Trends in Corporate Design: Hybrid Spaces - Feb 2015

By Calista Sprague


Gone are the days of oversized corporate headquarters with endless square footage and fixed offices. Since the Great Recession, companies have become more budget conscious. Corporate footprints are shrinking, and employers have embraced open floor plans, which accommodate more workers in less space, minimizing companies’ investment in real estate, utilities and building maintenance. 

Pervasive use of wireless digital technology now allows employees to float throughout a building, no longer tethered to desks, and proponents of open concept offices are quick to tout the benefits of increased communication and idea exchange among employees. However, many workers still need privacy and quiet to work effectively, so purely open offices are not feasible for many companies. Thus, some designers are finding success in the middle ground, building hybrid corporate environments with a variety of multi-use spaces that include private offices, small, medium and large meeting spaces, and open communal spaces. 

William Baxley is one of three design directors at Leo A Daly, a century-old firm with offices across the U.S. as well as two international offices. The firm does commercial work exclusively, approximately 20% of which takes place in the corporate sector. Baxley works at the Minneapolis office and says that designers and employers are rethinking the essence of the workplace. “We talk about the idea of benching [individual workstations strung in a row or in a block with little or no barriers] a lot, and we’re seeing a lot less fixed office space, a lot more open office, and a real push to minimize the office footprint,” he says. “Getting smaller is a big deal. It takes different ways of thinking about what makes an office, really nontraditional kind of thinking on how we get work done.” 

Designers face a daunting challenge in the modern workplace, configuring smaller offices to accommodate large group collaborative work, heads-down individual work and privacy sensitive work, all while encouraging chance encounters and heightened communication. As if that weren’t enough to consider, in highly competitive markets, a successful office design might make the difference between attracting top notch or second rate talent. Not only must today’s designers keep up with the trends, they must also stay a step ahead of the constantly shifting office ideal.

Kelly Dubisar is a senior designer for the global design firm Gensler, the largest A&D firm in the U.S. with 30 domestic and 16 international offices. Dubisar, who is based in the Bay Area on the West Coast, says that the firm’s designers tailor their work based on each company’s needs, rather than pushing a particular look or plan, and she says that co-designing with representatives of the company, rather than making a formal presentation of a finished project, is also happening more often. “With the increase in access to design in general, more people are starting to recognize and have opinions about what they really like,” she says. “So we’re definitely seeing a peak in interest from the client end in the selection of materials and in the architecture of the space.” 

Informed clients can be more challenging to work with, but Dubisar says that designers can use clients’ knowledge to their advantage. “You can actually push design a lot further. They are more willing to take risks.”

Dubisar also believes that employers are gaining a better understanding of what an office environment can do for the employees in terms of productivity, job satisfaction and even personal health and wellbeing. 

Baxley thinks that employers are more willing to participate in the design process because they know that smaller, more efficient spaces affect the bottom line. “If we’re going to make it smaller, we’ve got to do things differently,” Baxley says. “You have to re-examine every aspect of the work environment. The clients know this and are much more willing to participate in creatively thinking about the workplace.”

With a contraction of space comes a change in design elements as well. “The years of the sea of cubicles and everything in the same color of grey are really over,” says Dubisar. “It’s really about creating unique spaces within an environment that allow people to go work where they need to, but feel like they can be inspired by every corner of the office as opposed to one special room.”

Currently, Dubisar sees an eclecticism permeating corporate design. Rather than imposing a particular design style on an office, she says, “design is really being tailored to the client culture and what they value. There’s almost no right or wrong.” According to Dubisar, “The right solution is the solution that the client is happy with and that makes their business better and helps their employees perform better.”


William Baxley of Leo A Daly reports that corporate design is “ticking up a little bit,” with the market trending toward repurposing and remaking existing spaces. He says that business is going well in the Southeast and that Houston is “still a very good market.” In the Midwest, office space is expanding to support growing manufacturing and distribution, and except for the extreme Northeast, work is “pretty steady” throughout the country. 

On the West Coast, Kelly Dubisar of Gensler stays busy with the increase in tech start-ups maturing into their first headquarters, so for her area, new project build-outs are on the rise. Rebecca Dail works in the Seattle area with JPC, also focusing on technology companies. She says that work in the corporate sector has enjoyed a definite uptick with the end of the Great Recession, but she sees mainly tenant improvements in leased spaces.  

