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All work and no play...

A panel of office designers describe the current trends in informal office design and suggest how to future-proof your work place designs

Cafe style configurations are popular in break-out areas.
Cafe style configurations are popular in break-out areas.

The theory

Mohammed Muktadeer, showroom manager of OfficeLand, part of the Al Aqili group says: “A break-out area is a ‘must-have’ element in an office design. They are created to make the employees feel important and create a homely environment for relaxation away from the working desk during working hours but within the office premises. It enables the employees to release their working pressure, allows them to provide a productive time and productivity towards the organisation.“

Hani Al Qasem, executive director, Arki Group, agrees: “Break out areas should be one of the main communication areas for staff in each organisation; it should be a timeless space in terms of design and functionality, and a flexible space allowing the staff to carry out different activities in the break out areas such as: casual meetings, brainstorming, relaxation and a place for refreshments.” Rachel Elliott, project designer for CitySpace adds: “Successful companies recognise that productivity, innovation and creativity can often arise from interactions that can happen anywhere in the office, not just in a traditional desk-based setting. In the future, workplaces may well look more like clubs or lounges.”


Location

The client is now convinced of the merits of creating a collaborative common space, so where should it be situated? Break-out rooms are often located around larger conferencing/meeting rooms to allow circulation when people exit the rooms, somewhere to talk about what’s been discussed to keep the communication flowing. In the past, companies took a central feature of the office and built a social area around it, such as a coffee machine, or mail boxes. Hobson, OrangeBox, says: “For some businesses a social area is an awkward space on the foot-plate around a vending machine or water cooler where a collection of old reception and meeting room furniture is provided to enable people to take a break from the desk.”

But he asserts that this is changing, with more and more businesses realising the economic returns to be had if the workforce is happy and feels looked-after.


Furniture

Other designers believe that comfortable seating is of prime importance. Mallika Nair, interior designer for OFIS says: “The furniture should be a blend of soft seating, comfortable chairs with sleek modern finishes. The furniture should be functional and light for optimum relaxation purposes.” Elliot, Cityspace agrees: “Soft seating is synonymous with break-out areas, as well as tables and task chairs that meet the use of the room.”

It creates focal points where people and ideas come together. Other examples include the Vitra ‘Alcove’ - a seating system that incorporates acoustic screens to enable private discussions in public areas — very useful if the common area is within the open office space. Elliot also points to the ‘Path’ seating configuration from OrangeBox, which is based on concave/convex units that can be combined with simple table insets that allow all of the bench units to be linked or used individually and is easily reconfigured to meet changing needs.

Hobson, OrangeBox, adds: “The furniture design must be understated and sympathetic to the architecture of the surroundings but also the corporate brand values of the organisation deploying it. It must be suitable in both a lounge and laptop environment, so the seat should be flat and not reclined as is typical of most soft seating. In addition, for the product to work collaboratively the footprint should be small so that they can effectively be gathered into groups.” He also suggests that mobile elements are introduced to the design so that the users have the ability to rearrange the furniture to reflect their needs, however he warns: “One lesson we have learned is that if you put everything on wheels then it quickly dissipates all over the foot-plate and is never returned to its proper location.”


Décor and Design

The décor of the space should be complementary to the client’s corporate identity and retain a coordination with the rest of the office space. Nair from OFIS urges designers to remember that break-out areas are designed to break the monotony of the workplace, therefore it is essential the employee feels rejuvenated while spending time in this area. Factors such as colour, natural lighting, acoustics, and climate should be taken into account during planning. Bright colours also play a key role in enhancing the office atmosphere.

In terms of design, most offices are looking for contemporary style, which set a lively tone for the work environment and add brightness to office atmosphere. Current trends include informal, vibrant and a casual atmosphere with concepts on the lines of cafeterias, café bars and lounges.

Muktadeer, OfficeLand adds: “These areas must have element of warmth, homeliness, colourfulness and relaxation.” Elliot from Cityspace points out that the practicality of the materials used needs to be a top priority. Health and Safety factors also need to be considered where food and drink will be served or consumed.

Designers can also learn from the working environments of advertising agencies and classrooms where wall-hung stimulus is commonplace to facilitate creativity, and common rooms and lounges aid teamwork and bonding.

Ahuja, Kinnarps says: “Breakout areas these days tend to be more open and inviting, with an emphasis on sharing of work related information. If there are any partitions they would normally be transparent, with the use of glass and / or timber fins. Surfaces are usually light, bright, with less use of traditional materials such as wood, and utilising more contemporary or modern materials such as Corian or stainless steel surfaces, and vinyl flooring (such as Amtico) which can provide additional colour, patterns and atmosphere.”


To conclude

The office designer has a responsibility to try and help the client to understand that this space has a very real and tangible relationship with their employees and their subsequent work output. Hobson, OrangeBox explains: “As designers of furniture or interior designers we cannot alone make these spaces or initiatives succeed. The only way they can and have succeeded is where the corporate and particularly the management culture has the foresight to grant its employees the freedom to roam from their desks and try working in these spaces that real gains can be achieved. All too often if we are not sat at our desks logged on we are assumed to be not working. Only when the elements of people, place, culture and equipment are equally balanced will these spaces provide rich dividends for all.”

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