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From the ground up: How we designed our new office space to cultivate workplace productivity

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Ever wondered how often a hermit crab changes its shell? We started wondering about that beginning a couple months ago while packing boxes for the third time. If you’ve tracked the TimeForge corporate mailing address(es), then you know that we’ve moved around a bit. The practice came in handy, since it made our final move into our new permanent offices super-smooth. [In contrast, the hermit crab research wasn’t as satisfying — answer at the end!]
Speaking of smooth, our new digs are definitely that. We managed to combine style with utility and savings plus efficiency. The result is 8,000 square feet of modern flexible space for expanding our staff and developing new applications to serve your needs.

What kind of office – open or traditional?
Since our new office space was designed by us for us, we had the opportunity to think very carefully about what kind of environment would best support the things we do at TimeForge and best help us innovate as we grow.
Our goal for our office environment was very clear – create a space where folks can concentrate yet also easily collaborate, with lots of opportunity for serendipitous chance connections (yet without constant interruption annoyance).
It soon became clear in the planning process, however, that actually achieving this goal would be tricky – and that we’d have to do a lot of thinking to create a productive office space to effectively support our future plans!
Conflicting office design tradeoffs
One idea we had was to emulate the now-iconic completely “open office” flexspace model identified with hip tech startups where folks work at flexspace tables or loose areas with no permanently defined workspace. A bit of research showed that this currently chic office space style has some significant downsides, however.
So, another idea we had was to be way more old school with permanent separate offices complete with real doors – the complete opposite of hip startup layout. Again, however, some conversations with contractors and quick research on office behavior uncovered some problems with that approach too.
A third option we tossed around was to follow the conventional cubicle model, with assigned desk workspaces arranged in a common space but with the semi-privacy of traditional 5-6ft high cubicle dividers. However again, that idea had some clear downsides.
Here’s a slightly more detailed rundown of these common office space designs, how they evolved, and the problems they can create if not utilized smartly.
Open flexspace – an open invitation to interruption
The idea behind open flexspace office floorplan layouts is to foster communication and cooperation by maximizing social interaction. When you can see all your co-workers all the time, start conversations just by saying “hey” across a table, and hear what’s going on in all parts of the office, then (the theory goes) serendipitously innovative conversations and other interactions are more likely – and productivity from multitasking should be higher.
However, in practice, a lot of current research shows that this completely open model actually hurts productivity and also generally makes folks not very happy. It is, apparently, hard to concentrate and get things done when you’re hearing everything in the office all the time (nevermind being constantly interrupted with co-workers constantly shouting “HEY!” at you from across tables). Who would have guessed?
Traditional offices with doors – a closed door to collaboration
The thinking behind traditional offices (like 1930s -style traditional, with real walls and doors and everything) is that privacy and quiet creates focused productivity. Also, studies show that while open office flexspace layouts do generate more frequent conversations between coworkers, those frequent conversations are generally also less detailed, less informative, and much more superficial than conversations that happen in private offices (where folks aren’t constantly self-conscious about being overheard and perhaps misunderstood).
However, again in practice, closed doors can literally block collaborative flow. Also, the rigid architectural hierarchy of permanent individual offices just doesn’t really fit the (extremely) flat organizational culture here at TimeForge. And, since we really like our culture, that would be a problem.
Traditional cubicles – the danger of an “Office Space” space
The traditional 1990s steel-frame and cloth-covered modular cubicle, lampooned in cartoons like “Dilbert” and movies like “Office Space”, was actually a direct result of the first wave of open office layouts in the early 1900s. When steel beam skyscraper architecture became possible early last century, architects like Frank Lloyd Wright took advantage of the open floorplan possibilities by banishing walls and creating spaces that they thought would “liberate office dwellers from the confines of boxes”. The results proved impossible to work in. You think your co-workers’ computer keyboard typing is annoyingly loud? Just imagine them using a manual typerwriter!
So, office managers began ordering up particle board partitions in the 1950s as the first “temporary” cubicle solutions to the problem. Meanwhile, business managers continued to eschew traditional offices for open-plan spaces because this offered cost savings – you can fit a lot more workers per square foot in cubicles. Seeing an opportunity to bring slapdash cubicle solutions upscale, office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller in the mid- 1960s designed and marketed the “Action Office” as an “evolving system that would never be obsolete“. The success of Herman Miller’s flexible (but expensive) new office furniture system caused a ton of imitators to jump in with cheap metal and cloth knockoffs. Sales took off and several generations of office workers – from the 1970s to the millennium turn – grew up and grew old in the “cubicle farms” that the Action Office spawned.
Now, style was not for us the most important consideration, but it was still something to carefully consider. Walking into 1990s -style cubicle farm pens every day of work? That’s not what we really want for our organizational culture.
Our CUSTOM BLEND office space solution!
So, we had a tough Goldilocks problem – how to find a solution that would be just right, when no single solution could be? Our answer was to creatively mix and match the best aspects of each option to create a custom blend tailored precisely to us. Like experimental cooking, it took a few tries (fourteen design revisions in total, actually) but the custom blend we eventually settled on has so far been just to our working taste! Here’s why:
FIRST, we had our office space designed with a mix of purposeful focused areas. For meetings, we included actual meeting rooms. For our folks who we knew would work best and thrive in private(ish) offices, we included some actual offices with doors. For all-hands meetings (or the occasional pot luck, holiday party, etc), we included a large but airy common room. Fully functional kitchen (for snacks and the aforementioned holiday parties)? Check! Lots of windows to let in the nice West Texas sunlight (and ensure lots of vitamin D for productivity)? Also check!
And, to achieve that chic high-tech IT services style without the compromises, we designed the main 50×50-ft space with an open 14-ft exposed beam ceiling for lofty thinking space, exposed brick for some of the wallspace and plenty of open floorspace for positive chi. As a bonus, the exposed building industrial look also actually saved on construction costs.
 
SECOND, we made sure that this main central open working space would be a place where folks could actually get work done. The industrial carpeting, rough brick, and exposed ductwork all work together as an efficient sound baffling system to make the large space actually surprisingly quiet and soothing. Spreading the workstation clusters apart also helps keep noise annoyances at bay.

And, we designed our own “kinda-cubicles” to give a nice balance of private focus with chance interaction possibilities. The 18-in high partitions are just tall enough to block out visual distractions (without seeming visually claustrophobic – yay lofty ceilings) when focusing on a computer screen or a customer call. However, the partitions are still low enough that you can see the whole office (who’s in, who’s out, where that tasty pizza aroma is coming from, etc) by simply sitting up real straight and tall in your chair.
As yet another savings bonus (and in addition to encouraging good posture and healthy spine stretching), having the “sorta-cubicles” custom built by a local carpenter using simple 1×2 framing and inexpensive sheets of laminate came out to be less expensive (and yet still way more stylish) than buying traditional mass-manufactured cubicle units. So, that was nice.
The bottom line – a good TimeForge office space for great work!
Again, our goal was to create a place where us TimeForge folks can concentrate yet also easily collaborate – because our ultimate goal is to use our flexible space to expand our staff, develop new applications, and continually serve your needs. Custom designing it ourselves with one eye on creative usability and the other on practical cost control simply matched the development process of everything here at TimeForge.
And, we learned a bit about hermit crabs too. For example, apparently no one knows how often they generally switch “homes” — go figure!
But enough of the new office description and nature research — now it’s time to use our new space for work!

 
 

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