Rebecca Dail, senior interior designer at JPC Architects in Seattle, says that she builds her design finishes from the flooring up. She treats the flooring as the foundation and then plays the look up or down to fit the environment. “Flooring is really a huge statement factor. It supports the architecture and everything happening in the space,” she says. 

With more open spaces in office buildings, floorcovering takes on new importance within the design plan. The floors are far more visible, with fewer walls breaking up large spans, and therefore floorcovering makes up a greater percentage of the design interest in an open office. Designers sometimes choose materials to help the floor recede, minimizing a floor’s impact, while others take advantage of the large canvas, combining different colors or types of flooring to create large scale patterns and other interest in lieu of wall treatments. 

Without walls to delineate space, designers often use flooring to demarcate particular areas within an open office. Just as in a home, an area rug placed on hard surface flooring can set apart a seating group. Bold stripes of carpet tiles might outline walkways or assist with wayfinding. And defined sections of broadloom help separate workstations from surrounding communal areas. 

Although much has changed in the workplace recently, Baxley says, “the fact that we still have to get together collectively to do work, to solve problems, that’s the constant.” He notes that office settings are necessary for collective work, but more and more employers and designers are pulling materials from comfortable environments such as residential and hospitality sectors. “We can blur lines between work and play and home, and you start to want the comfort, the kinds of materials that home provides in the office. That is forcing a rethink about what the office is. It’s moving toward a warmer supportive environment and materials.”

In recent months, Dubisar also has seen a shift toward more tactile products with greater softness in an attempt to achieve a more residential feel in the corporate setting. The challenge comes in finding products that lend the warm, fuzzy feeling of home without sacrificing the performance that an office environment demands in terms of durability, sustainability and maintenance. She would specifically like to see carpet developed with more of a residential look and less of the almost hard surface look that comes with traditional commercial carpet.

Also borrowed from residential trends, hardwood has become increasingly popular for the corporate market, mainly used in feature areas, such as reception, and in communal areas. Dubisar says that she specifies mostly engineered wood for its variety of finishes. The hardwood is often used alongside concrete, and designers are searching for a matte concrete finish with the same durability and cleanability of polished concrete to coordinate with matte hardwood finishes, which have become so popular. 

Baxley would like to see a high performance wood flooring developed to stand up to the rigors of high traffic areas in corporate environments. He likes the porcelain tile with hardwood visuals, but notes that although tile can fool the eye, it does not feel like wood underfoot. “There’s nothing like the beauty of a wood floor, and we’re always considering, how do we get that to work well for a corporate client?”

Since designs are individually tailored to each client, designers are searching for products that are or that seem handcrafted, products that offer a one of a kind feel. “I’ve definitely seen a move to reclaimed materials, things that have a story, that are a little more unique than something off the shelf,” says Dail. In feature areas and common gathering areas, Dail and her colleagues specify a lot of reclaimed wood, for example.

Modular carpet continues its reign as the favored flooring product in corporate settings, but manufacturers are beginning to coordinate colors and patterns for broadloom, LVT and other products with their modular tile to broaden designers’ options and make it easier to mix and match. Tile shapes are beginning to proliferate beyond squares, rectangles and planks, now appearing in hexagons, triangles, trapezoids and wing shapes. However, patterns have remained fairly static, with a preponderance of linear choices. “I would like to see a few more non-linear patterns,” says Dail. “I’ve had a lot of clients recently saying, ‘I don’t want lines,’ but it seems to be the trend right now.”

Baxley says that natural products are becoming more desirable: stones, slates and marbles as well as linoleum and rubber. Large and super large format porcelain tiles are being specified more often for floors as well, but Baxley is partial to the “explosion” of porcelain tiles that mimic practically any other surface through digital imaging. He says that at a decent price point, you can create a flooring visual, such as weathered painted wood, with the durability of porcelain. “Five years ago, that just wouldn’t be possible in a corporate environment. Now you can make it happen.”

Steven South, senior associate at Perkins+Will, a global firm ranked third on Interior Design magazine’s list of A&D Giants, says that raised floors have also steadily gained traction in corporate installations. “More and more companies need flexible flooring environments to help support the movement that goes on in an open office,” he explains. The ability to run power and data cables under a raised floor and punch up wherever the utilities might be needed is a boon to designers and workers alike. And a few months down the road, if someone decides to add or relocate a bank of workstations, the utilities are readily accessible. 

“People think a raised floor costs more,” South says, but he points out that the money and time saved by not drilling into concrete exceeds the additional upfront cost. Also, he says that subfloors in many buildings have leveling issues, and raised floors help eliminate those problems in a cost effective way.

