Even as open-space environments have become increasingly more popular over the past few years, companies continue to debate the open- versus closed-office environment concepts. But there is another concept that lays a solid foundation for both – the “fluid office.”
The dynamic environment of the fluid office seems to be taking shape and is gaining more and more attention. The fluid office is not confined to a single set of walls but, instead, is one that flows with the worker and task allowing for even greater productivity.
Because it addresses the situational demands of the activities and roles performed at any given time, the “fluid” office is flexible and adapts continuously to your organization’s changes and growth.
CLOSED + OPEN = FLUID OFFICE
The closed-office environment works best for tasks that require intense concentration. Interruptions and distractions are minimized, but it is usually more expensive. Conversely, the open-space environment encourages communication and collaboration and often reduces costs. Yet this approach can also lead to a lack of privacy.
Instead of trying to design office solutions around the worker or team, the fluid office approach is designed to match the worker and environment to the requirements of different types of tasks. Workers have the flexibility to choose their space at a moment’s notice, based on the tasks they are performing. And the overall environment becomes more configurable through the use of architectural products such as raised flooring or movable walls.
The Benefits of Fluid-Office Environments
- Encourages communication and knowledge sharing, when necessary.
- Isolation available, when necessary.
- Shared office space and the open-office floor plan still saves on real-estate expense.
- Higher visibility of worker work habits, when necessary.*
The real trend – and therefore the real advantage of the fluid concept – is more about creating spaces that can quickly and easily adapt to the changing needs of your organization.
BUILDING 20: THE FLUID OFFICE CONCEPT – Design by Surprise
The fluid office concept is not only NOT new, it is genuinely intrinsic to innovative and productive working conditions as revealed by chance in MIT’s infamous Building 20 (also known as “The Magical Incubator”).
During WWII, MIT was growing quickly and needed extra room for scientists to conduct research. In 1943, Building 20 was built as a temporary facility that was supposed to be demolished at the end of the war. It was hastily constructed, with thin wooden walls and a leaky roof, yet served as a home for groundbreaking research from a wide variety of professors and students, including Noam Chomsky and Amar Bose (of Bose Corporation).
According to MIT professor Paul Penfield, “Its ‘temporary nature’ permitted its occupants to abuse it in ways that would not be tolerated in a permanent building. If you wanted to run a wire from one lab to another, you didn’t ask anybody’s permission — you just got out a screwdriver and poked a hole through the wall”.
And precisely because of its temporary nature, Building 20’s occupants were free to reconfigure work spaces, move walls – even floors in some cases – to accommodate their changing needs.
To get an idea of just how Building 20 bred productivity and innovation in its 50 years before being torn down in 1998, check out this list of amazing stories. And if you’d like to know more about Building 20, I highly recommend reading How Buildings Learn: What Happens to Buildings After They’re Built, by Stewart Brand.
BUILDING 99: THE FLUID OFFICE CONCEPT – Design on Purpose
While MIT’s Building 20 birthed fluidity as a result of fate and circumstance, Microsoft’s Building 99 was meticulously designed to foster flexible collaboration in all the right ways. The main atrium was designed to accommodate all 650 people who work in the building at one time, if necessary. Writable (and erasable) surfaces line the walls at every turn. And the interior is filled with a thoughtful mix of private offices, formal and informal meeting rooms to be used according to the task or project at hand.
Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, describes it best: “In a sense [the building’s designers] built the water-coolers first, and then designed an office building around them.”
Building 99 is based on meeting the changing needs of its workers. And since it’s the headquarters for Microsoft Research, the need to optimize change is paramount.
Robert Scoble, an American blogger, technical evangelist and author, wrote of his visit to Building 99, “The floor is actually elevated so all networking, and air control can be put underneath. The carpet isn’t actually one solid piece, but rather is tiled so that each piece can be lifted off and things underneath can be reconfigured. If a researcher is bothered by the location of the air vent in her office she could have it moved to some other location.”
Scoble also mentioned that all of the interior walls were movable. “So, if a group wanted to change its space they could do so without costing Microsoft a lot of money in rebuilding costs.” Check out Scoble’s photostory on Bldg. 99 here.
THE FLUID OFFICE CAN BE A SOLID CHOICE
Primarily due to advancements in technology, the world we live in changes on a daily basis. Businesses must be prepared to adapt and that means creating flexible and efficient working environments that foster innovation and productivity. You don’t have to be MIT or Microsoft to incorporate fluid workspaces. Yet doing so can help you build success and longevity into the foundation of your organization.
*Source: The Fluid Office: An Open and Closed Case University of Missouri, St. Louis