Collaborative spaces are hot and cubicle farms are not in modern office design.

Other than housing, perhaps no building type reflects the realities of day-to-day life quite like the office.

Since the time when bosses' offices first ringed the factory floor, industrial engineers and architects have searched for ways to improve workflow and productivity. As the white-collar workforce grew, the ubiquitous open office plans of the 1940s and '50s spawned the sea of cubicles that endures today.

Happily, modern designers have been working to add some style back into the workplace. As part of the move away from monotony, today's offices include collaborative areas, cafés, flexible floor plans and lots of natural light to banish both the humdrum and the doldrums. In many ways, form is becoming just as important as function.

Reworking the Workplace

In the 1950s, William Whyte's influential book "The Organization Man" detailed the rigid social order to which American business was bound. A half-century later, "The Rise of the Creative Class and How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life" became a bestseller for Richard Florida, who described a fundamental cultural shift to a "no-collar" workplace.

Florida argued that the 21st century office must support the sometimes-stressful pace of today's changeable, technology-driven professions, while at the same time creating a comfortable, even caring, environment for employees. Essentially, Florida wrote, the new workplace must support more creative work.

Central Ohio architects who specialize in office planning have seen such a shift in recent years. "There has been a change from a hierarchical office structure to a collaborative one," says Samantha Delabar, senior interior designer at BHDP Architecture. This translates into office spaces that are more open and informal.

"For example," says Delabar, "the break room has been opened up and centralized, not placed in a dark corner. Employees want to have meetings there, and this fosters learning from one another."

A new trend has been for the traditional break room to become a café. "Cafés afford employees a lot of visibility, and provide a social environment," says Ryan Mullenix, a principal at NBBJ. "But they can serve different purposes at different times of the day. At 10 a.m., the café might be where the action is, but by 3 p.m., it's a quiet, reflective area."

M+A Architects' new Grandview Yard location features a café amid its focus on larger community spaces, says Carrie Boyd, senior interior designer and associate partner at the firm.

Similarly, the new office for law firm Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, located in the Huntington Center in downtown Columbus, has a café adjacent to its lobby. The café provides gathering space not only for employees, but also for visiting clients and guests, says office administrator Bill Burns, who led the planning team. Coffee bars on each of the three floors that Squire Sanders occupies are linked by a stairway, facilitating a flow of communication between employees on different levels. "In our old location, the coffee machines were in closets," Burns says with a laugh.

Disappearing Desks

Architects agree that overall, offices are becoming smaller, not larger. In the current economic climate, there is more of a tendency for companies to try to consolidate and reduce their footprint.

Delabar says personal offices and workstations also are becoming smaller, or being eliminated altogether. In general, the need for dedicated desk space has diminished. People are working from home and working more flexible hours. Increasingly, they're working outside of the office (think Starbucks). "Companies are moving to shared desking," says Delabar, "where there might be 15 seats for 20 people."

Mullenix calls this trend "hoteling" and explains that it can be accomplished through careful scheduling: As long as there is a way to keep track of who will be out of the office at any given time, everyone will find a place to sit when they do need to come in to the office.

Boyd says office furniture companies have started offering bench-style desks in response to this trend. "There can be one long table as opposed to a workstation. One power source is supplied, along the center of the table, then there are wings of work areas which branch off of that. This type of arrangement fits the informal character of the office, and supports the mobile work habits of the employees."

Even companies that opt for a more conventional cubicle arrangement are shrinking the size of workstations, says Gene McHugh, principal at Design Collective Inc. "Things like 8-by-8 workstations become 6-by-8."

If there are fewer employees staffing their workstations between 9 and 5, the flip side is that more of them are coming in early, late or on weekends. "People live at work," says Boyd.

"The workplace has become less formal and more homelike over the past 10 to 20 years," says McHugh. "Offices are borrowing from the hospitality industry."

Virtual Work

This workspace consolidation has been made possible by new technologies. Since so many of today's tasks are carried out via computers and the Internet, the office environment's primary functions have become interpersonal communication and information sharing.

"Having offices that are smaller isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's good for camaraderie. And the workplace has become more knowledge-based," says Boyd.

"Collaboration contributes to creativity. Some companies will now pay for employee time spent doing microstudies--these are nonbillable hours spent learning, a kind of free time to do research," says Mullenix.

Staff teaming is on the rise, which has changed office design requirements--right down to the furnishings. "Where there used to be a classroom-style layout for group meetings, we've moved to mobile tables and chairs," says Delabar.

Having a multipurpose workspace allows companies to host activities that used to take place in outside locations. For example, says Delabar, "a large, communal cafeteria can accommodate events geared toward wellness: a visiting nurse, say, or vendor displays."

"I've seen some generational differences in work style," says Mullenix. "Each generation operates in its own way. So instead of installing a fixed design element, there needs to be flexibility."

Sometimes flexibility means supporting generational differences--and sometimes it means striving to overcome them. "Younger workers aren't using the older people as mentors as much as they should. There has to be an effort made by companies to foster an atmosphere where the generations can connect," Boyd says. "The life experiences of the older workers are valuable, so we need to bring the Gen Xer out of the cubicle."

Even the very technologies that freed workers from their desks come with their own special space requirements. "We have two offices for videoconferencing," says Burns. "This is especially important since we have offices all over the world. But we even use videoconferencing with our clients."

