Why are people sitting in their cars, stairwells, even hiding in the restroom to get a little peace and quiet? Over the past 15 years, many employers have embraced an ‘open, collaborative’ concept for their workspace only to find that their employees are desperate for a quiet space to focus uninterrupted.

A recent study at the University of California, Irvine found that a typical office worker takes 25 minutes, on average, to return to the original task after being interrupted (and they only get about 11 minutes between interruptions). That’s a lot of wasted time and productivity.

So is it possible to find both focus and collaboration in an open office plan, or are we destined to see a swing back to the walled offices and cubes of the ‘80s.

If the workspaces I’ve seen as a commercial interior designer at Elsy Studios are any indication, the answer lies in a more careful consideration of today’s employee – what they need and how they work – versus one ‘right’ layout.

Elsy Studios recently completed a 450,000 sq. ft. remodel of a corporate headquarters in Denver. Here are 10 key takeaways from that project to help you make the most of your space and ensure your employees are engaged and productive.

  1. Make it Easy to Work Anywhere: Employees today, including executives, often work from a variety of places, not just their own desk. In terms of office design, factor in the need to move and connect from anywhere. I like to include extra 5-or 6 -foot long work surfaces in various areas as ‘hoteling’ stations. Then, when the visiting CEO or the intern needs to work in your office, they have a comfortable, functional place to sit that allows them to connect with your team.
  2. Consider a One to 10 Ratio: Private offices are becoming a thing of the past because we are finding that people can work anywhere, as long as they have easy access to quiet space and the appropriate technology. One quiet space to every 10 employees is a good rule of thumb.
  3. Location, Location, Location: Just providing unscheduled meeting rooms and quiet spaces isn’t enough. Location matters. Departments tend to lay claim to rooms in their proximity. If these rooms are in the wrong place (just outside of the boardroom, for example), they will not get used because teams like to be able to leave work materials in a space if necessary, and not feel like they must erase the marker boards before they leave.
  4. Provide the Right Tools: In a completely open office design, I recommend investing in quality wireless headsets or office cell phones. Employees need to be able to move while on the phone (maybe to find a quiet space if they’re on an important call and a coworker is having a loud conversation). Giving them the tools they need makes them more productive and better able to fully use the space.
  5. Walk in Their Shoes: Take a close look at how the workstation functions. Does the employee need space to stack large files on their desk or are they primarily on the computer? Do they have enough room to do their job well? Getting the phone and monitor off the desktop (on a mounting arm, for example) allows the employee to take advantage of every square inch of desk space.
  6. Let There Be Light: Consider trading overhead storage for lower storage that does not block light. Most stations are now at a height that allows for seated privacy, about 48 to 58 inches. Also, bringing break rooms to the exterior walls makes better use of natural light and turns the rooms into desired destinations.
  7. Make Quiet Space Functional; Quiet rooms must have all the tools needed to work: a simple monitor, telephone and data outlets, and the ability to accommodate four to five people.
  8. Make Work Feel Like Home: Consider providing lounge areas where people can plug in and work in a setting that is more like home. Furniture that you feel like you can put your feet up on is becoming increasingly popular.
  9. Give Them a Break: The best companies make their employees feel cared for. A great coffee maker and simple snacks or beverages in a comfortable break room goes a long way. We’ve also designed spaces that take the break room to the next level – game tables or large walls of blackboard paint where employees post birthday messages and artwork, features that increase a sense of camaraderie and fun.
  10. Lead the Way: If leadership uses the break room or quiet spaces, others will follow. These shared spaces are often the places where the best ideas are hatched. Larger break rooms can serve a variety of functions – from training to town halls to yoga classes. Show your employees the potential of the space.