As the head of purchasing at web retailer Nuts.com, Kathy Skala spends her days monitoring inventory, calling farmers to hear about their crops and placing orders. At the company’s recently renovated headquarters in Jersey City, New Jersey, she works surrounded by colleagues, many seated at long tables lined up in rows.
But sometimes she takes her laptop and phone to a little alcove for some alone time in the sprawling workplace, designed by architecture firm Gensler. Or she’ll hit the meditation studio or one of the small rooms scattered about where employees can go for uninterrupted stretches.
“If I’m looking at a contract, I really need to focus,” Skala said. “If I’m discussing numbers or prices with someone, I want to make sure I hear them clearly and they hear me.”
More than a decade since the swing toward open-plan offices — and the resulting backlash from workers concerned about noise and a lack of privacy — a host of ancillary spaces are cropping up in workplaces, offering employees an escape from their (sometimes overly loud) co-workers. These private spaces include prayer rooms, wellness rooms and libraries — also called quiet cars, like the chatter-free havens on a train. This is not to mention the proliferation of so-called phone booths, mini meeting rooms and all manner of pods, some of them purchased as ready-to-assemble kits.
All of which prompts the question: After pulling down the walls that defined yesterday’s workplaces, are we once again putting them up?
“We’re swinging back to more construction in offices,” said Elizabeth O. Lowrey, a principal and director of interior architecture at Elkus Manfredi Architects.
But she and other experts say the difference between then and now is that private space used to belong exclusively to those at the top of a company’s hierarchy, with high-level staff ensconced in offices of their own. Today, everyone can use the new private spaces — they just have to share them with everyone else.
Open workplaces are not going away anytime soon. About 70% of offices in the United States have some form of open plan, according to Christian Beaudoin, a managing director of research and strategy at real estate company JLL.
Such plans took off in the name of teamwork, although researchers in recent years have questioned whether they actually do encourage collaboration. One Harvard Business School study suggests they can have the opposite effect, finding that face-to-face interactions fell by 70% when firms switched to open offices.
The main reason companies adopted such plans was to cut costs. Doing away with private offices meant less space was needed for each employee, reducing the square footage companies had to rent. Benching arrangements — those long, shared tables with employees sitting side by side — allowed companies to really pack people in.
Confidential conversations, about both business and personal matters, became nearly impossible in a sea of colleagues.
Enter phone booths, those closet-like spaces for placing private calls. Certain phone booth installations have proved problematic: WeWork had to take 2,300 booths out of service after a formaldehyde scare. But the approach has been widely embraced. Companies build rows of phone booths during renovations or purchase prefabricated versions, which range from moderately priced single-person spaces to high-end six-person meeting rooms.
Also popular are “huddle” or “focus” rooms — small spaces where two people can meet or a single person can enjoy some alone time.
When AMC Networks, the home of such hits as “The Walking Dead” and “Killing Eve,” hired architecture firm The Switzer Group to renovate its headquarters in midtown Manhattan, it had the designers eliminate some private offices and add focus rooms, some of which had walls upholstered in sound-absorbing fabric.
It has taken some employees time to get used to the new setup.
“I would see people on their phone pacing the halls,” said Thomas King, the vice president for real estate, facilities and security at AMC, who oversaw the renovation. “I would tell them, ‘Go to a focus room.’”
Some companies are tailoring their spaces to even more specific needs.
In Chicago, at the headquarters of Gogo, the in-flight internet provider, there is a prayer and wellness room that is outfitted with an ablution station that can be used by Muslims who practice foot washing before praying.
Lactation rooms, also known as mothers’ rooms, are in part a response to legislative mandates. A 2010 amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act requires that companies of 50 or more employees provide a private place for new mothers to pump milk during the day. In recent years, states have also passed legislation strengthening the rights of nursing mothers.
The rooms being designed for them are typically equipped with comfortable seating, outlets for plugging in pumps, refrigerators for storing milk and, sometimes, sinks for washing hands and equipment.
Two Trees Management, a New York real estate firm, added mothers’ rooms to three of its Brooklyn office buildings last year in response to requests from tenants. In two of the buildings, the company converted storage rooms for the spaces; in the third, it used part of an office.
The mothers’ rooms have been popular among companies renting small offices that lack the space to provide such rooms for their employees, said Elizabeth Bueno, director of leasing at Two Trees. And they have become another feature, like roof decks and bike-storage rooms, that the company can promote when touring prospective tenants.
“We make sure to show them the option,” Bueno said.
Vermont company Mamava manufactures turnkey lactation pods that have been installed in offices including 3M’s global headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota.
But many companies have opted for wellness rooms serving all employees — a place not only for nursing mothers, but also for, say, those with diabetes who need to give themselves insulin injections. It is also a place where someone can take a nap.
And for those who want to meditate, companies are outfitting rooms with soft lighting and cushions on the floor.
Open Seed, a Miami startup, has introduced a wood and wool-felt meditation pod that offers calm-inducing lighting and sounds.
A prototype was recently tested at CIC Miami, a tech hub and co-working space, and was well received, said Elisa Medrano, senior relationship manager at CIC. Over the 10 months the pod was installed, it was used an average of nine times a day, she added.
Sometimes, even just a chair is being put forth as a private space.
At the research organization Draper in Cambridge, Massachusetts, mod-looking swivel chairs framed by rectangular enclosures are grouped in an open area. The chairs are designed to block the sight and sound of colleagues.
“Those chairs are about letting people be alone together,” said Lowrey of Elkus Manfredi, which designed the workplace. “You can have a sense of privacy while being in a room full of people.”