Designing an Open Office WorkSpace: Applying the four work mode theory

by Katherine Ely and Vincent Nieto

Components of a Collaborative Floorplan

As a company interested in forging a deep connection between people and their environment, MKThink strives to design projects not only with practicality, but also with the culture of its clients in mind. The workplace is no exception.

Regarding office space, an open design meant to facilitate collaboration is the trend. Thus, architects and designers alike must create inspiring places to interact, discuss, and innovate productively.

What Does Collaboration Look Like?

There is no singular ‘right’ way to design a collaborative workplace. Offices are unique in their industry, goals, and culture. Generally, the workplace is becoming smaller, flatter and more open, composed of fewer private offices and cubicles. Clusters of intermixed individual and collaborative spaces for spontaneous discussion and innovation are the new model. In a workplace study conducted by Steelcase, a global products and furnishings design company, 37% of surveyed employees stated that about 60% of their work is collaborative, leaving 40% of time spent in the office for individual work. Yet another 31% of employees shared that they experienced the inverse in their daily work. It appears that a productive workplace design is achieved when individual work and collaborative work successfully complement one another within an open floor plan.

Why the Shift?

The cause of workplace design moving away from the traditional private office to an open design is threefold. First, with technological advancement, menial tasks are now automated. Fewer full-time employees are necessary; therefore, an open floor plan is well-suited to accommodate fluctuation of consultants and temporary employees as companies require them at different points in time. Offices no longer need massive spaces for individual storage as digital copies are rendering printing outdated.

And assuming that employees have access to a laptop, any table in an open floor plan office can transform into a place for collaborative discussion or individual focus time. Additionally, technology enables employees to work remotely.

Next, according to research conducted by a renown international architecture firm, measuring business success has become more about quality than quantity; creative ideas and innovation, which come from so-called ‘knowledge workers’ are valued more than rapid, rote production. Finally, open office plans are popular in the recent economic downturn due to cost-effectiveness compared to their pricey private office counterparts.


Despite the apparent draws to a collaborative office design, an open floor plan poses many challenges. The following have been identified as key elements to consider for optimal working conditions within an open floor plan: human behavior, distraction, air quality, and daylight.

Dichotomous Human Behavior

As is the case with nearly everything, differing individual needs and preferences can make compromise difficult. Workplaces are likely to have both introverts and extroverts, employees for whom private, quiet space is a necessity, in contrast to those whose brimming creativity is inspired by spontaneous interaction with others.

In her article, “The Rise of the New Groupthink,” Susan Cain suggests two reasons why private space for individuals to think should not be quashed as collaborative offices take shape. The first reason, according to psychologist Hans Eysenck, is that the focused mind of an introverted individual is the root of creativity, not the collaborating mind.

Freedom from interruption is necessary for full exploration of possible innovations. Second, research shows that individuals perform more productively than do groups because group work allows diffusion of work responsibility onto others. Cain does not ignore that brainstorming and sharing discussion furthers innovation. Rather, she proposes a need for both private thinking spaces and collaborative sharing spaces.

Humans have dichotomous needs in the workplace: the need for social stimulation with others and a craving for autonomy. Younger generations used to sharing and collaborating are changing the more traditional, private Office workplace. Despite this shift, most humans are creatures of habit, to some extent. An assigned workspace lends sense of ownership and value in the workplace. Allocating distinct individual office space and separated collaborative settings within an open office plan is the solution to maintaining productivity among a diverse employee population of introverts and extroverts.

Noise Distractions

Challenges such as noise distraction and coworker interruption inadvertently distract employees from productive individual work. It disrupts the flow of creative innovation, a plight that is referred to as ‘cognitive overload’. The optimal noise level in an office place should range between 40–70 dB. Noise levels outside this range are either too low to stimulate creativity, or stunt innovation with loud distractions, according to the study, “Is Noise Always Bad?,” published in the Journal of Consumer Research. Quality acoustic design can help alleviate unwanted noise and distraction. Products such as acoustical ceilings and transformative desk panels are great for absorbing noise.

