Letting Happiness Guide Collaborative Space

For many companies, the glue of productivity is teamwork. As workplace designers, we constantly observe that supportive, highly adaptable space optimized for collaboration makes teams stronger and work outcomes more successful. But we also know that happier people produce better work. Research shows that satisfaction in the workplace goes beyond salary and benefits – it is deeply tied to the culture of the office and how the workspace supports it. Creating settings that allow workers to thrive becomes our challenge.

To bridge the gap between happiness and collaborative work, we used the WELL Building Standard as our guidepost on a recent, and unusually personal, project. We were tasked with relocating our own office, NELSON Philadelphia, from an outdated space in an historic building to a vastly more modern and open environment at 100 S. Independence Mall West. Our company was on the verge of a rebrand, and our Philly group was overdue for change. The true test of creativity came in the form of everyone’s favorite buzzword: collaboration. How can you encourage multiple diverse groups of employees who have never sat together to work in harmony in a mostly open-office environment? We turned to the WELL Building Standard to inform our decisions.

The Design Challenge

The old Philadelphia office, located at 226 Walnut Street, sat in an historic building with teammates divided into a labyrinth of rooms with doors. Many of the same issues we help our clients with came to a head: not enough privacy, dissatisfaction with the current furniture, and a challenging spatial layout. There were even teammates in a separate building – the transition into sharing a workspace would be a difficult one, and so the WELL Building Standard was the right guide to look to for encouraging people to work happily together in a shared space.

Collaboration is critical for design firms – but in an economic climate where design must happen faster and for less money, collaboration needs to be as efficient as it is effective. Four lounge chairs around a coffee table doesn’t cut it anymore as collaborative space. Collaboration for a design firm, and for many of our clients, involves fast access to technology, space to lay out drawings and trace paper, pin-up areas, and private rooms with writable surfaces and access to technology for research.

Not permitting time for collaboration is a cultural issue, and ultimately, a business issue: better projects are born out of collaboration, and better projects create a robust portfolio for winning future projects. WELL encourages companies to celebrate the way they collaborate by strategically planning areas for respite, acoustical zones, free-address working, a variety of seating areas and a space for teammates to gather and eat.

Diversity Defines the WELL-Driven Collaborative Space

The WELL Building Standard encourages creating adaptable spaces through stimuli management, privacy, space management and workplace sleep support. To manage stimuli, the design team sat down with members from each diverse group within the Philadelphia office to figure out what everyone truly needed. A lot of the same information came across: teammates were happy to work near each other, but wanted options to escape when they needed more focus, to take a call in private, or to do heads-down work for hours at a time. The design team came up with a programming plan using this data to determine how to best lay out the space to support these needs.

A wellness-centric workspace was the concept, so a plan with a variety of work zones was created. The floor plan is divided into habitats: groupings of workstations in benching and L-shaped desks are divided by series of floating rooms and open work areas. Each habitat has a huddle room for two, touchdown room and phone room for one, a project team room for four, and an open work table for four or more. A “central business district,” a nod to the urban planning of Philadelphia, divides the space in half with a large training room and conference room for 12. It also features a café that seats over 100 in a variety of arrangements, with the potential to accommodate more with extra stacking chairs.

To encourage maximum levels of privacy, even more than the glass-front phone and huddle rooms, we created a quiet space for focus, contemplation and relaxation. The meditation room is a 280 square foot space devoted to resting, recovering and regenerating. People collaborate best when they are able to restore their mental and physical faculties; this room offers the potential for sleep, stretching, dim lighting, nature sounds and the enjoyment of plants. This is in addition to a wellness room, which is devoted to teammate health and new mother support. By allowing teammates to be flexible with their time, we experience a new level of productivity and engagement. Giving people choices puts power back into their hands.

Because sharing a meal together is one of the most important ways people develop relationships, we went above and beyond the WELL Building Standard that calls for a café to accommodate 25% of occupants at a given time. The café can seat much more than that – and lunchtimes are appreciated more due to a policy of no eating at the desk. Even breakfast time is more lively – teammates who rarely work together have the opportunity to mingle in the café, share ideas and discuss diverse projects.

WELL’s requirement to mitigate internally generated noise helped us plan, too – workstations are held away from the aggressively collaborative areas (such as the training room), and a sound masking system, as well as absorptive surfaces, help to keep the workspace quiet in a positive and appreciated way.

Collaborating Privately in Public

Four walls and a door aren’t the only way to have privacy anymore – movable, sound-absorbing partitions can be easily carried around the space to block off small areas for teammates to work. The placement of rooms is also a factor – rooms with doors are used to divide open collaborative space from workstations, which inherently create privacy through a permeable level of spatial division. Sound masking and acoustical ceiling and wall solutions help mask private conversations, even with other teammates around, and a private room is only a few steps away if more privacy is desired.

Continuous Performance

As set forth by WELL, no new space is successful without attention to continuous performance. We are actively measuring the success of the space with sensors that track utilization and maintenance needs. This approach will secure truths: does the built program truly fulfill NELSON’s requirements? Which spaces have higher utilization rates, and why? Continuous examination of whether and why a space is utilized allows the NELSON team of designers and architects to home in on what changes can be made to better improve the space.

So far, the results are tangible. Right now, it’s apparent to us that our wellness-oriented design has done the job to help us do our jobs – rooms are reserved all day long for the appropriate group sizes and uses. The café is often turned into a charrette zone, with teammates sitting on sofas and custom-designed cushioned stadium seating, passionately discussing their ideas about new work and rolling out trace paper on collaborative open work tables. The café is also used by small groups, and for large office-wide and companywide presentations on large screens.

At a qualitative level, we know it’s working, because people aren’t as quick to work from home or bolt out the door at 4:59PM. We also give tours almost every day and can hear the excitement and pride in teammates’ voices when they discuss how much a WELL workplace has changed our culture for the better.

And it doesn’t get much better than that.

Future Opportunities

We’ve learned that people are more receptive to change than we thought. We see WELL-centric collaboration spaces becoming the new norm – companies are not seeking band-aid solutions, they are looking for their space to organically repair shortcomings in their culture. New chairs to combat workplace dissatisfaction are something, but they’re not a long-term solution to satisfaction. WELL’s three-year recertification requirement and annual occupant survey requires employers to listen to employees and adapt to developing needs and arising complaints.

Conclusion

The NELSON Philadelphia office emulates the company’s idea of new green building: the space takes very little, gives a lot and fosters a sense of community among teammates that stimulates collaboration. It highlights three different ways we collaborate: publicly, privately, and “privately in public,” and establishes a balanced mix of spaces to both directly support and indirectly enhance teamwork. It also made us consider why collaboration is so important to us, and how much more effective we could be at our jobs if collaboration improved. While no two companies are alike, we think any strongly team-based culture will benefit from the WELL approach to collaborative environments.

Amy Leigh Hufford, IIDA, NCIDQ, WELL AP, Fitwel Ambassador

Nicole Keeler, LEED AP BD+C, WELL AP

Kim Engelstad