ROOM’s Director of Design & Innovation Alejandra Albarrán reimagines the open office with new booths that boost worker happiness & productivity.
Throughout my career as a designer, I’ve designed everything from boutique hotel rooms and restaurants in Mexico City to custom homes, fashion lines and international office spaces. Along the way, I’ve witnessed how even the smallest of elements can influence how people experience their environments. From lighting and sound to wall texture and even the location of power outlets, aesthetics and design matter.
But those projects are nothing compared to the enormous opportunity I had to reimagine the future of work for offices worldwide. When ROOM invited me to lead the design of its phone booth in 2018, I jumped at the opportunity. At just twelve square feet, they are an affordable, flexible solution that leads to happier employees, more efficient use of workspace, and a more productive workforce.
With ROOM, I set out to design a beautiful solution for a rapidly-growing problem experienced in today’s open office environment: noise.
At least 60% of American workers have brought noise complaints to their bosses, making it one of the largest problems in today’s workplace. Study after study shows that office noise leads to distractions that kill both productivity and job satisfaction. Noise means unhappy employees.
How did noise become such a prominent issue? Companies’ mass migration towards open plan seating. The goal was to drive collaboration and boost productivity. But the current iteration of the open office just isn’t working. In fact, a recent Harvard study shows that the open floor plan makes us 70% less collaborative.
But the open office is not dead. We’re constantly researching this at ROOM, and implementing it in our own workspace to test. At ROOM, I had the chance to design a new kind of phone booth, taking an old-school concept and applying a modern-day twist. The challenge? Make a beautifully designed piece of technical furniture that solves one of the primary challenges of the open office.
The First Phone Booth
When I first started designing the new line of office phone booths, I wanted to create a cozy environment, so we looked for fabric that could offer a warming, comforting feel. We settled on a gray felt for the walls and an oak wood for the desks. The two colors and materials complement each other well and immediately create a calming environment.
Clients loved that first iteration of our booth. Of course they were soundproof, which helped with tuning out noise and distractions. They also were well ventilated, which is important in designing small spaces to ensure the booth doesn’t overheat. The sustainable design was also appealing — the booths use soundproofing materials made from recycled plastic bottles: 1,088 bottles for each booth to be exact.
ROOM for Improvement
We always knew there was room for improvement. To create the 2019 edition, I spent a lot of time asking questions, researching the industry, and interviewing our customers to find out how they were using the booths and what we could do to make the next edition even better.
We took a thoughtful approach towards understanding what kind of work happens in the booths, and to plan how we could make people more comfortable by adding those extra conveniences.
The end result was a series of changes, more than 35 adjustments and innovations translating into a huge impact on the user. We wanted to increase available workspace for larger laptops, so we expanded the length of the desks. We eliminated a support bracket below the desk, allowing for more leg room. We moved the positioning of the outlets for easier charging.
We developed a stronger interior fabric and more durable air vents that could withstand long-term use. Though all changes were significant, these were some of the most important, given what we learned about how often our booths were being used. With a steady occupancy, we needed to ensure our booths could last as long as the lifespan of an office, and move with them into their next location.
We’ve always designed through a lens of sustainability, and we introduced a motion sensor that automatically turns on and off the LED light and two ultra-quiet fans, ensuring energy efficiency. We also know our clients range from fast-growing startups to Fortune 500 companies, and as such needed to accommodate for multiple work environments. We introduced a ‘Connected’ version of our booth with the launch of the 2019 edition, which comes with a built-in Ethernet port, compatible with phone cords, as an add-on feature.
New Booths for More Office Designs
Spending time with clients and researching the industry allowed me to see how ROOM’s booths could not only blend into office environments, but also accentuate and enhance that workplace design. They could either mimic the look and feel of the furniture and colors around them, or serve as a design statement, elevating their space to new heights. Leveraging that intel, I came up with two exterior design combinations that make up ROOM’s Originals Collection.
To appeal to workplaces with light, youthful, minimalist designs, we designed a clean white exterior with light oak and grey interior felt. On the flip side, we introduced a black exterior that fits well with industrial, loft-like workplaces. This version uses darker colored interiors, paired with oak wood. The black is bold, sophisticated and seamlessly blends into a variety of environments.
ROOM’s phone booths may be small in structure, but I believe they’re both vital functional workspaces and design statements. They carry so much potential in terms of design and the impact on the mood of entire workplaces, and the behavior and productivity of employees.
I’m currently working on another line of phone booths with new colors and fabrics that draw inspiration from the latest design trends and colors. We’ll also be introducing a series of sleek, magnetic, in-booth accessories to hold headphones, coffee cups, iPads and more.
People tend to raise an eyebrow when they hear the word “phone booth.” You might think you know what a phone booth is or what it might look like. But at ROOM, we reimagined the concept. We took a thoughtful approach to everything — from usability and comfort to beauty and design. Because for us, it’s not just about designing a phone booth. It’s about changing the way we work — for today, and tomorrow. As a designer, it represents the fulfillment of a dream — combining functionality and design to solve big problems. I can’t wait to show you what’s next.