If you’ve been riding the design pendulum, you likely believe that enhancing employee engagement means cultivating collaboration. You might think it requires having an open office. But keeping workers satisfied actually depends on keeping an open mind.

The open plan pendulum may have swung too far, or it may be swinging back, but trying to keep up will only leave you dizzy. Beware of following seesaw trends that seem to change from year to year. Instead, focus on striking a balance between closed vs. open, quiet vs. collaboration, and privacy vs. spontaneity.

Let the following strategies shape your layout.

Consider the Complaints
The problems with open offices are well known and include acoustical control, inadequate meeting spaces, and inflexible furniture and partitions. Research reveals that an important issue to worker satisfaction is lack of space, but perhaps simply improving the use of the space can address that issue.

Space utilization is the trendy new buzzword, but what does it mean? Whitepapers from manufacturers and designers may offer you some explanation, but at its most basic, space utilization simply means that a workspace should support the work of its occupants. Mistakes occur when you assume that everyone works the same way and then take an all-encompassing approach to office layout.

“Designers and manufacturers will reveal a great new concept and spread it like mayonnaise everywhere,” says Karen Thomas, principal at architectural firm Lawrence Perry and Associates. “But the problem is that one size doesn’t fit all. Pay attention to your needs to balance your space. A tech company is different from an accounting firm or a sales enterprise. If the design is not appropriate for the individual company and users, then it’s not going to work. Understand the workflow of your organization.”

While programmers, HR employees, and call center workers still work at open workstations and cubicles, some of them have the option of sliding a cubicle door shut, increasing visual and acoustic privacy.

Throughout the two floors, all workers have access to smaller huddle or breakout spaces when they don’t need a full 14-person conference room. Going to these spaces provides a quiet environment while preventing them from distracting other occupants. Equipping the rooms with technology is a bonus.

Privacy doesn’t always mean private office (although it can), but sometimes it simply allows a couple of employees to engage each other away from the group at large. Lounge areas featuring whiteboards support one-on-one sessions.

“Owners assume that if one group has a certain space or amenity, then they should provide it for everybody. That comes from the erroneous one-size-fits-all mentality,” says Jim Hanlin, corporate interior design principal at Ziegler Cooper, the project’s designer. “There’s a right solution for each group or team. You don’t get into the trap of backlash if you understand people’s work processes and support them accordingly.”

Study Work Styles
A key takeaway from occupant complaints is that the open plan isn’t necessarily to blame, explains Scott Heagle, manager of global product communications at manufacturer Steelcase. The best way to support your workers is to offer them choice and control.

“There’s an ebb and flow throughout the day where you’re in a team session for an hour or two, then maybe you check email for a while and are open to interruptions, and eventually there comes a time to put your head down and do focused work,” Heagle says. “We’re asking people to perform all of those activities in the exact same space and that’s where the problem resides.”

Giving coworkers easy access to each other and spurring connectivity is good for business. The value of collaboration isn’t going away. There is a human need for interaction but there’s also one for individual space and time in which to concentrate and recharge, Heagle says.

Simply offering options and alternatives is a step in the right direction. “In some offices, you’ll see people hanging out in the hallways or reception area making phone calls. That’s how you know something is missing,” adds Janet Morra, principal at designer Margulies Peruzzi Architects. “People shouldn’t have to do that if they’re talking to the doctor or their kids. They need a dedicated space.”

Popular solutions are huddle or breakout spaces for two or three people, says Thomas. The size is ideal because it can be used by a single person who needs complete silence for a conference call, two people for one-on-one review, or small groups looking to collaborate.

“The average conference room seats about twelve people but the average meeting is just three people,” adds Morra. “If two people need to have a private conversation, they tie up a room intended for twelve, and users say they need more conference space. By designing a certain number of nooks or phone booths, it allows spaces to function as they’re intended. It’s a better bang for your buck to have three large conference rooms instead of five, then use that extra space for a few smaller areas.”

