The Rise of Reconfigurable Offices

Part of Clearspace’s origins lie in our experiences with leasing, furnishing, and operating our own offices at previous companies. Quite frankly, these offices were lousy experiences that were ill suited to our needs. Rooms were too large or too small, furniture was clunky and easier to ignore rather than move, and walls in random spots interfering with how we worked.  

These experiences have not only led to our desire in making great offices accessible to more people, but has also informed our approach in how we design them. When we thought about our office experiences, the better offices (more productive, more cost-effective) were flexible. These agile offices had spaces designed for employees to have choice in how they work by offering a variety of space options. We’ve fully embraced this concept of flexibility at Clearspace, taking it to the next level with reconfigurable space

What is Reconfigurable Space?

Instead of being designed for a static purpose, reconfigurable space is designed with change in mind. A reconfigurable space takes into account known, and potentially unknown future requirements and is set up to be able to adapt to change. In contrast, traditional office spaces are designed for a singular fixed purpose and are not adaptable. While agile offices are designed to provide options to flexibly meet employee needs, the physical space itself does not flexibly change. Reconfigurable spaces flexibly change physically in order to meet needs.

Reconfigurable spaces are not new. Some have been used in traditional office space before, such as multi-purpose rooms. Others have implemented reconfigurable spaces, albeit at higher cost than a traditional build-out. However, new design thinking and improved products have now enabled greater flexibility, and COVID-19 has borne an even greater need for reconfigurable space. 

How Does Reconfigurable Space Work?

There are 2 core concepts in designing a reconfigurable space – convertibility and modularity

Convertibility

Space that is convertible is designed to include infrastructure and/or furnishings for multiple potential uses, creating the option to switch into another purpose with minimal difficulty. Additionally, convertible space can return to its previous purpose with ease. Convertible space has traditionally been more often seen used in conference or hospitality settings, but can provide significant utility as offices look towards more flexibility. Here are some examples of convertible spaces in an office:

Multi-purpose rooms are the classic convertible space, allowing for multi-use options such as turning into a meeting room, a wellness room, prayer room etc. 

A large conference room can be subdivided when needed and used as smaller huddle rooms

A common request from our clients is to add convertibility to cafeteria space by installing audio-visual equipment and infrastructure (projectors, speakers, additional electrical etc.) to support large team meetings that no other space in the office can support. Additionally, cafeteria tables that can be moved and stored, along with stackable chairs allow for conversion of dining areas into auditorium seating.

When designing private offices, we take into account the ability to re-utilize the room as a huddle room. This is done by adding networking and electrical infrastructure, as well as sizing rooms appropriately to accommodate  

Modularity

Modularity refers to designing components in the space to be swappable. Modular components in a space can be added or removed to enhance the space’s purpose, rather than completely changing it. A key difference between modular and traditional office design is that modular design considers components in a space as temporary, rather than permanent fixtures. Here are some examples:

Modular workstations have frames that can resize to easily fit different work surface sizes. This allows for changing density in the office – as the number of staff in office grows, worktops can shrink to be able to add more seats in the same amount of space. 

In designing modular collaboration spaces at Clearspace, we focus on reducing any hard construction such as walls and specialized lighting in favour of obtaining similar results with removable furnishings. Alcoved booths are great collaboration spaces, but are very limited in modularity as the alcoves are specifically sized for the booths. Instead, we utilize more lounge type seating, or movable booths to increase modularity.   

Call booths and fully enclosed meeting pods are modular pieces of furniture that create new functionality for the space without permanent commitment. A 4-person meeting pod such as the one below can immediately increase meeting space availability without requiring construction.

Building a Reconfigurable Office

Purposeful Design

Reconfigurable offices require intentional design and planning ahead. Modularity is not just about having components that can be swapped out – modularity also requires any necessary supporting infrastructure to be included in the space. For example, when considering modularity of a workstation, you also need to consider electrical requirements. Hardwired workstations are low in modularity as they are difficult to remove and relocate. However, softwire/plug and play workstations will require careful planning around electrical circuit capacities.

Another example is the placement of rooms. For convertible private offices/huddle rooms, this can often be a conflicting need. Huddle rooms are typically placed in high traffic areas where people can easily hop in and have a quick discussion. Private offices on the other hand, often are more secluded for privacy as well as quiet. Designing a reconfigurable room requires considering both aspects and evaluating competing priorities. 

Reducing Built-In or Customized Solutions

The key tenet of reconfigurable space is to assume that most things are temporary. Any built-in item reduces how reconfigurable a space is. For example, a wall creates permanent separation of a space, and requires construction work in order to remove it. However, there are many non-permanent separators that can effectively separate a space while maintaining flexibility, ranging from movable dividers and panels, to creative use of cabinets and shelving, to decorative hanging elements. 

Similarly, while custom solutions such as millwork and unique furnishings can add to a space’s identity, these solutions are often designed with a singular purpose in mind. Additionally, custom solutions are often less modular by nature. A unique live edge wood boardroom table, custom designed to accommodate all the necessary electrical and AV needs, makes for a gorgeous statement, but is very low on modularity. When looking at custom solutions, understand your true needs around the reconfigurability of the space before committing to a design.

Managing Upfront Cost

Most would assume that adding flexibility to a space means that you’re paying upfront for the optionality in the future. While some of these added elements such as additional electrical means an increased upfront cost, reconfigurable space design can actually help you reduce some of your upfront costs.

For example, a typical 4 person meeting room can cost upwards of $20,000 to build and furnish. Comparatively, a modular meeting pod achieves the same purpose for 70% of the cost. If you are not sure you need the room, the modular meeting pod lets you to evaluate your needs at a discounted rate. If needed, the meeting pod can be removed and a full room be built, or simply used as a permanent solution. On the other hand, you would have overspent if you chose to build the room and it ends up being under-utilized.

Overall Office Reconfigurability VS Specific Space Reconfigurability

It’s important to not only consider the reconfigurability of a single space, but also how it plays into the overall reconfigurability of your office. While we want added flexibility in the office, there are some spaces that simply might not need to be reconfigurable. They have a clear, singular purpose that are not going to change. For example, your reception will likely always remain the primary entrance to your space, and would need limited reconfigurability. In comparison, depending on your type of work and how you work, your workstation areas might change frequently between collaboration space and workstations. Investing more into the workstation areas increases your overall office reconfigurability much more than investing into your reception space. 

Who Should Build Reconfigurable Offices?

While we’re biased and think that most offices should be reconfigurable, they have a larger impact on companies that:

  • Anticipate leasing or subleasing the space to other companies (flexible design to meet varied requirements)
  • Are rapidly changing and have drastically changing headcount requirements (ability to change along with capacity needs)
  • Have offices that are densely designed (adds more optionality to limited space)

Reconfigurable offices are less useful for:

  • Large enterprise offices that have enough spaces to meet different needs
  • Companies that have spaces for very specific purposes, such as labs

Flexibility for an Unknown Future

Many have, for a long time, tolerated the rigidity of the office, seeing it as a necessary investment in order to deliver on employee productivity. Flexibility was low on the list of needs as companies planned for their physical presence. This is now changing. 

With the world moving into uncharted waters and how we work becoming a topic in everyone’s mind, flexibility is now at a premium. As John Wooden, one of the most successful coaches in basketball history, says, “Flexibility is the key to stability.” By investing in reconfigurable offices, companies can significantly add stability to their future.