Air Quality

A key element that should be considered in any office place, particularly an open floor plan is air quality. Poor air quality can decrease productivity by 3% (Ashrae). This may not sound like much; however, a 1% increase in productivity caused by improved air quality can save more revenue than savings from reduced energy consumption (Ashrae). An average of $15 billion dollars is lost by US companies annually due to poor air quality.


Daylight is also an important element for an open floor plan. Research shows productivity flourishes with an increase in natural lighting. Ideally, any office should utilize the maximum amount of daylight possible. In an open floor plan, finding ways to increase daylight in certain office areas — particularly towards the center of the office — would be beneficial.

Designing for the Four Work Modes

Understanding the benefits and limitations of the increasingly popular collaborative open floor plan design is helpful; however, it does not lend insight into how said design may be successfully implemented. To this inquiry, the 2008 Workplace Survey, conducted by Gensler, suggests that the most successful companies design offices that inspire the following four work modes: focus, collaborate, learn, and socialize.

Focus work is time for individual concentration and productivity, typically at a solo workstation with a computer. Focusing encompasses analyzing, writing, and reflecting, and fills an average of 48% of employees’ work time, according to the survey.

Collaborative work mode, occupying about 32% of work hours, is classified by discussing and creating with coworkers. A collaborative setting is physically variable as long as it provides space for multiple individuals to work and has multimedia connection capability. The survey reports that employees (as of 2008) spend an average of 6% of work time in the learning mode, which encompasses advancing skills and acquiring knowledge about new programs in a technology based setting. Lastly, 6% of work time is spent in the social work mode, where employees bond with coworkers or network with clients in various parts of the office, such as the kitchen or a break room.

Advancement in collaboration and learning work modes is becoming most vital to successful companies, according to the research, which claims that work environments that are ‘collaboration effective’ may see profit growth increase up to 14%. The four work mode theory is a convincing argument; to test the applicability of the theory, past MKThink design projects were analyzed for indication and inclusion of the four work modes.


MKThink uses a six step process to create innovative and practical solutions for clients: discovery, assessment, strategy, planning & design, prototyping & testing, and finally, implementation. The first three steps are used to discover the culture and needs of the client, assess how the space currently functions, and strategize solutions for the aspects of the space that are not working. Our process relies on surveys, interviews, and observation in order to implement a successful design solution.

Based on review of survey responses and assessment of past projects and visual estimation of MKThink’s own open office floor plan, some hypotheses about the practicality of the four work mode planning method are as follows:

• Open office plans will differ in work mode space allocation based on the type of industry for which the office is being designed.

• Project plans in general will be primarily ‘focus’ space; however, plans will increase the amount of ‘collaborative’ space, by comparison to the previously existing office.

• Little ‘learn’ work mode space is expected in the following project review. We suspect that workplace learning is a valued aspect of productivity that occurs within the space allocated for the three other work modes.


MKThink has designed multiple offices for The Nature Conservancy. The design work was a solution to the conservancy’s inefficient allocation of space. Many individual offices were converted into collaborative meeting spaces to accommodate the diverse science-oriented staff. Applying the 4 work mode theory, 3 modes were identified within Sacramento’s Nature Conservancy branch. Ten collaborative meeting rooms and a modern, welcoming visiting and break area are outlined by open individual offices at the perimeter. Approximately 33.95% of the office square footage is allocated for ‘focus’ work, 41.33% of office space is used ‘collaboratively,’ and 24.76% is ‘socializing’ space.

Similarly to The Nature Conservancy, Borel Private Bank & Trust Company offices allocate the majority of office space to ‘focus’ work. The San Francisco branch, completed in 2002, dedicates about 43% of the office to ‘focus’ work, while the current San Jose branch project will be 46% ‘focus’ space. By the nature of the banking industry, office space allocation is dichotomous: private transactions and social client interface. Each branch dedicates over 40% of the office to the ‘social’ sphere, limiting ‘collaboration’ space by comparison to the Nature Conservancy. None of these three projects have physical space dedicated solely to the ‘learning’ work mode.