The next step up is a team space for six to eight people, but this in-between zone can be tricky. “If you load up these rooms with technology, pin-up boards, and writable wall space, the more valuable they are. This size without amenities doesn’t get used often, because the tools allow the people to communicate and cooperate,” explains Thomas. “People need a quiet space in which to be loud because it pulls the noisy group away from everyone else. You need to address both aspects or the strategy isn’t successful.”

It can be helpful to think of work modes in terms of four different styles, says Jim Hanlin, corporate interiors design principal at Ziegler Cooper. “Focus is the first and it’s individual, heads-down work. Collaborative is with others in formal or spontaneous settings. Learning occurs between two people or in training formats,” he explains. “Even socialization is a work style – just chatting in a corridor or cafeteria.”

Each of these functions is important, but also potentially distracting. Different workers gravitate to different styles, so when they do, provide them a separate space to do so.

Gauge the Generations
It’s no wonder that different workers have unique styles when you consider that there are now four generations in the workplace: Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials. Every group has different expectations in terms of aesthetic, acoustic, ergonomic, and amenity needs, says Hanlin.

“Your company’s success depends on your ability to recruit, retain, engage, and stimulate all of these workers,” he adds. “Know your breakdown and pay attention to what they’re looking for.”

The younger the employee, the less they tend to care about individual workstations, Morra notes. They were born into the information age. With mobile devices, they can multi-task and be productive anywhere.

“They may have an assigned desk but then they go to the couch and work,” she says. “Someone who’s older might want their own space to hang a picture of their kids on the wall and make sure no one invades their turf.”

Getting more seasoned employees to go along with an open plan can be a hard sell, but if they know upfront what the benefits are, they’re usually happy, Morra adds. “With a range of ages, you can’t really predict who will be sitting where, so flexibility is the most important thing,” she says. “The extent to which you can make your space flexible, the longer it will last.”

Focus on Flexibility
Privacy doesn’t always have to mean four walls and a door. “Sometimes it just means being shielded or being in a location for strategic anonymity, a place where you’re not as well-known and won’t be interrupted, like a café environment,” says Heagle.

Look for furniture and wall systems that provide adaptability and adjustability. If you can keep up with changes without having to rip things out and rebuild, you can save money, time, and productivity.

“People ask, ‘What does the workplace of the future look like?’ Everyone has an opinion, but no one knows for sure,” Hanlin explains. “The next best thing you can do is project out as far as you can, then make sure your improvements have the flexibility to change as your business does.”

Modular systems, operable partitions, furniture on wheels, and demountable walls can all be reconfigured to fit your needs. “The beauty is that the same system can provide private offices or be configured into collaborative spaces or quiet enclaves. If you put drywall up, it has to stay there,” says Heagle.

Evaluate Success
As you implement change, it’s important to keep your occupants clued in along the way. Post-occupancy evaluations a few months after your project might allow you to make tweaks and adjustments before new systems become deeply rooted.

“Change that’s done to you is painful,” says Hanlin. “But change that you participate in is exhilarating.”

There are always lessons to be learned and areas for improvement. If you complete a project and just walk away, it can be dangerous. Work with your designer and contractor to engage employees after completion.

“If FMs and owners stay involved with designers and learn about issues, then we both inform each other,” Morra says. “Sometimes the issue isn’t even openness vs. privacy. It’s just that they need more storage or one finish isn’t holding up.”

Enhancing occupant engagement is at the core of this entire discussion. Provide a range of settings and a variety of solutions.

“Collaboration is vital and critical. But in excess, it can be a killer,” Heagle says. “If you provide the ability for people to choose when, how, and where they work – depending on their mood and the tasks to be accomplished – you’ll be able to meet the demand and urgent call of today’s workers.”

(Originally posted in Buildings on 12.1.14 and written by Chris Curtland christopher.curtland@interiorsandsources.com who is managing editor of Interiors & Sources)