Creating Mixed-Use Space: 7 Ways to Walk Back from an Open Floor Plan

This post dives into some actionable ideas for how to move beyond an open office environment to a flexible mixed-use space for employees.


Over the past decade and a half, the desire to create a healthy and productive work environment has led many companies to move toward open floor plans in their offices. Open collaborative floor plans are the new way to keep up with the curve. But is the design here to stay?

As our recent post highlights, some people are not so sure. The shift in preference has left many architects, interior designers and business leaders wondering: How can you walk back from the open floor plan?

It’s one thing to create a new design from scratch, and quite another to repurpose an existing space for an entirely different feel. But it’s not impossible, and it is certainly worth the effort. Check out SOM leader Jeannette Lenear Peruchini’s thoughts on how office design reflects a commitment to corporate culture:

“Design can be a key component in efforts to facilitate organizational change by making change visible. It is one thing to talk about organizational change, but making a physical commitment to a new way of working is an important step in bringing about real and lasting change.”

The alternative to an open collaborative floor plan is a flexible office design — a mixed-use space that allows collaboration, private spaces and fixed-focus areas for prime productivity.

With some help from the leading voices in architecture, interior design and organizational behavior, this post dives into some actionable ideas for how to move beyond an open office environment to something more flexible.

1. Differentiate Public and Productive Spaces

Finding an alternative to an open collaborative floor plan does not mean you have to do away with all public spaces. The right kind of public space will do wonders for employee satisfaction — and private space will do wonders for employee productivity.

Kevin Kruse, author of Employee Engagement 2.0, summarizes the importance of this distinction by saying privacy builds a foundation for positive public interactions.

He argues that for office design to foster the “right kind of interactions” in public, it must also prioritize private workspaces where productivity is the ultimate goal. With these private workspaces in place, organic public spaces become more valuable.

Hallways, lobbies, snack rooms and outdoor hotspots are all organic public spaces that can complement private workspaces.

laptop - mixed-use space

2. Create Truly Individual Spaces

Depending on the focus of your company, not every employee needs a dedicated and private office. But every employee does need the option of getting away and getting into a flow state. Designer Amar Singh speaks to the dangers of not letting employees be in control of their workspaces, warning that they make take their work elsewhere.

You can get ahead of this by creating dedicated spaces that employees have the option of using. The area of privacy doesn’t have to be huge, but it does have to be functional and available. This can be an easy addition to an existing open floor plan, added to the sides or corners of an open space. Interior design firm Laurel & Wolf points to how setting these individual spaces aside means employees can put their personal touch on the brand.

Making the effort to create these individual spaces has an additional benefit: Employees won’t have to misuse other spaces in order to get their privacy. Instead of one employee having to jump on a call in a conference room designed for 12, have a shared private office or an office phone booth readily available.

3. Get Feedback Before Making Changes

If the idea is to find what works for your employees, you’ll want to ask what your employees prefer.

Emily Williams, head of global real estate at live video streaming platform Twitch, makes it clear that your mileage may vary. “They want an environment that’s quiet and loud, conducive to both focus and collaboration,” Williams tells Bisnow. “You have to do the best to provide these in the right proportions based on user preferences.”

While some teams may value collaborative spaces, other individual employees may prefer the peace, quiet and privacy of an individual office.

At the same time, you should keep in mind that nearly every employee will need a quiet space at times. Donna Flynn, director of Steelcase’s WorkSpace Futures, found that most workers (ranging across generations) found the noise of a coworking space distracting. “We are human and actual human behavior changes very slowly over time,” Flynn said.

The SteelCase research team found that privacy is a universal, basic need in the workplace. Find out how you can serve that need with your mixed-use space.

At the same time, Kay Sargent, director of workplace for design firm HOK, argues that companies must home in on what works for them: “We think Google gets it right—for Google. The folks who get it wrong are the ones who try to slap Google-like space and policies onto their own organization without understanding what it is that they really need.”

In their 2017 study for the Brookings Institute, Julie Wagner and Dan Watch point out that organizations may not always be communicating what they mean to in their workspace. A space designed for collaboration may translate into a desire for control. Asking your employees directly about their preferences will help avoid the miscommunication.

4. Make it a Choice

Architectural firm Gensler found that employees were more effective — both in terms of their ability to focus and their willingness to collaborate — when they were given a choice over their workspace: “Employers who provide a spectrum of choices for when and where to work are seen as more innovative and have higher-performing employees.”

You can even offer the option of working from mobile devices or from home. Architect Alexi Marmot takes this into account, saying that free-flow has become more important than even the best office chair. At the same time, WorkDesign Magazine’s Bob Fox implies that companies will have to offer more flexible workspaces in order to stay competitive.

According to global design and planning firm HOK, 60 percent of employees with “high access to flexibility” are very satisfied with jobs — compared to just 22 percent of those with low access. Allowing meaningful decisions encourages engagement, which in turn affects performance and productivity.

meeting - mixed-use space

5. Provide Many Different Options

Activity-based working is founded on a basic principle: Different types of work require different types of work environments. Companies can put this idea into practice by utilizing mixed-use space and creating a few different workplace options for employees.

Serraview is a firm that specializes in space planning and workforce enablement. Founder and CEO Ian Morley says the major benefit of an activity-based working floor plan is that employees can choose where they want to work each day. If they need to focus in on a coding project, they can choose a small, private office. If they need quiet space for a client call, they can use an office phone booth. Or they can choose a larger space to brainstorm a wireframe with their development team.

Morley summarizes the benefit: “Not only do agile environments greatly reduce real estate costs by maximizing space utilization and reducing footprint, but employees get to choose the space that’s best suited to their work.”

Alexander Saint-Amand, CEO of GLG, provides an insightful look into activity-based working by describing the way his company created its office space in New York:  “We have ‘neighborhoods’ where people can work with their teams. Each contains team tables with individual workstations, enclosed glass meeting pods, chairs of different shapes and sizes, and adjustable standing desks.”

The good news is utilizing activity-based working does not necessarily require an entirely new architecture. It can mean repurposing the spaces you already have, or introducing a few structural elements to the office to wall off certain spaces.

If you already have an open collaborative floor plan, this may mean adding back in a few cubicles or designating certain closed spaces (such as a conference room) to be used for specific purposes or by dedicated teams.

6. Incorporate and Encourage Technology

It’s no great secret that technology is increasingly important to workplace productivity and satisfaction. In fact, ChargeSpot head of community Kyle Pinto reports that 80 percent of respondents to a Dell/Intel study said that office technology would have an impact on their job selection.

Office design firm Interactive Space points to two ways companies can stay on top of technology in the workplace: encouraging the use of mobile technology and ensuring technology is integrated in the office. The former makes workspaces more flexible while the latter ensures that employees have power and connectivity no matter where they are in the office.

7. Separate Employees and Managers

Collaborative spaces can easily translate into feelings of micromanagement.

Ethan S. Bernstein, professor of organizational behavior at Harvard Business School, conducted a study on the effect of organizational design on employee effectiveness in 2012. According to his study, taking the simple step of physically separating employees and managers increased productivity by up to 15 percent.

The reasoning behind the shift is readily apparent: Employees simply don’t do well when put under the microscope. Nate Swanner at Dice sums up the importance of the separation: “Take a step back and your takeaway might be that employees – no matter where they work, or what they do – typically just want to do a good job and be productive.”

Sometimes, letting employees be productive means removing the pressure of close supervision and replacing it with a space where employees and teams can work on their own, flexible terms.

Images by: Štefan Štefančík, Bench Accounting, rawpixel