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Huddle Up

After the death of restrictive cubicles and old-school meeting rooms, Hasmita Amtha explores what’s next in office design.

Healthy workspaces are essential to productivity, and many new corporate offices are notable in their lack of enclosed private offices, cubicles and conventional boardrooms. Hot desks and open areas, intended to encourage accidental or impromptu meetings, are all the rage as firms seek to encourage innovative thinking through conducive office designs.

Hugh Fraser is media manager of architecture and interior design firm, the Paragon Group, which works on corporate workspace design solutions. Fraser believes that the biggest impact on design is the absolute necessity for multi-platformed, flexible and dynamic workspaces, especially for large organisations. “Although this has been recognised by American companies,” says Fraser, “South African design firms are aware of these changes, which are becoming part of the design palette of workplace design and connectivity.”

Dikla Benloulou Naidoo, the co-owner and interior designer of the Johannesburg-based design firm, Slab Studio, agrees. “Clients have identified collaboration between their various employees as a key driver towards growth, innovation and success,” Naidoo says. “Naturally with this in mind, the office environment needs to be one that fosters such collaboration with the aim of helping achieve these objectives.

“Corporates are favouring a team-work approach with the old ideal of an ‘open door’ policy being replaced with a ‘no door’ policy. This does not obviously translate into complete disregard for the need for privacy and quiet spaces, and these needs are catered for by the introduction of phone booths, breakaway rooms and work capsules, which are spread throughout an open plan office.”

Naidoo believes this new design approach to work environments has been bolstered by the economic benefits, as space becomes more and more expensive.

Huddle up and collab

We’re all familiar with the look of these breakaway rooms and spaces: Informal areas or small rooms filled with bright colours, comfortable furniture, glass walls and whiteboards so that you’re never short of something to write a groundbreaking idea down on.

Little islands of privacy in open-plan spaces to counter the cacophony that can lead to lack of productivity.

As common as these features are becoming, however, these spaces are getting a tech upgrade.

‘Huddle rooms’, or ‘huddle spaces’, are small, informal meeting rooms designed to seat just four or five people. Ideally, they’re positioned so that they are accessible to teams working in open plan areas, but still offer enough privacy for conversation. Just as the sofa in the corridor is intended to be a place for quick, unplanned meetings between colleagues who work together, the huddle space adds simple video conferencing so that those working remotely can be brought into the conversation too.

Huddle spaces have been around for a while, but they’ve gained popularity recently as costs for the technology elements have fallen.

“Huddle areas offer flexible meeting and collaborating spaces within office environments,” explains Philip Wyatt, the director of design studio Inhouse. “They can be lounge-type spaces or a bench-style table seating within a café space. It’s important that these spaces are allowed to adapt to the changing needs of the company. The introduction of these spaces and the creation of a welcoming office environment means staff feel valued, which in turn results in increased productivity.”

Tech-know

Abrie du Plooy, an audiovisual consultant at Electrosonic South Africa, highlights the necessity of audiovisual technology in modern office spaces. Du Plooy believes the key to getting huddle spaces right lies in the choice of effective technology. “A huddle space without technology should be nothing but a table and chairs,” du Plooy says. “The technology in huddle spaces should focus on wireless connectivity, and thus presentation. The system can be expanded and an internet-connected camera and microphone added to give users the option to interact with remote colleagues from the same space. An interactive screen will allow members to contribute to displayed presentations whether remote or local. The result can be saved and distributed.”

The screen isn’t just for video conferencing, says du Plooy. “The latest trend is definitely focused on wireless presentation and interactive collaboration. Ease of use is important, and simplicity is the key. Collaboration can happen in many forms: Multiple participants could present their work at simultaneous times to the same system as various display configurations are available; touch-enabled screens also allow individual opinions to be shared and demonstrated.”

The important thing is to recognise that the huddle room is no longer the “little room around the corner”, as a report from Wainhouse Research puts it, but a valuable asset that can help improve teamwork and productivity.

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