By Lawrence Cheek | New York Times

MARTHA CHOE’S ideal working space is not her private office, nice though it is, but rather a long, narrow table in the vast atrium of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation headquarters here.

The table, situated in a 33-foot-high open mezzanine, enjoys great swaths of daylight through the atrium’s quarter-acre of glass, and has a stunning view of the Space Needle three blocks away. It’s not private, or quiet, but Ms. Choe has everything she needs stuffed into her laptop, and she finds the space inspirational.

She points out one further attraction: “That’s Nelson Mandela’s shirt on the wall behind the table.”

Ms. Choe, a former member of the City Council here, is the foundation’s chief administrative officer, and she had considerable input in the building’s design. One objective from the start was to give the 1,000 employees a variety of spaces to accommodate different kinds of work. “There’s a recognition that we work in different modes, and we’ve designed spaces to accommodate them,” she says. “I think one of the lessons is to understand your business, and understand what your people need to do their best work.”

The building was designed by NBBJ, a 700-employee architecture firmwhose largest operation is in Seattle. The structure is a culmination of ideas about the 21st-century workplace that NBBJ has been exploring in corporate office designs worldwide, including its own offices here.

These are the main concepts: Buzz — conversational noise and commotion — is good. Private offices and expressions of hierarchy are of debatable value. Less space per worker may be inevitable for cost-effectiveness, but it can enhance the working environment, not degrade it. Daylight, lots of it, is indispensable. Chance encounters yield creative energy. And mobility is essential.

This isn’t a suddenly exploding trend. NBBJ’s research has found that two-thirds of American office space is now configured in some sort of open arrangement. But even as these designs save employers space and money, they can make office workers feel like so many cattle. So how to humanize the setting?

SEATTLE serves as a test tube because of several converging factors: There’s a lot of money here to experiment with projects. The work force is relatively young and open to innovation. And the local culture places a high value on informality, autonomy and egalitarianism. People will put in long hours under high pressure if they feel respected, but they won’t tolerate being treated like Dilberts.

Read More