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Changes in office design are clear

Open spaces rule the workplace at a number of companies around Boston, including Pfizer’s Centers for Therapeutic Innovation (above). John Horner
Charles River Ventures in Kendall Square, Cambridge.Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

It’s no coincidence that these days workplace design mirrors social media. In a fast-paced high-tech world where community seems to be more valued than privacy, the office partitions have come down in the name of collaboration and quick exchange.

Offices are being designed to offer slightly cramped but open spaces to create “collision zones” for employees, where conversations get started and ideas get hatched. Status-based work areas have gotten the pink slip as companies envision cross-departmental, even cross-industry alliances. And why have a meeting around a gigantic table when you and a few co-workers can set up shop in a booth — not so different from one at Denny’s. Sound much different from your office? Just wait.

Pfizer CTI. (John Horner)John Horner

CRV (formerly Charles River Ventures), Cambridge

CRV is one of the country’s oldest venture capital firms, but partner Jon Auerbach loathed that the Waltham offices looked old.


“It was half bowling alley, half morgue,” he recalled. “It was dark and not inviting, and if you were an entrepreneur coming to the inner sanctum, you wouldn’t know where people were.”

When the company decided to move back to its roots in Cambridge, it asked Tsoi/Kobus & Associates to retool its image with floor-to-ceiling glass walls, white furniture, and industrial flooring.

“It kind of looks like an Ikea set,” said Auerbach. “Our color palette is pretty shallow. A psychiatrist would probably say we’re recovering from the morgue.”

The design, which includes a giant open table called the bullpen and white benching tables that feature height-adjustable surfaces and low storage, is meant to create a slightly crowded office setting — one that appeals as much to potential clients as CRV employees.

“We chose the Kendall Square space for our main office so everyone could see everyone else, and a lot of it was about the entrepreneur,” said Auerbach. “If you are a 24-year-old with an idea who says, ‘Can I come work out of your space?,’ we wanted space for that.”


Twitter, Cambridge

Robert Benson

Talk about feeling exposed. The social media giant houses 150 people at its East Coast outpost in Kendall Square where visibility — and portability — reign.

“We have open floor plans and we’re not at separate desks,” said Natalie Miyake, senior communication associate at Twitter, where the Portland Street offices were designed by IA Interior Architects.

Twitter Headquarters in Boston.Robert Benson

“Employees have laptops because people move around a lot and have meetings with different people in different rooms. We also use cellphones instead of land lines.”

That’s right: no land lines at desks. Which makes perfect sense if you’re always going to be working in a slightly different place.

Twitter’s corporate culture is grounded in the idea of growth. To that end, there’s a giant red sculpture tree and a “living wall” created by GSky Plant Systems in Vancouver. The wall, filled with ficus, philodendron, and white butterfly plant, is part of the wow factor, intended to create a verdant entrance to the Cambridge office.

Transparency is also essential, whether it’s about meeting in a glass-walled conference room or in one of the booth seating areas adjacent to the kitchen. (Yes, they double as eating areas.)

“You can hop in there for privacy — even though they’re open,” Miyake said. “They’re just different ways to promote collaboration.”

Pfizer’s Centers for Therapeutic Innovation, BOSTON

Adam Milne said the goal of the recently redesigned lab/office for the Centers for Therapeutic Innovation in Boston was to create a space that’s “energetic” and “entrepreneurial” in spirit — one complete with a conference room garage door that rolls up vertically and that, when open, spills into the lobby.


“When you walk through, you see someone from Children’s [Hospital] working right next to a Pfizer colleague,” said Milne, CTI’s director.

“There’s not that feeling that you have to make an appointment or go up three floors to talk to your senior leaders. Everyone is right there.”

The offices, located in the Longwood medical campus, are a study in transparency: Walls are floor-to-ceiling glass and seating is mostly communal. Walls and columns treated with Dry Erase paint allow every surface to be a workspace. Kitchens and cafes with seating of all heights and groupings are as chic as any South End spot.

Unitarian Universalist Association, Boston

Ganesh Ramachandran

The move from Beacon Hill to the Innovation District marked a change in thinking for how the UUA hopes its staff can be most effective.

The new Seaport District digs at 24 Farnsworth St. have an open workspace for the 150 ministers and administrators, save for two offices. Workers are grouped in units of four, separated by bright perforated hanging felt panels. Two employees share a desk space, which is divided by a bookshelf or adjustable table.

“It’s not a sea of cubicles,” said Zsuzsanna Gaspar, principal of Goody Clancy, the Boston architectural firm that designed the space. “Everyone is within 12 feet of natural light.”


She installed benches in common spaces as well as armchairs with big tablet surfaces in the conference rooms. The writing surfaces serve as a replacement for the unwieldy conference table, which Gaspar calls one of the most unproductive pieces of office furniture.

“Tables are the impediment of any collaboration. Without tables, there’s nothing preventing people from getting up and starting to talk,” she said. “It’s comfortable and you feel like your own person.”

The Center for Life Science, Boston

Tsoi/Kobus & Associates/Kobus & Associates

The Center for Life Science in the Longwood Medical Area is a meeting place for medical minds.

So it’s natural that the building, which houses academics, pharmaceutical companies, and hospital researchers, would need a dynamic lobby and cafe space in what Chu Foxlin, senior interior architect at Tsoi/Kobus, calls essential “colliding zones.”

“In the research environment, it’s a known fact discoveries are also made through interdisciplinary interactions. Somebody’s going to cross a bridge,” she said. “These types of interactions are crucial.”

In the redesigned lobby/cafe, the interior architect created a lounge setting accented with red and silver furnishings and accessories including a large leather couch and a mix of high tops, cafe tables, and chairs.

“People want to hang out even when it’s closed,” she said. “What we noticed, the entire workplace changes. It’s a generational change. [Younger employees] could hang out in many different places. They could work on their laptop on the couch [or] on the floor.”


Tim Stoll, who oversaw the project as senior director of leasing and development for BioMed Realty, said the retooled open space reminds him of life on a college campus.

“It’s the bump factor. You want to have a researcher focused on oncology and other researchers talk about their weekend and what they’re doing, and inspire each other,” he said.

Jill Radsken can be reached at jill.radsken@gmail.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version incorrectly referred to IA Interior Architects.