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Zoning the office: an inside look at principle, purpose, and process

Oct 26, 2021|

As people start returning to the office, and hybrid-working becomes more common place, zoning the workspace can play a crucial role in making sure space is used effectively and productively. We sat down with our Creative Director, Jeanine Goddard to take a closer look at exactly what zoning is, how it works and, most importantly, why it’s critical.

What exactly is ‘zoning’ in a workspace?

Zoning is a key principle of space planning and design. In an office, workspace or even a residential project, it essentially refers to the process of dividing space up, looking at it in terms of purpose, and then designing it accordingly.

Every business will have different needs – which means they’ll need different zones. From welcome spaces to focus areas, or collaboration hubs to private meeting booths, making sure that space is designed with the activity that’ll take place in it is what zoning is all about.

Why is zoning important?

Now more than ever for lots of businesses and employees, time spent in the physical office is something of a choice, rather than a mandatory requirement.

After an extended period of working digitally throughout the pandemic, people are coming to work to interact with others – to communicate, meet, joke, chat, or learn something new from their colleagues.

The human aspect, the planned and unplanned interactions that can happen when you share a physical space, is a core reason for people to return to a place of work (whether that’s a few times a week or less often).

With that in mind, zoning an office appropriately, and making sure that there are multiple spaces set up and designed to facilitate all of those different human to human interactions, is absolutely critical.

If people are going to make the choice to come into the office, recognising the benefits face-to-face working can have, the space they’re in has to serve a purpose, whether that’s collaboration, relaxation, or focus. Zoning is an incredibly effective way of making sure that’s the case.

What different zones could a space be made up of?

There are lots of different types of zones that you can create in a space, and some zones could serve a dual purpose, too. As a starting point, consider the following:

Welcome - The space that creates the very first impression of you and your business; where you welcome guests and colleagues, and your opportunity to set the tone from the beginning.

Collaboration - A space or spaces that are designed for collaboration. Where ideas can flow, people can contribute creatively, and lively discussion can take place.

Meeting - Dedicated space for meetings, which will differ drastically depending on factors like length, time, nature, posture, and number of people attending the meeting. This could vary from a large formal set up like a board room, to a space for two people to have a confidential conversation.

Focus - The most traditional of all workplace zones, a space set up to focus and concentrate on the task at hand, with minimal distractions. Designed for maximum productivity.

Impromptu - A space that supports ‘water-cooler moments’ – where ideas can be exchanged, relationships built, and conversation can take place informally and in an unplanned way.

Take five - Often taking the form of a ‘break room’ or an office canteen, a place for colleagues to get time away from the desk, to relax, eat, have a good cup of coffee, and recharge.

Storage - The corner stone of zoning – and far more than just walls of lockers – storage is a critical consideration that can be used to create and divide other zones, integrating into the space while serving a practical purpose.

How do you go about zoning?

Without a doubt, the first step in zoning a space effectively is to work out what you’ll be using it for. What is your intention for the space?

This will differ drastically depending on the type of business that the workspace is for.

If you’re a law firm, for example, with lots of paper files, you’ll need to think about integrating storage into a space seamlessly, and look at how that can add to, rather than detract from, the zones you’re trying to create. On the other hand, if you’re a tech start up, employing mostly digital-nomads who’ll only drop into the office every now and then, collaboration hubs and spaces for joint creativity might take priority.

Don’t forget that the best way to find out how a space will really be used, or what its true purpose could be, is to speak to the people who’ll be working there.

Ask your teams – what would they like to see? Do they find it hard to focus, and would they benefit from areas specifically designed to concentrate? Or are they feeling overworked, in need of space to take a proper break where they can relax and refresh comfortably, before getting back to it? Maybe they’re looking for a space dedicated to inspiring collaboration and idea generation, to help them kick off creative projects?

Once you’ve worked out what you need, and effectively drawn up a list of the different zones you’d like to incorporate, you can look at how much space you have and how big each zone needs to be, as well as ways you can make use of furniture and design to do this cleverly and flexibly.

What are the most important considerations?

There are lots of factors to consider when identifying and creating zones, from things like the acoustic requirements of the space to the colours on the walls, but for me, the key things to think about are:

Placement - Does the location of the zone you’re creating match the purpose it’s intended for? For example, sitting with your back to a corridor is unlikely to help focus, and a sofa that’s exposed to noise from an open-plan office won’t be conducive to confidential conversations. Think digitally too – if you’re conducting a long meeting where laptops are required, are there enough sockets and spare cables for everyone to stay connected?

Posture - When you’re considering furniture, think about what sort of posture the seating puts people in – sitting, standing, leaning back or forward? Does it create a formal or more relaxed tone? Standing height tables or spots to lean could work brilliantly for impromptu conversations, for example, but wouldn’t facilitate an in-depth collaboration session as effectively.

Tools - Have you given people the tools they need to do the job they’re in the space for? Consider the use of things like A/V systems for presentations, adequate space to write comfortably, or a whiteboard wall for idea generation and are you making provision for the attendees that join a meeting digitally.

Storage - How can you use storage cleverly, so that it serves a dual purpose in a space? A wall of lockers or open shelving, for example, can be used for personal and business storage, but could also work as a space divider, to create private nooks for conversation, or to display plants and foliage to help boost the visual appeal of a space. Could a seat-pad be fitted on top of a caddy that’s also used to file paperwork, or a three high divider used as a lean-to for at the desk conversations?

Any other top tips?

With zoning a workplace, the core thing to remember is that it ultimately comes down to basic human factors. The goal should be to create spaces that are functional, comfortable to work in, and make people want to be there.

Now more than ever, with the changing world of work and the option to work from home more frequently, a workspace has to be set up to facilitate the intentions people have when heading there. It must encourage communication, collaboration, and genuinely beneficial face-to-face interaction.

A good rule of thumb to follow when zoning and designing space in the workplace, is to ask yourself this: if I were working in this space, would I consider it worth the commute?

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