Modular carpet works well with raised floors, and South is currently working on a project designed to meet new wellbeing standards, using Milliken carpet tile with TractionBack, Milliken’s high-friction coating that allows tiles to be installed without adhesive. Since the tiles are not attached to the floor or each other, they can easily be laid over a raised floor and removed individually for maintenance or access to the space under the floor. 

Several porcelain tile collections have been created for use on a raised floor as well, and in recent months, Haworth introduced an Italian hardwood plank system called NoMoreSquare. The calcium sulphate raised floor planks are bonded with 4mm of European oak and the planks can be easily installed and removed for immediate access to the underlying space. The calcium core is made of 100% post-industrial recycled materials, and the planks qualify for LEED credits.

Designers report that the demand for sustainable buildings and products continues to increase in the corporate sector, and although not every company cares about or can afford the LEED Platinum plaque to hang in the foyer, they still want to be environmentally responsible. “Stockholders demand it, the employees demand it, so it affects their bottom line,” Baxley explains. He and other designers say that they now specify sustainable products regularly. “It’s not just a trend, it’s becoming a part of how we do work. It’s a part of our practice.” 

Dubisar notes that her firm has done quite a few projects recently that have been LEED Platinum. “We build sustainability into our projects,” she adds. “It’s really just automatic. All the products we specify meet those criteria regardless of whether a client has specifically asked for it or not.”

Dail says that large companies like Google and Microsoft push sustainability, and smaller companies tend to follow their lead, helping create a culture of sustainability in the 

corporate sector, especially among technology firms. However, she points out, “Finding green products on a budget is always a challenge.”

Rachel Casanova, director of workplace at Perkins+Will, says that designers are starting to look at sustainability from a much wider perspective, including wellness and active design. Products are chosen for purer air quality, and opportunities for movement are worked into floor plans. She says that the firm has done some LEED Platinum projects, and when a client is willing, the firm tries to push the envelope with net zero energy and energy generation.

Not only is Casanova working on the leading edge of sustainability, she is also working at the leading edge of corporate design, and she questions whether the hybrid office, with its mixture of communal, semi-private and private workspaces, is really the solution for the workplace of the future.

“There’s a recommitment to supporting individual work,” Casanova says. “People are working heads-down and collaboratively at the same time. We know the acoustical and the concentration issues that arise, so the workplace of the future has to be responsive to a changing work environment and to a changing worker.” 

Casanova points out that not only do individuals work in a variety of ways through the course of a day or even within a single hour, but some also work outside the office, some in, and others constantly move around. Add to all of these variables the volatility of technology changes, which are swift and transformative. Casanova says that a few years ago we could not know that conference calls in a boardroom would become video conferences at individuals’ desks, for example. Thus designers must incorporate flexibility into corporate spaces to allow for advancements yet to come, advancements they cannot yet fathom. 

“The office of the future is going to be responsive to the work of the future,” says Casanova. Today’s offices with their multiple work environments allow workers to move around, but Casanova envisions an environment that can be manipulated by workers on a moment-to-moment basis, like a teacher who rearranges individual desks to create a table for collaborative work or separates them into rows for testing. “I think people want flexibility to re-create their own space, not because the architect and design team said it should be, but when they want it, how they want it.”

Just as phone users can customize their phones to look a certain way or to accomplish certain tasks, Casanova says, an office should respond to its users. “We have to figure out how to take an asset, which is not inherently flexible and be responsive to people at an individual level. As we continue to become unencumbered with wires and connections, I think the expectation for the workplace will be even more user customizable.”


Both Kelly Dubisar of Gensler and Rebecca Dail of JPC work often for the West Coast tech industry, and they report that the days of beanbag tech offices are gone. Tech companies have grown up and now battle each other to attract the best talent. In addition to high salaries and impressive benefits, a top-notch workspace also must be included in the offerings. 

The desire for casualness and comfort with an edgy feel still pervades, but tech companies are moving beyond basic industrial spaces filled with Ikea kit furniture, investing in more sophisticated finishes and furnishings that will last for many years. Dubisar attributes this shift to the companies’ desire to establish themselves as businesses with longevity, to separate themselves from fly-by-night start-ups. For the flooring industry, this is good news, since start-ups tend to make do with unfinished concrete floors, and moving up entails purchasing floorcovering. 

Copyright 2015 Floor Focus