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Thinking Outside the Office

Thinking Outside the Office

A more mobile staff and enhanced technology are changing the face of church office space

In the corporate world, there has been a change in the way designers approach work space. The shape of how people interact has shifted from a hierarchical model to a more collaborative model and so have the designs that facilitate the interaction. Church office spaces are no exception—changing to meet the new work model. Read on to find some of the trends. >>

Rethinking office space

“I think back to a presentation I once heard Kevin Roche give about an oil company in Houston whose corporate offices his firm was designing,” explains Bill Merriman, president of Merriman Holt Architects in Houston. “They had a multi-tiered hierarchy of office spaces. The CEO’s office was large and pristine with the secretary’s desk in a tiny space piled with paper. As Roche went through the space analysis, he found that everyone in the firm dealt with the Same amount of paper. The company changed its multi-tier system and decided to make all the offices the same size.”

The story illustrates how the corporate world’s thinking has changed, according to Merriman, but churches are also changing the way they think about office space.

“The typical hardcore corporate-looking offices with reception and private suites seem to be less and less,” says David Evans of Mantel Teter in Kansas City, Mo. “In many of the churches we work with, the entire office staff is highly mobile. They don’t have as much of a need for permanent space because of the mobility that technology provides.”

Lew Dominy of Domus Studio in San Diego, principal founder and senior principal, also spots a shift in office space design and function that’s bleeding over to churches. “One of the shifts we’ve seen over time is the specialization of departments,” says Dominy. “Much of the administrative space is dedicated to skilled staff like the production or IT departments, so the needs are a lot more specialized.”

Less space, more collaboration

“The digital world has made it so that we need less physical space,” Evans reports. “With paperless workflow and the cloud making files available from anywhere, we don’t need large amounts of square footage devoted to paper or storage.”

Merriman concurs, saying, “In planning office space, we try to design for a sense of community. We hate to see a five-foot corridor with all offices behind doors. Instead we want the right combination of open and closed offices to create a cluster—to let people see others working.”

Open plan offices can improve communication and encourage interaction, Dominy continues. “We know there is sometimes a sense of unease because of a concern for acoustic privacy—after all, churches deal with sensitive information—but there are strategies to meet that need such as white noise systems and having a number of small conference rooms to pop into when privacy is required.” And he adds, “We are so smart technically, but relationally we haven’t gotten much further.”

From a furnishings angle, churches of every size, shape and denomination are moving toward digital workspace, according to Michael Carr, Florida and Western U.S. representative with Carr and Co. In Madison, Miss., a firm that specializes in furnishings for churches and schools. “The way [churches] work is not with a standard desk, filing cabinet, bookcase and two guest chairs,” he says. “They want a very free-flowing, open office—creative space. We travel and meet with churches on a weekly basis to discuss their building and remodeling projects, and are likely to meet in a space on a church campus other than an office.”

Multiuse space and construction focus

Since many churches have offices located offsite from where they worship, the opportunity is lost for multiuse space, Dominy points out. However, “We try to lay out administrative areas with the [conference] rooms in front so they can be used on Sundays as classroom space, [as needed],” he says.

Merriman’s firm is also seeing the trend to multiuse. “One of our clients in Houston has a very creative senior pastor who was facing growing administrative and classroom needs,” he says. “He asked us to come up with classrooms that would serve as offices during the week. We designed small classrooms, about 200 square feet, where one end of the classrooms had lockable millwork workstations against the wall. Two interns or support staff could work there during the week, then lock it up. It was inconspicuous on Sunday.”

“We find that most new church construction is focused on areas that are going to have the greatest impact on reaching others—gathering spaces, worship and children’s spaces,” says Carr. “ So aside from private offices for senior staff, we see more office space being designed to serve multiple staff members, departments or even to be used as Bible study or life group meeting space.

Walls, then, are oftentimes coming down to create common areas, office space and more interaction between employees. Carr says his company is also seeing department leaders sharing offices with ministry staff where the arrangement makes sense.

Decentralization of staff

Evans reports a trend toward decentralized offices—sometimes away from the church altogether. “We have a lot of conversations in the early planning stages about centralized and decentralized models of working,” he says. “With the decentralized models, the spaces onsite are more flexible—not dedicated to one person—with a lot of the work taking place offsite.”

For example, one of Mantel Teter’s clients in Minneapolis “offices” out of a local coffee house, even though they have office space that they lease. “When we meet there, the staff and regulars know [the pastor],” Evans says. “Being visible in the community creates opportunities and gives a positive message.”

Merriman is also a witness to this trend.“A few years ago, we did a project for Crosspoint Community Church in Katy, Texas. Their ministers are very active in the community and sometimes work from home. They decided on a modified ‘hoteling’ concept, [so] we designed six small offices—10x10 with a workstation and phone. The ministers use them when they are on campus. Other times they are available as small conference rooms or volunteer work areas. It is a much more flexible approach.”

Pre-planning for the future

Offices are used exclusively during the week and the rest of the campus is used on the weekend, yet often the offices are placed where they are difficult to find, Dominy reports. “It feels unfriendly when there are five Sets of signs to find the offices,” he says. “In thinking about the master plan, the location needs to be intuitive and welcoming.”

Merriman notes that the tendency of churches to experience “quirky” growth patterns may lead to office space that’s less than well thought out. “Churches often grow haphazardly,” he states. “As needs for administrative space grow, churches [may] take over spaces like classrooms that are converted into very inefficient office spaces. We try to create soft space ahead of time that offices can efficiently grow into.”

Evans closes, “We are seeing some churches migrate to outsourcing for administrative help, accounting or other services that used to be full-time positions. With the digital world providing flexible, costeffective ways for church staff to get tasks done, I believe we are only just beginning to see what might be possible in terms of building less space and spending less money—while maximizing ministry effort and Kingdom impact.”

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