When applying the four work modes to a similar industry, results have yielded a somewhat comparable space allocation, with slight variation as compared to the last two examples. The Quadrus Corporate Campus, located in Menlo Park, California houses many prominent venture capitalist companies such as Panorama and Shasta Ventures. The result of the application reveals that ‘focus’ workspace is still the largest of the four with suite 300 at 47% of the total square footage and suite 301 at 66%. ‘Collaboration’ work has also increased within these venture capitalist offices, each with more than 25% of square footage rationed for that function. Quadrus offices more than double the amount of ‘collaborative’ space at Borel Private Bank & Trust.

The Mozilla Corporate Office, located on San Francisco’s breathtaking Embarcadero, was designed to cultivate spontaneity. The open plan features various ‘collaborative’ spaces — which comprise about 22% of the office — and vibrant social areas, which comprise 16% of the space.The tech based non-profit dedicates more than a third of their office to the ‘sociable’ work modes as a method of keeping the office culture strong and creative, and to have a welcoming space for volunteers and visiting consultants to work. Mozilla still dedicates a large portion (61%) of office space to the ‘focus’ work mode, however the facility does not feature any private offices. The importance of social collaboration and malleability to Mozilla is apparent in their innovative office design.

With a similar mission to the Mozilla office, Financial Engines Inc. limited its enclosed offices to capitalize on ‘collaborative’ interactions. Although the office still features open focus areas, the financial-tech hybrid company features a café that fits all of its employees as a means of creating community. All of the pathways in the office flow through this area, maximizing spontaneous interaction. Financial Engines Inc. is unique in its work — banking and software — which reflects in the companies ‘collaborative’ (18%) and ‘social’ space (9%). By comparison to MKThink’s previously mentioned workplace projects, Financial Engines Inc. was the only space to feature dedicated ‘learning’ space, with a library that occupies 1.5% of the office square-footage.

As a point of comparison to the other projects MKThink has designed over the past ten years, our very own Roundhouse One office layout was analyzed against the four work modes. The nature of architecture and design work is quite different from many of the other projects discussed; however, the office design was similar to both the recent Mozilla and Financial Engines office projects.

As an inspiring ‘ideas’ company, MKThink’s open office plan occupies up to 66% with interconnected ‘focus’ work stations. There are multiple ‘collaborative’ areas, both open and enclosed, taking up 24% of MKThink’s square footage. Our remaining space is comprised of a kitchen and communal areas used for ‘social’ interaction.


Based on review of eight open office design plans, the previously stated hypotheses were supported. Space allocation of the four work modes differed between type of work industry. Additionally, ‘focus’ space occupied the majority of an open office despite industry; however, ‘collaborative’ space became the next biggest priority among each plan. Analyzing spatial allocation within the floor plans, little-to-no ‘learn’ work mode space was identified. Aside from our MKThink office, only Financial Engines Inc. has a small appearance of the ‘learn’ work mode: the library. Although we allocated this as ‘learn’ space, a library could realistically be used to facilitate any of the other three work modes.

Learning is perhaps the most important and common aspect of productivity and growth in the workplace. Many different types of learning appear in the workplace. To name two, individual learning happens during discovery in the focus work mode, and group learning occurs through social interaction and team collaboration. According to the Gensler study, more than 70% of what is learned in the workplace is a result of coworker interaction. Therefore, we would suggest that ‘learn’ is not a distinct work mode in itself. Rather, it is fully integrated within the other three work modes. This vital integration of learning into other modes of work does not necessarily translate to having an open office design with distinct physical learn space.


Despite yielding interesting results, the procedures used in this theory application had some methodological drawbacks. Following up with post-occupancy studies at each of the sites, and increasing the size and breadth of the design samples chosen might strengthen future research.

We suggest additional research on workspaces that do not fit into the proposed four work mode theory. For example, workspaces such as game rooms or zen relaxation places were identified within MKThink’s open office designs. Perhaps these examples suggest an excluded work mode, such as ‘culture’ or ‘powerdown’ modes. If these do not warrant an additional work mode then subsets of the existing work modes might strengthen the theory. Our analysis and application of the four work mode theory has opened several avenues for future research on the topic of the collaborative workplace.

The constantly adapting human condition plays a large roll in planning a successful, collaborative office space that supports employee’s necessities. With this and further research inquiries in mind, our sense of collaborative open office space is still a work in progress.


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Originally published at on October 2, 2012.