Form, function follow high tech firms' trends

As employees spend more and more time at work, making the office worker-friendly has become increasingly important.

Just as the high tech industry has influenced other aspects of the workplace, from the evolution of casual Fridays to casual "everydays" to the advent of nap rooms, the needs and tastes of these dot-coms and technology firms have had a great effect on both the form and function of today's office designs.

Interior designer Wendy Rosamond says many high tech firms are concerned primarily with satisfying employees' needs.

"They want an environment for their employees to be comfortable in," says Rosamond, a project manager with Susman Tisdale & Gayle, an Austin architecture firm.

One current trend is the movement away from boxlike cubicles into open environments that foster teamwork and, appropriately, "out of the box" thinking.

Designers refer to these as lounge or oasis areas that offer oversized, comfortable chairs. Each chair might have a fold-out desk that provides a surface for taking notes or holding a laptop computer.

Going hand in hand with the trend for open space is flexibility -- both with space and furniture. This includes rooms and equipment that can serve several purposes, depending on the teams of employees who will be using it.

Workstations must be modular, so components can be added or taken away depending upon the employee's needs. And the more options, the better.

Employers want to be able to add a particular lighting system or marker board, or even more electrical capability, to their workstations.

"Everybody in general is adding more options" to their product lines, says Rosamond, referring to furniture designers.

Versatile conference rooms with tables that can be folded into each other, Rosamond adds, and rooms filled with whiteboards fit today's office functions.

A need for mobility calls for furniture with wheels. This includes desks, conference tables and lounge chairs that can be moved from one end of the office to another at a moment's notice.

"One thing you do is you buy really flexible furniture that you can move around without wasting a lot of time," says Wendy Dunnam Tita, a partner and the director of the interior design studio at Page, an Austin-based architectural/engineering firm.

Flexibility is important, Dunnam Tita says, because high tech firms tend to move people around a lot.

She knows of one company that had a churn rate of 250 percent, meaning employees there moved from one area in the office to another an average of two and a half times in one year.

This desire for open and flexible space even is seeping into other businesses, such as law firms, which traditionally put attorneys in private offices and assistants in shared areas.

"They're starting to recognize that they don't all have to have individual spaces," says Mary Helen Pratte, a designer and partner with BarbeePratte Associates Inc. in Austin. "They can have more flex space."

Not even all high tech employees, however, are comfy in open areas.

"There's been a little bit of a backlash," with programmers especially, Dunnam Tita says. In search of more privacy and perhaps softer light, many programmers are saying, "This `office team environment' doesn't fit the way I work,'" she says.

Although the type of office space depends on the type of company, Dunnam Tita agrees that employers generally are paying more attention to how office design -- whether it's a room of cubicles, shared offices or open space -- affects their ability to attract the types of employees they need.

"It may not have as much to do with the retention, but it may have to do with the recruitment of employees," Dunnam Tita says.

As for style, it seems the more out there, the better, especially with high tech firms.

"The most common theme is they pretty much go for funky, kind of cutting-edge space," says Angela Buddin, a designer and vice president of Sixth River Architects in Austin.

Buddin says employers want to appeal to the younger crowd, so aiming for the unique look is more and more common.

One of Sixth River's recent clients was Austin high tech firm Inc., which recently moved into the former site of the Austin Opera House off South Congress Avenue.

Office manager Jody Goode says the company's president, Hank Stringer, had just one goal in mind for the office's style.

"He wanted this to be the coolest place ever," Goode says.

Goode says the company formed committees made up of employees who looked at everything from light fixtures to various styles of cubicles for the 50,000-square-foot space. Planning began in January and consisted of months of meetings with the architects, furniture suppliers and other contractors.

Although had plenty of input on the details, Goode says Sixth River provided invaluable guidance.

"The architects, I can't say enough just how key they are in helping clients make the decisions," she says.

Designer Rosamond concurs that the trend is, indeed, modern. Curvilinear designs that allow for easier computer access along with metal finishes are popular these days.

Rosamond adds that many of her clients request innovative styles that show off their individuality.

"Drkoop told me they wanted something no one else had," says Rosamond, referring to Inc., an Austin-based online source of health care information.

"They wanted something [that would] be the newest of the new."

They pretty much gave her free reign and no budget -- something, she says, that's unusual for a new company.

"You don't have that many opportunities of a startup company with an unlimited budget," Rosamond says.

She says the online company spent about $1 million for workstations and $250,000 on miscellaneous furniture for its offices at Plaza 7000.

Designer Mary Helen Pratte says that not only have clients become more educated in their knowledge of how they want their offices to look and function, but the designers' role has evolved, too.

"We're having more impact," says Pratte, who has about 25 years of design experience. "More often that we used to, we are actually designing companies."

Pratte adds: "More and more interior designers are called in at the formation of a lot of these companies."

Pratte says she has interior design colleagues who actually have input on the hiring of architects and developers for their clients.

That, she says, is "because they know more about how the building has to work, to accommodate the company, better than anyone."

- KAREN WAGNER is an Austin-based freelance writer. 

Contributed By

Karen Wagner, special to the Austin Business Journal