Trends in Corporate: Workplace design at technology companies - Feb 2016

By Calista Sprague

The corporate sector encompasses a wide range of design styles, from the tried and true traditional to the experimentally modern, depending on the client’s workplace needs and aesthetic preferences. As a group, perhaps no other segment embraces cutting edge design with as much enthusiasm as high-tech companies. The bold, wide open and flexible spaces they tend to prefer present a myriad of challenges for designers, and in many cases, thoughtfully specified floorcovering provides solutions.

Even the most stately law firm might adopt sleek modern finishes and maybe even incorporate a gym for its employees, but a company that installs slides, go-karts and beanbag chairs in its headquarters is more than likely a technology firm like Apple, Google or Microsoft. 

To some degree the energetic, open spaces are conceived to attract top young talent in a highly competitive field. Companies develop fun, exciting work environments to lure the best and brightest prospective employees. A recent project for GoDaddy’s call center in Tempe, Arizona exemplifies the ultimate technology workspace. “It’s a 24-hour facility,” explains Michelle Goodlive, associate interior designer at SmithGroupJJR. “We added volleyball courts, basketball courts, a full service kitchen and a full service cafe. They’ve got a slide and pedal go-karts, and they can ride a beach cruiser from one end of the building to the other. And they use it.”

But these contemporary spaces are designed to provide much more than fun. They are also designed with productivity in mind. The collaborative nature of high-tech work and shifting workplace preferences, especially among younger generations, lead designers to create spaces that diverge from the standard office model. The nontraditional designs boost employee productivity as well as employee satisfaction, both of which directly affect the company’s bottom line. 

A recent project for Lutz, the largest locally owned accounting firm in Omaha, Nebraska, provides the perfect example of how differently technology groups operate compared to other corporate entities, even under the same corporate umbrella. Two years ago, architecture and design firm DLR Group was hired to design new offices for Lutz. DLR workplace leader for the central region Melissa Spearman and her team suggested a different approach for the areas occupied by Lutz Tech, a division that provides software development and IT consulting for Lutz’s accounting clients. Lutz opted instead to adopt a unified concept for the whole firm, and within a few months it was obvious that, although the other divisions were pleased, the design did not function for Lutz Tech.

Lutz gave the green light for a redesign of the technology division and the CEO stepped back, allowing the designers to work directly with the Lutz Tech team. A few conference rooms and small “huddle rooms” allow for closed-door meetings, but the majority of the work space is now wide open. And a gaming area and break room flow directly into the workstations so employees don’t have to leave to grab a snack or take a break. 

Lutz Tech leaders told Spearman that the redesign was so successful that team members who once rushed for the door at 5:00 p.m. now regularly collaborate late into the evening without complaint. “To me that was just a breathtaking moment from a design standpoint,” says Spearman, “because it truly made a difference for them.”

DESIGN TRENDS
The trends found in the high-tech segment are essentially the same ones found in the entire corporate sector, but technology companies tend to include most or all of the trends in a single project, whereas other segments might choose to incorporate one or two. Frequently the result is a wide open space with exposed ceilings and minimal individual office space, with an emphasis on collaborative spaces and flexibility. Color schemes tend to be bold and patterns oversized. Furniture is innovative and multi-functional, and the technology is state of the art, of course, with an emphasis on mobile devices. 

As creatively freeing as these projects may be for designers, however, they still present design challenges. 

OPEN FLOOR PLANS
Open concept offices with fewer individual offices have been trending in the corporate sector for several years now. Cubicles have given way to smaller workstations with low or no partitions. And now those workstations are moving toward the outer walls of the building. “Everyone is still trying to get out of the traditional office set up,” Goodlive says. “Everyone is pulling away from perimeter offices. Not only are they doing away with the quantity of offices, but they are also trying to bring them into the interior and give the outer perimeter to all the workstations.” 

Studies have shown that employees benefit from the additional natural light and connection to the outdoors, and high-tech companies often implement the open concept more fully than other segments, increasing employees’ exposure to daylight. At GoDaddy in Arizona, for instance, the 150,000-square-foot building was designed with only eight individual offices, although it houses around 1,100 workstations. 

Taking another step beyond daylighting, many companies look for opportunities to bring the outside in. Spaces like atriums, for example, have grown in popularity for this reason. In Tempe, Arizona, the weather is temperate eight months of the year, so for GoDaddy’s cafe, SmithGroupJJR incorporated 12’ wall panels that can open up completely to the outside. Porcelain tile in a stone look helps to enhance the feeling of dining al fresco. 

The more open the space, the more prominent the flooring becomes, and with so few walls, designers are more likely to utilize the floors to bring in color and pattern. Designers report that bold patterns and large-format designs are currently gaining popularity across all corporate segments. 

