Thousands of years ago, ancient Polynesians navigated the islands in the Pacific Ocean by creating detailed maps made of reeds, sea grass and shells. These maps showed the shape of the ocean’s currents and the locations of the many islands nearby. With them, sailors could more safely travel across the expanse of ocean they called home.
It was these ancient sailing maps that inspired architect Katherine Chia when she developed the office design for Quartz, a business news company in New York. She scaled up the reed maps, creating a lumber and plywood spine running through the office that would aid movement between sections of the office and encourage chance encounters among teams.
All photos courtesy of Mark Craemer
“Think of this almost like a navigation map,” said Chia, one of the founders of Desai Chia Architecture. “This group has an internal set of coordinates among each other that they just need to be reminded of.”
There’s a library reading area, a coffee bar, a large cafe that is also used as an all-staff arena with tiered seating, a makerspace, and a lounge area along the windows that catches the light at the right time of day. All of these are connected by the central design structure: the wood-frame spine that curves through the office offering different meeting and mixed-use spaces on either side of it.
On one side is a newsroom set up in an open-office plan where desks sit. Tucked into the curves of the spine are nooks, large and small, where people flow in and out during the work day.
Creating ample opportunities for chance encounters was increasingly important as Quartz, initially a 30-person startup, was moving into a 175-person office space in Lower Manhattan in 2016 and wanted to maintain a sense of intimacy among teams as the company grew. Before the move, the office culture at Quartz was one where interactions were “fluid and almost spontaneous,” Chia said. And the fear with moving to a much larger office space—25,000 square feet—so quickly was that cross-disciplinary collaboration across teams would suffer.
This is why you won’t find many doors or floor-to-ceiling walls here, following a wider trend in office architecture of more multi-use spaces.
“You never have a company that can exist purely as an open office plan, and you never have one who wants it all closed down,” Chia said. “To give a variety is really healthy and important.”
Twenty years ago many offices featured a series of high-walled cubicles, with private offices lining the window wall where people in senior positions worked.
“Everyone was lost in their cubby holes,” Chia said.
Then, ten years ago this trend over-corrected with the open office plan. Chia described it as: “Everyone needs to be seen! Pull all the walls down! We’re all in it together.”
But that didn’t quite work either. It might have even backfired; one study found that switching to open office architecture might lead to much less face-to-face interaction among colleagues—70 percent less—not more.
So now, Chia has seen that people are realizing that offices shouldn’t be one extreme—a high-walled cubicle maze—or the other—an open floor plan as far as the eye can see. Instead, most offices likely need a mixture of conference rooms, cafe and lunch spaces, lounge chairs and couches, libraries and phone booths and more.
“Once you put up really high walls, it’s an effort to enter the space. Psychologically, you are looking at it as a fortress, not a filter,” Chia said. So, shorter walls, more windows, no doors, and lots of different spaces to work in. That’s how to encourage the ebb and flow of creativity and collaboration.