“I think the decision about location is important and says something about how the space is intended to be used or what it might encourage,” says Carolyn BaRoss, ASID, IIDA, LEED AP, interior design principal at Perkins+Will, New York. For instance, if a break room is located near a staff entrance and provides convenient places for people to put their belongings or offers certain amenities, it can be a very inviting place because it’s on a path of travel that may facilitate more collaboration, she notes.
On the flip side, BaRoss explains a gathering space might be further removed from high-traffic areas so that it provides respite and an escape from an otherwise hectic work environment, such as in hospitals. Regardless of where it’s located, don’t forget the view, she adds. “I’d say windows are important—not essential, but it’s really great to have daylight or a sense of change from the typical work environment.”
Mixing it up is equally important in planning the seating arrangements, according to Steven South, IIDA, LEED AP, senior interior designer and senior associate at Perkins+Will. “The spaces need to be flexible, and there needs to be different types of seating—some at bar height, some at table height,” he suggests. “The furniture needs to be arranged so people can sit by themselves or sit in large groups. They need to be able to host all different kinds of activity.”
A Culture of Permission
If you’re a building owner or facility manager planning to retrofit your office space to incorporate a corporate café or town hall, one thing is clear: You may have the most attractive spaces designed and constructed but unless the culture of your organization is aligned with the casual work style they support, the investment will be for naught. Management must encourage and foster a more flexible approach to how and where people work for these casual breakout spaces to be successful.
“I think that’s very much the case: The organizational culture has to support the use of these types of spaces,” Lee explains. At SmithGroupJJR, Lee says they have coined the phrase “culture of permission” to describe the type of environment that encourages employees to utilize the freedom that WiFi and mobile technology afford them in choosing where and how they want to work. In other words, expectations about employees sitting at their desks for six to eight hours a day must be abandoned, and “senior management also has to walk the talk,” she adds.
For those companies that do embrace a “culture of permission” and align their organizations to better match the newer work styles of a younger generation by designing a more casual work environment, the benefits are real but may be difficult to quantify.
“I do think the benefits are much more qualitative versus quantitative,” Cherry explains. “I think it’s much more about [getting] a really great energy and buzz in your office that’s a little bit intangible, but it definitely sets the mood when you walk in the space. People feel comfortable: You can hear a little bit of laughter, you get a little bit of energy—that’s the most effective kind [of benefit].”
Technology and Generations
The break room has evolved dramatically in the past 10 years in large part because of advances in technology and a generational shift in the workforce. This emerging crop of knowledge workers places a premium on amenities, such as a relaxed work environment, flexible schedule and wireless technology, over traditional benefits like salary and vacation time.
In fact, a 2011 Cisco Connected Workplace Study reports 33 percent of employees under age 30 said they would select social-media freedom, device flexibility and work mobility over salary in accepting a job offer. Further, a 2012 special report by CNN found a top priority for Gen Y employees and job seekers is an engaging workspace that blends their personal and private life with a residential feel. As a result, companies large and small are trying to keep pace with the likes of Google and Facebook that are setting trends in workplace design and policies, which anecdotal evidence suggests may be good for a company’s bottom line.
“We’ve all heard these terms—Gen Y and now the next Gen Z—are much more interested in amenities in their workplace as opposed to this traditional time off and/or salary,” explains Colin Brice, co-founder and principal of design firm Mapos, New York. “A lot of the younger set is looking for workspaces that have these more flexible amenities—maybe flex time, definitely flexible workspace. So what you’ll get is less sick days, less turnover, and higher application numbers from people trying to work in your firm because you’re offering this type of flex workspace and a flexible, open, friendly environment.”