Spearman says that the increased modularity of almost all flooring categories with an ever expanding variety of shapes and sizes gives designers endless possibilities for creating unique large-scale patterns. “A couple of years ago, I would have said that it would be nice to have something besides a square carpet tile,” she says, “but now there is a vast range of formats available, which is great. You’re even seeing that more and more with LVT.”

Designers often start with a directional pattern in a flooring product or a combination of varied designs and use them to build larger patterns. In an area of the GoDaddy project, the DLR team used 36”-long carpet tile planks with directional stripes to coordinate with the company’s green and orange branding. The team experimented with patterns and dictated the exact placement of the carpet tiles to create interest in the oversized space. 

Acoustics can also pose a challenge in open concept buildings, especially for technology companies that have an affinity for the look of exposed building materials. “These tech companies want raw material,” says Goodlive. “They like that distressed look, so we’ve seen companies getting back to polished concrete.” Along with acoustic products for the ceiling, designers often utilize carpet tile, especially in heads-down work areas, to absorb sound. In areas where a hard surface is warranted but acoustics are an issue, a high-end LVT might be specified since it reflects less sound than concrete.

BRANDING AND BOLD COLORS
In addition to providing a wide variety of formats, manufacturers are also creating products with a wider range of color and style, which make personalization and branding easier for designers. Goodlive says that branding is currently one of the most important corporate trends, and high-tech companies take this concept to the extreme. “They want to live and breathe their brand, so they implement that into their space.” 

GoDaddy used its green and orange brand colors to separate the facility into neighborhoods, but many other colors were thoughtfully woven into the design as well. “You’ll see hints of every other color you can think of,” says Goodlive. “Sprinkled throughout you’ll see magenta, yellows and blues, but it was so strategic, it doesn’t feel like there are primary colors everywhere.” 

Spearman says that the Lutz Tech design also incorporated more color than the original design for Lutz. “The color palette was based on some of their branding colors, but it branched out into complementary colors, and bolder colors were utilized as well.”

The combination of bright white with bold color is another current trend utilized by GoDaddy. The lobby was painted white and gleaming white porcelain tile floors were installed. The bold logo provides the main color interest, with a bright green streak that runs up the wall, a look that will be replicated in other GoDaddy facilities.

FLEXIBILITY 
Another huge trend affecting design in the corporate sector is the desire for flexibility. Employees, especially younger ones, don’t want to be closed up in an office or tied to a desk. They desire the flexibility to work in a variety of modes—sitting, standing, lounging, collaborating. Also, companies are becoming savvier about evolving needs over time, and they’re looking for flexible spaces that can accommodate additional employees as the company grows or more collaboration space for major projects. 

Once again, the need for flexibility is especially great when designing for technology companies. “We see a lot more need for adjustable-height workstations, lounge areas, more break out spaces for collaboration,” explains Spearman. “We really think about the flooring as a flexible canvas as well, so we may use one solid hard surface all over but then accent with carpet tile.” Spearman says that carpet tile is useful for delineating smaller spaces within an open office, and because they are not attached to the main flooring, they can be repurposed easily when the space plan changes. 

Employees are able to work in these flexible spaces and float from individual space to collaborative space due almost entirely to mobile technology. The use of mobile devices is continuing to proliferate in all corporate environments, supporting the move away from traditional floor plans, and demand is especially high at technology companies. Employees are more likely to work on laptops or tablets and need plug-and-play connections everywhere they go. With so few walls and a growing demand for outlets, designers find it increasingly challenging to hide the necessary electric lines and data cables. Whether on a couch floating in the game room, at a table in the center of a collaboration space or at a personal workstation, employees need constant access to data and power for their devices.

SPECIFICATION FOR CORPORATE SPACES
Because lobbies sustain high traffic, designers almost always specify hard surfaces for them. The designers say that porcelain tile and polished concrete are currently the most popular options, although terrazzo is used occasionally for higher end installations. The Lutz Tech project did not involve a true lobby, since visitors enter the building elsewhere, but the DLR team created an entryway with polished concrete to set the division apart from the others in the building.

Porcelain tile styles used in corporate lobbies run the gamut, from the bright white tiles of the GoDaddy project to bold colors or natural stone looks. Goodlive says that stone looks are probably specified more than any other option, but even within stone visuals, the style can vary greatly, from realistic earthy looks to sleek modern tiles that only hint at stone. 

Designers sometimes choose to continue the hard surface flooring from the lobby throughout the main pathways in the space or, according to Spearman, the flooring may transition at that point to carpet tile or LVT, depending on client preferences, budget and performance needs.

As in other sectors, LVT specification is growing in corporate projects. Wood looks are by far the most common, and walnut is the trendiest visual, although the lighter white washed looks are also coming back. “Because of the technology, these products look so good and they install so well, and they hold up so well,” explains Goodlive. “With the embossing and the color, they look like real wood. But you don’t get the maintenance of real wood, and you certainly don’t get the price of it.” She believes that LVT is replacing VCT, carpet and, in some cases, porcelain. 

