Social Spaces Are the Next Evolution of How We Work

Social spaces are a rising trend in workplace interior design. Employees expect more and more to work on the move, in more socially engaged environments.

Since the rise of the skyscraper, offices have seen continual change in their design and functionality. In the 1950s, orderly rows of mahogany desks were slowly replaced by an office landscape concept, known as “Burolandschaft” in Germany where it first originated. This more innovative design eroded over time with the need for more privacy, causing the rise of the cubicle farm, which dominated office design for that later decades of the 20th century. The new millennium brought with it new ideas for office design, with lower heights on workstations ultimately influencing the arrival of the open office concept. 

Old Open Office Concept
An original open office concept from Germany called "Burolandschaft"

While this open office concept has reigned supreme in the last few decades, another tectonic shift in workspace design has already begun. What started as a complement to the open office concept has grown to be more and more dominant in commercial interior design: social spaces.

What is a Social Space?

As defined by Lynn Metz in an article for Forbes, a social space is anywhere in an office that provides “more than a place to sit and a surface to work at.” This broad definition includes all types of areas, including Café, Community, Conference and Meeting, Dining and Bar, Lobby, Lounge, Outdoor, Retreat, and Training. 

Another way to define a social space is anywhere that “ancillary” furniture is used in the workplace. This segment of commercial furniture consists of lounge chairs, ottomans and poufs, sofas, benches, guest and side chairs, conference and meeting chairs, cafe and dining chairs, cafe and dining tables, occasional and side tables, conference and meeting tables, stools, outdoor furniture, training tables, and, in some cases, even task chairs and desks. 

Do Social Spaces Work? Are They Just Another Trend?

For decades, researchers have been trying to measure the effect of design on workspaces and the people who operate within them. One of the key metrics often touted is “cost per square foot,” which focuses on the efficiency of a space over everything else. But where this metric is helpful for real estate brokers, it is lacking in its ability to measure how a space’s design helps or hurts the performance of employees and the company as a whole.

With the help of sensors like activity trackers, network analytics, and sociometric badges, Harvard Business Review has done considerable research on what actually constitutes good vs. bad office design. Emerging evidence looking at density, proximity of people, and social nature of office life has led to the revelation “that face-to-face interactions are by far the most important activity in an office…Chance encounters and interactions between knowledge workers improve performance.” 

HBR researchers also discovered that:

“Spaces can even be designed to produce specific performance outcomes—productivity in one space, say, and increased innovation in another, or both in the same space but at different times.”

These insights were gleaned from the research they did at a number of global companies, including a large pharmaceutical company boasting $1 billion in annual sales. The company gave sociometric badges to a select group of salespeople and tracked their behavior over some weeks. Data that was gathered showed that a 10% increase in interactions with coworkers on other teams led to a 10% increase in his or her sales. The company took this correlation seriously, and proceeded to replace department-specific coffee stations with large kitchen areas that supported over 100 people. The results were incredible: “In the quarter after the coffee-and-cafeteria switch, sales rose by 20%, or $200 million, quickly justifying the capital investment in the redesign.” 

More Reasons to Incorporate Social Spaces into Your Workplace

If you’re not already convinced, here’s a few more reasons to consider jumping on the bandwagon of social spaces in the office:

1. Being social at work leads to being happier

In an article from 2013, Fast Company cited a study which notes, “The largest positive net effect of combining work and another activity on happiness relates to ‘Talking, chatting, socialising’. . . .There are clearly positive psychological benefits of being able to socialise whilst working. It is the only activity that, in combination with working, results in happiness levels that are similar to those experienced when not working.”

There is no easier way to support and foster these social interactions than designing spaces for them within your workspace. Whether it’s a tactfully placed lounge area adjacent to a block of workstations or a fully stocked kitchenette with café-style seating, spaces built for employee interaction will help facilitate happiness within the workplace. 

2. Social spaces mimic familiar third places in our lives

We have grown more and more accustomed to reuniting with friends at a coffee shop or having client meetings during happy hour at a restaurant rather than spending time at home or in the office. These “third places” have redefined our expectations for what collaborative work can and should look like. 

Ancillary furniture builds these third places directly into a company headquarters, providing familiarity for employees and clients in the realm of laid back productivity.  

3. Technology will push us further and further toward working on the move

The growing internet of things has enabled work to happen from anywhere on any device. Additionally, collaborative settings progressively have incorporated more features such as power that entice workers away from their traditional workstations. 

As connectivity continues to speed up and devices continue to advance, the need for areas to work and interact away from a personal desk will also grow.