be more than 25 feet away from where any one person works. When these spaces are too far away, it makes it difficult for people to use them.

Collaborative settings work best when they’re immediately accessible. Our desk only has room for so many stacks of work. When we need to collaborate with another person on the team, we want to pick up a pile and our laptop, relocate to a lounge 20 feet away, then work there for a couple of hours. That’s very much a style of working that many companies in many industries have adapted to.

Typically, in an older building, the space between the columns is an obvious place to put these collaborative areas. People can turn to them easily because they’re only a few feet away from their desks. I love being able to sit in a bench with my back to the space between the columns when there is an alternative setting there. I can quickly turn there and spread out when my desk is all loaded up. When you’re talking about proximity and travel distances to different settings, the 25 foot rule is important.

Then the goal in those settings is to have as much variety as possible. Whether it’s a table and two chairs, a table and four chairs, a coffee table and two club chairs, two high back privacy chairs facing each other, a sofa, or a counter height surface with stools and storage, variety is important. These types of spaces are more likely to be categorized as sacred spaces. The more variety, the more appealing these settings are to the various preferences of the group using the workplace environment every day.

Collaborative space and variety are increasingly important to creative companies.  An eclectic mix of furniture is often something that creative companies use to express aspects of their brand. The character, details and style of these miscellaneous groupings expresses something about these companies. These creative industries must account for sacred spaces if they’re to maintain the eclectic and collaborative aspects of their workplace.

We can’t control day two, but we can diagram a plan for our clients that allows them to grow into space while preserving those elements that make their workplaces friendly to collaboration and today’s ways of working.

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