LVT, especially wood looks, are sometimes also specified for meeting spaces like conference rooms. Wood is not the only look for LVT, however. For technology companies, Goodlive is excited about LVT with a brushed metal look, for example.

Carpet is the most common flooring choice for meeting spaces, specified primarily for its acoustic properties. Goodlive estimates that 90% of the carpet specified for corporate projects is carpet tile. “It is rare to see broadloom specified, except maybe for a high-end project.”

The floors in employee work spaces are almost always covered in carpet tile, whether an individual office or an open bank of workstations. “Where they are doing the majority of the heads-down work, they need a quieter place,” explains Spearman. She says that in open offices, a combination of hard surface and soft surface is common, such as concrete or LVT and carpet tile. 

Flooring for break areas varies by project. Porcelain tile, concrete, LVT, carpet tile or a combination are all regularly specified, and the designs also vary greatly depending on the client and the overall aesthetic. Goodlive says that designers are moving away from granite for countertops, choosing from other assorted solid surface options and tiling the backsplash in bright colors. 

While game rooms are occasionally found in various corporate settings, they are much more common among technology companies. Movement, which increases respiratory rate and circulation, has been proven to positively affect mental acuity and productivity. Employees may shoot a little pool to recharge mentally, or they may hash out a piece of code over a quick game of foosball. 

At the GoDaddy call center, where many employees sit for the majority of the day, volleyball and basketball courts were installed to give employees opportunities to get their blood circulating. Rubber flooring is often used for gyms and sporting areas for safety, whereas for smaller gaming areas with pool or ping-pong tables, designers are likely to specify carpet tile or LVT to minimize noise. 

A new category of spaces is gaining popularity in the corporate segment, especially among the larger technology companies. Wellness rooms may be found in the form of a mother room for expecting or new moms or a yoga and meditation room. Rooms of this type offer peaceful spaces for employees to escape the noise and energy of the otherwise bustling environment. Flooring is likely to be soft surface to provide comfort and quiet to employees. 

Many corporate environments include back-of-house areas such as work rooms and storage areas that might be floored with VCT or sheet vinyl, but high tech companies are so open, they tend to have little in the way of back-of-house spaces. Even GoDaddy’s server rooms, which house servers, hubs, routers, patch panels and such, received a special design treatment. A high-end static dissipative tile in bright white-on-white swirls was installed to coordinate with bright white equipment cabinets. Colored LED lights shine up onto the cabinets, giving them a colorful glow. 

These large-scale data rooms house expensive equipment that carry and store crucial data that, if lost, could substantially impact a company’s bottom line. A static charge of as little as five volts—too slight for a human to feel—could severely damage electronic equipment, so data rooms require static dissipative tile. The specialized tile attracts static electricity through carbon pathways, routing it away from the high-tech equipment through conductive adhesive to copper stripping, which dissipates the charge into a ground. Floors in data centers are often raised, as well, for easy access to the maze of cables and wires running to and from the equipment. 

Designers specify porcelain tile almost exclusively for restrooms, for both the floor and walls in corporate settings, and the once neutral rooms are becoming increasingly colorful.

Another recent trend is to create a spa-like feeling in the restrooms. “They want to be able to retreat and feel like they can be literally refreshed,” says Goodlive. “In fact for most of our tech company designs, the bathroom is a big part of the design, believe it or not.” She says that a high-end spa-like restroom is just one more amenity a technology company can offer to attract and retain employees. 


STATE OF THE CORPORATE MARKET

In 2014, the corporate sector led commercial building with 28% growth in dollar value, according to Dodge Data and Analytics. Although final numbers for 2015 had not been released at press time, Dodge’s 2016 Construction Outlook predicts that office starts will end nearly flat for the year, growing 1% to $29.1 billion, and falling 8% in area to 100 million square feet. For 2016, however, Dodge expects another surge in office construction growth of 14% to $33.3 billion and 17% in area to 117 million square feet. 

Much of the activity in the corporate sector since 2013 can be attributed to the technology segment. Tech giants like Microsoft, Amazon and Yahoo broke ground on new data centers, and Apple undertook work on its new $2.5 billion headquarters in San Jose, California. As recently as October, Facebook launched a $570 million data center project, and Google began the first phase of its office campus in Boulder, Colorado, as well as a $374 million data center in Charleston, South Carolina and a $300 million expansion to its data center in Lithia Springs, Georgia. So investments from the technology segment continue to bolster the corporate sector. 

In addition to all the high-tech activity, increased construction for flagship offices, such as Nike’s expansion of its world headquarters in Oregon or Toyota’s new headquarters building in Texas, was also key for the corporate sector last year, a trend that has been in place for several years and is expected to continue.  

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