Functional Office Layout

The design of an office environment should support the organisation, enhance the workflow and facilitate interaction among staff members. Different office layouts have different advantages and disadvantages, so business owners should combine layout features to create a design that meets specific task requirements and employees’ personal needs. A functional office offers a variety of zones and areas that support the workflow, regardless of the space available.

Productivity Reinvented

- Productivity is “the rate at which goods and services having exchange value are brought forth or produced”. The productivity of individual workers has traditionally been measured by an equation: Productivity = output/work hours. Today, ‘productivity’ is more likely to refer to the attainment of business goals.

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Workplace productivity is driven by a shared vision and collaborative effort. Each employee’s role matters and everyone should be encouraged to contribute ideas. At all levels of the organisation, productivity is reflected in idea generation and problem solving. A well-equipped, modern working environment enhances productivity.

Kay Sargent, director of workplace strategies at infrastructure solutions provider Lend Lease, claims that businesses have been focusing on sustainability and the impact technology has in an office, but have forgotten that they’re designing for people. She suggests that greater effort should be made to maximise human potential.

Designated Zones

- Office design should reflect daily routines. Heidi Hendy, a managing principal at commercial interior design and architecture firm H. Hendy Associates, links productivity with so called ‘migration patterns’ of employees. She believes that office design needs to promote spontaneous interaction, collaboration and teamwork, and include a space where individuals can work in peace and quiet.

Workplace design experts suggest creating various zones for different kinds of work. If an employee feels creatively stifled, ideas can be sparked by leaving the designated workplace and walking to a different room or running into a colleague and starting a casual conversation. Chris Congdon, Global Director of Research Communications at Steelcase, claims that diverse zones can intensify or weaken the sensory stimulation according to need, but also signal availability for interaction.

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John Ferrigan, who designed office spaces for Google, suggests a ‘layered approach’, with different settings or zones to counteract the counterproductive effect of the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.

Employees’ personalities must also be considered. A setting that works well for introverts might not stimulate an extrovert and vice versa. Given options, employees can adjust their daily routines to their advantage.

Task-Specific Areas

- When setting up a new office or redesigning an existing one, business owners should bear in mind the specific tasks their staff members perform, and designate task-specific areas accordingly. Convenience is key. Employees should be grouped by function. For example, those who process invoices should be placed closer to the accounting department to make the interaction easier and enhance workflow. Information and documents are more likely to be shared and handled efficiently.

Task-specific areas can be project- or goal-oriented. Bringing together employees who share the same objective or client makes the communication seamless and speeds up problem solving. When directly accountable to their colleagues, each employee is more likely to stay on task.

These areas can also be designed for individual tasks, if everyone in the business does similar things throughout their workday. For example, in a business that compiles packets of information for clients, one station could be reserved for printing, another could be equipped with assembly materials (hole punchers, staplers, folders), and yet another designated for preparing outgoing mail.

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Specialised stations keep supplies in place, enable efficient time management, and reduce energy consumption, as well as give employees a chance to leave their workstations and vary their routine. Employers should consult with their staff members and employees encouraged to take the initiative in the creation of a setup that might contribute to productivity.

Shared Areas

- Shared areas, featuring various levels of formality, provide staff with places to meet and interact, whether it’s a conference room or an informal social space like a lounge, kitchen or cafeteria. The integration of shared areas within an office should be strategic and adjusted to match the corporate culture.

Conference Room

- The idea of a conference room is somewhat dated. Nevertheless, a common space should be found for collaboration, where the staff can have discussions, assign tasks and agree on processes. The traditional conference room has given way to more modern concepts and positioning.

It should not be located in the back corner of an office, where it’s inaccessible and ineffective. Whether it’s just a designated open area, or space behind walls (concrete or glass), it should be in a dynamic setting with a high degree of mobility possible. Proper position makes it suitable for a range of assignments, group or individual, planned or spontaneous.

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An example of a truly inspiring conference room is that of Asana, an enterprise collaboration software company, where the environment itself projected the company’s mission of simplifying the enterprise. An open and simple conference room, with a panoramic view of the San Francisco skyline and plenty of natural light, provides great stimulus for staff.

Informal Social Spaces

- Traditionally, informal spaces are where employees take breaks and recharge. Google’s work environment, for example, prompts creativity and innovation, with strategically placed cafeterias that enable chance meetings and spontaneous conversations. Cafeterias should be equally accessible to all the employees but away from workstations or quiet areas. Larger offices should consider having more than one such area, as it enhances chances for socialising, brainstorming and collaboration.

Lounging areas are suitable for informal, spontaneous or planned meetings, whether employees need to take a break or discuss work. These areas should be located at the intersections of different paths to increase the ‘casual collision’ that stimulates interaction, exchange of ideas and inspiration. Where the organisational culture and available space allows, businesses can provide areas for fun and relaxation.

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The Facebook office in Menlo Park, California has a video game room; AOL Headquarters in Palo Alto, California, has an area with pool tables; Dreamhost office in La Brea, California, provides an area for table tennis. These companies are clearly aware of the link between happiness and productivity. A study conducted by the University of Warwick economists showed that a happy employee is 12 percent more productive; an unhappy employee 10 percent less productive.

Giving employees the opportunity to relax and connect over something other than work might just be the missing link in success.

Quiet Area

- A study conducted for the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) showed that 70 percent of office workers consider productivity is negatively impacted by office noise levels. Other than a distraction, noise is a source of stress which can create problems like high blood pressure, digestive disorders, or headaches. These issues lead to lower job satisfaction, lower morale and fatigue.

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Organisations opting for an open space layout should still provide a quiet space for employees in need of occasional peace and quiet, preferably in a secluded corner where distractions are minimal. Toyota has applied this model of office organisation, providing its employees with quiet rooms where they can retreat from the office commotion when necessary.

Booths for Private Conversations

- An open office space deprives workers of the opportunity for a private conversation with a colleague or on the phone. Organisations should reserve a small space that enables privacy, placed in a less frequented area, away from prying eyes and ears. It doesn’t have to cost a lot; in fact, it can easily be achieved with modular furniture and its adjustable partitions. A respect for privacy contributes to employee satisfaction.

Paths for Chance Meetings

- Chance meetings allow employees to become familiar with one another, start a spontaneous conversation and possibly come up with an inspired solution. Paths from one area to another should be considered closely and planned strategically. What routes do employees follow around the office, or when moving from elevators or stairs toward shared areas, water coolers, bathrooms or their workstations?

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Offices can include nooks near these paths where people who chance upon each other can retreat and continue their conversation. Such spontaneous meetings often lead to the creation of great ideas. Without them, inspiration might be lost forever.


A functional office space is a valuable strategic tool. At best, it will not only provide a balance between public and private workspace but also foster collaboration, promote learning and create a positive atmosphere. Employees given a choice over when and how they work are more productive and satisfied, and able to work harmoniously and successfully to the benefit of the business.

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