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Workplaces open up as collaboration, benching trends spread

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Gary Poffenberger, president of Tanner Furniture Inc., cites the frameless glass partition that separates the Dauphin County company’s conference room from its working showroom as way to create a private work space with an open feel.
Gary Poffenberger, president of Tanner Furniture Inc., cites the frameless glass partition that separates the Dauphin County company’s conference room from its working showroom as way to create a private work space with an open feel. - (Photo / )

Is your office open, or is it a cubicle farm?

Or is it a hybrid? Or maybe something different entirely?

The Wall Street Journal recently wrote about how some New York firms have done away with desks entirely, giving their employees a laptop and a locker, then filling the workspace with lounge chairs and tables and telling workers to sit where they please.

A few office design professionals in the midstate say offices haven't become that avant garde locally, but the trend is away from keeping employees separated from each other.

“The big buzz word is 'collaboration,'” said Gary Poffenberger, president of Tanner Furniture Inc. in Harrisburg. “Corporations want to bring people together to bounce ideas off each other. It's the whole idea that two heads are better than one.”

That doesn't mean there aren't offices going with partitions or dividers. It's just the dividers are smaller, or they're made of frameless glass. Or things like filing cabinets are used to separate work stations, said Larry Basile, vice president of sales for Williamsport-based SupplySource Inc., which has an office in Camp Hill.

In the industry, it's known as “benching,” he said.

“I don't want to say the idea of a cubicle is obsolete, but what you're seeing now is the benching,” he said. “Privacy screens on top of desks, using filing as separation, that sort of thing.”

Keeping it open

LSC Design Inc. in York has been in its North George Street building — a renovated former plumbing supply warehouse — since January. The architecture and civil engineering firm went with an open floor plan, said Tom Conley, vice president of operations.

“One of the primary reasons came down to communication and collaboration,” he said. “We're an architecture firm. We work in a team environment. We're trying to encourage staff at all levels in the company that, if they have ideas and thoughts on a particular project, they should be able to share those openly.”

“We find it's also better for development of the staff,” Conley said. Intern desks are right next to project managers and supervisors. “The younger employees can see how the more mature staff functions.”

That's not to say there are no private places in the office. Conley said the design is broken into “We Space” and “I Space.” Since there is less of the latter, which is defined as square footage at individual work stations, there is more of the former, which are rooms for collaboration.

There are six or seven small, four-person conference rooms throughout the building that give employees a place to go if they need to make a private call or have a small meeting.

Surprisingly, the drawbacks have been few, Conley said. Initially, excess noise was a worry, to the point that the company, before moving in, held training sessions on what it would be like in the open work environment.

But there was a built-in benefit, it turns out.

“The shape of the building from when it was a warehouse seems to absorb the sound,” he said. “We have 50-some people in one area, and it's quiet, amazingly enough.” 

Joseph Deinlein

Joseph Deinlein

Joseph Deinlein covers York County, energy and environment, agribusiness and workforce issues. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at joed@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JDeinleinCPBJ. Circle Joseph Deinlein on .

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