Break Areas, Kitchens Continue to Evolve

It’s very likely that your home kitchen is located somewhere near the back or middle of the ground floor. Whether it’s a tiny, crowded galley style or a sprawling restaurant-grade “area” with sparkling state of the art equipment and furnishings, the kitchen usually finds itself hidden away from the main entrance to the house. The same generally has been true for office kitchens. That’s because kitchens and break areas are, at their core, utilitarian.

That’s subjective, of course, given the state of flux in today’s office with open plans continuously pushing the design envelope. But in a practical sense, when food, beverages, and people share the same space for any significant length of time there will be things left behind which typically cannot be tolerated in the parts of the office where serious business is being done.

On the other hand, kitchens and break areas are being reshaped and recast as quickly as the offices in which they’re located. In essence, that means new rules are being rewritten on the fly if they’re being written at all. It’s not that larger, multi-purpose break areas in the office is a new idea. It’s that open-minded companies and their architects are finding double and triple duty for those spaces while shattering traditional boundaries in both design and real estate.

Consider the home kitchen. Even those of modest size are quite often the heart of the home, the primary family gathering place for meals, meetings and all types of daily, ad hoc activities. The office kitchen and break areas are taking on that same type of identity with some interesting twists.

One striking trend is the “fishbowl” break area. Located at the front of the suite and usually enclosed by at least one glass wall, this option can vary in size and level of finish, but is visible from tenant common areas or even the building lobby.

Some are designed to be a sort of hybrid reception area without a receptionist. Visitors quite literally step into the break area at the front of the suite and are greeted by whomever happens to be eating, standing, working—or walking by. That may seem both ill-planned and unprofessional, and it probably is by “traditional” standards. But the open plan culture in its evolving form is anything but traditional. That is, employees who embrace a specific type of work culture will request and even demand that it spill over into their break spaces. Glass walls and natural light are perks, even if that means greeting guests and being eyeballed by passerby. And it’s working.

From an employer’s point of view, keeping staff in the office for an entire workday is a victory in and of itself. During break times—which essentially is all day–a 60 square foot galley-style walk-through isn’t going to cut it. But an 800 square foot break space with sofas, bench seating, stand-up cocktail tables, flat screens, healthy food choices and prep areas, and an endless selection of coffee and tea probably will do the trick. While all new generation break areas might not be appointed so generously, many do offer more than enough to allow employees to stay put without feeling the pinch of a lunch “hour.” And keeping them in the office and productive can offset the high cost of furniture and equipment and even the higher cost of real estate. At least that’s the goal.

Design styles for these spaces run the gamut.

Open ceilings, concrete floors and bright colors certainly appeal to a wide element right now, but not all. In fact, there is no prototypical model. A Los Angeles Times business article late last year featured a major downtown law firm that fused a break area with a library dubbing it the “loungebrary.” Clever. And extremely effective, according to their attorneys. Obviously, a professional services firm does not fit the mold of the open plenum and foosball table culture. But an upscale kitchen and break space fulfills the same need for a multi-purpose gathering area that appeals to employees, managers, and guests.

The common thread here, of course, is the millennial. We all know who they are and how their share of the American employment base is affecting both interior design and the real estate that supports it. Millennials profoundly shape recruitment and retention tactics, and by extension, facilities. Although they are certainly not cut from exactly the same cloth, mellennials do share the need for workspaces that emphasize mobility, flexibility and collaboration, perhaps the most overused word in today’s work place lexicon. Nevertheless, kitchen and break areas that blur the line between work and leisure will continue to be sought after as a must-have for most millennials. Of course, there are holes.

How does a busy office keep a large, wide-open break area perpetually clean? Who’s responsible for that? What about food odors? Or noise abatement? How about a landlord that isn’t so crazy about the look of that “fishbowl” now that it’s been showcased just off the building lobby for a year?

These are but a handful of valid and documented concerns. But if business owners and their managers are backing off the emerging concept of the punched-up break space, they certainly aren’t saying so. Neither are their employees.

Tia Jenkins is President/Architect at KIEDING. She can be reached at tjenkins@kieding.com. This work originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of the Colorado Real Estate Journal’s Office Properties Quarterly.