A ‘Virtual' Floor Plan

All of these changes require an open floor plan as well as adaptability in an office's spatial arrangement.

As the business world's traditional hierarchies are flattened, companies are moving away from the old perimeter model, where managers once enjoyed windowed offices. "The leadership team has offices that are placed in the office interior, not along exterior walls," says Delabar. "CEOs are seen." So much for that coveted corner office.

To facilitate interaction, even partitions are being rethought. McHugh says cubicle panels "are often lower height than they were a few years ago--maybe being only 48 inches or 54 inches tall--to give seated privacy only."

An open floor plan also supports the long-term flexibility that businesses now need. "Companies grow, and then they downsize, but they may grow again in the near future," says Delabar. "The work group is fluid and changing."

To create a new prototype for the modern office, architects must rethink more than just space usage; the need for a vast, open interior with no walls can present structural challenges, particularly in older buildings. In M+A's new office, only the conference room has solid walls. Since Grandview Yard is a new development, the firm was able to design its own building. Continuous windows run around the perimeter, and the interior is column-free. "Structural elements are embedded in the building's exterior and in the elevator core," explains Boyd. "In older buildings, the column lines are closer together, and this can be a challenge to work around."

When existing columns do present a problem, Mullenix says one solution is to "create sections of openness. Choreograph movement through the space, where one view leads to another. Often we'll take a master floor plan and do an overlay of movement through the space, making sure to create nodes of interest, so that the structure doesn't limit the experience of the space."

With management pulled to the interior of the building, every employee can have access to natural light. The popular Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program rewards the provision of daylight, which has also become regarded as a productivity enhancer.

To get light into the core of Squire Sanders' space, McHugh's design used clerestory lighting. The 6-foot height of the windowsill still allows some privacy. A special challenge, McHugh says, was the fact that law firms largely still follow a perimeter office model, so space dedicated to those offices had to be optimized for efficiency. The use of partial walls helped achieve adequate light penetration.

Burns says some support spaces, such as secretarial stations and filing areas, had to be arranged in a way that would not interfere with natural lighting. It didn't help that the firm occupies three stories in the middle of a 1980s office tower. "The punched window openings that are common in older buildings can shape the interior layout of the space," says McHugh. "Often, the exterior windows establish a 4- to 5-foot module. So it becomes a question of, ‘What does the footprint allow?' "

Finishing Touches

Of course, most business owners want an office that not only functions well, but looks good, too. From flooring to furniture, there are numerous finish options in all price ranges.

"Sealed, polished concrete is popular," says Boyd. "It has an industrial aesthetic. Plus, it's sustainable and doesn't require much maintenance. It can be cleaned without chemicals."

Carpet tiles are also a popular flooring choice, says Delabar; their recycled materials are eco-friendly and cost-effective while offering sound absorptiveness. Natural materials such as wood are perennial favorites, and bamboo is still enjoying a good run.

If natural materials are deemed too pricey, engineered products such as durable laminate may be an alternative. "The laminates stand up well to daily wear, but have a wood look to them," says McHugh.

Although companies are looking for performance-driven products, price isn't the end-all, be-all. "They are also thinking about the productivity of their staff," says McHugh. He says large and midsize corporations often update their furniture and finishes, even as they shrink workspaces.

Design Collective does many offices for small entrepreneurs, and these clients can be the most cost-conscious, "especially when it comes to finishes and paints," McHugh says. "But since they are not committee-driven, they can often achieve spaces that are more forward-thinking, more individually branded. In these environments, there's an energy that's reflective of the owner."

Mullenix says it is important to select materials that are updatable. "Although it's been popular for a long time, we're seeing glass get a lot of use right now, because it plays to the transparency that is a theme of the open office environment, and also permits the penetration of daylight."

Cost Comparison

"During the economic boom years, it wasn't uncommon to see an office project cost of $100 per square foot, but that's rare now," says McHugh. "The high end at this point in time would be in the $75 range; for small firms it might actually be as low as $30 to $40 a square foot." The average cost of a new build out is about $50 per square foot.

Designers say execs should consider more than just cost or size when undertaking a new office project. "Companies tend to look at square footage as the primary consideration when they build a new office," says Mullenix. "But we can help them think from the ‘outside' as opposed to the ‘inside,' and by that I mean we help them look at opportunities associated with site selection. Is a potential site located within walking distance of a restaurant, or are there nearby industries that will be helpful to the client's own business?

"We can help a company look past the immediate upfront cost to consider longer-term goals, such as lifecycle costs or amenities that will help the company grow."

Ultimately, designers say, the best office designs reflect a company's growth and well-being. "The first thing we do is look at company culture," says Delabar. "We have to plan for that and reflect who the company is."

Burns says Squire Sanders considered more than simple economics when planning its new space: By choosing to remain Downtown, the firm renewed its commitment to the community.

One of the ways in which M+A took advantage of its new, open space was to position piers that graphically display the firm's core values. "The entire company can view these at all times, and clients can see them as they walk through," says Boyd.

Despite the changing times, it seems one thing hasn't changed: Architecture is still being used to express a company identity and what it stands for.

Kristin Dispenza is a freelance writer.

Reprinted from the March 2011 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.