Mobile technology, cloud computing and millennials are inspiring a new kind of office. Paradoxically, this next-generation workspace is channeling an old-fashioned metaphor: the town square.
By Maridel Allinder
YPO member Stan Bunting, chairman of McCoy Workplace Solutions, tells a story about the shortcomings of the old square-footage-and-status model in the workplace.
His client — the vice president of real estate for a major oil company — was leading an office space reorganization that wasn’t going well. In the company’s culture, office size and location were a reflection of rank, and the redesign was shrinking offices in favor of open space. One day when Bunting was on site at the oil company, he asked the executive why he pushed for such an unpopular office redesign. His client pointed toward one employee.
“See that geologist over there?” he said. “He retires next month after 42 years with the company. He’s one of the best geologists in the industry. When he walks out the door, almost all his knowledge walks out the door with him.”
For Bunting’s client, creating office space where senior staff could mentor younger colleagues — and vice versa — was vital, even if many in the company didn’t share his sense of urgency.
“In some professions and cultures, the corner office is still important,” says Bunting. “But I strongly believe that in the future, it will look and feel like isolation not success.”
Rethinking the real estate of work
Over the past decade, driven by the arrival of Millennials in the workforce, the rise of globalization, the ramp up of competition — and the “cool office” influence of tech companies and creative agencies — an increasing number of employers have begun to look at office real estate in new ways. The result is the biggest workspace revolution since the typing pool.
Some cultural commentators, such as Nikil Saval, author of “Cubed: The Secret History of the Workplace,” have predicted the end of the office altogether as mobility and cloud computing create a workforce diaspora.
Others, such as Franklin Becker, Ph.D., director of the Cornell University International Workplace Studies Program, are exploring how the costly resource called office real estate is changing as companies reconsider the old model of one person sitting at a desk surrounded by equipment.
“Perhaps one of the most significant changes in the workplace over the past century has been the shift to a greater emphasis on what one does … not on where or when one does it,” wrote Becker and his co-author, William Sims, Ph.D., in their scholarly study, “Offices That Work: Balancing Communication, Flexibility and Cost.”
Alongside the cost of maintaining corner offices and cubicle catacombs, corporate leaders like Bunting’s client in the oil industry are realizing that walls isolate expertise — and discourage the collaboration essential to marketplace survival.
“Managing the mix of open and private space is always delicate, especially given the mix of generations in the workplace,” says YPO member Chris LeClair, president of Ottawa Business Interiors, a Herman Miller partner in eastern Ontario and western Quebec. “Many employees are opposed to losing their large, private workspace for less private work areas. But some are realizing that rather than losing six square feet of personal space, they are gaining the freedom to work anywhere within a 60,000-square-foot building.”
The mega-force called millennials
Move over, Baby Boomers. Get your game on, Generation X. The Millennials — or Generation Y — are moving into the workforce and remaking it.
This generation, born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, is a different breed. Its members want to work together — from anywhere at odd hours —and want to engage in new experiences and creative problem-solving. In other words, it’s about trailblazing and not timesheets.
“Millennials are … already changing the face of business and will completely alter what we expect from our workforce within the next 10 years,” writes business coach Dixie Gillaspie on Entrepreneur.com in “5 Ways Millennials Are Like No Generation Before Them.” One example among many: “They just don’t see why people get paid for showing up unless the job requires their physical presence.”
As companies compete to recruit and retain this talent pool, the revolution is already underway: open space and on-site work cafés, flexible hours and desk-sharing, an egalitarian esprit de corps, a portfolio of amenities — and a work culture that values the big idea, the bold brand and the better world.
“Millennials crave authenticity and creativity in their workplace and want to feel that their work truly matters,” says YPO member Andy Cohen, co-CEO of Gensler, a global architectural and design firm. “The workplaces of Google and Facebook are strong embodiments of the organizations’ corporate cultures. The majority of the employees at both companies — Millennials — have stated they are swayed more by a company’s perceived culture and dedication to mission than anything else.”
Tech companies have long been recognized as Millennial magnets but more traditional organizations are changing with the times. One of Bunting’s clients, the global consulting firm Accenture, is an example.
Taking a hard look at its 800-member Houston workforce — with 55 percent Millennials and 40 percent Generation X — Accenture worked with McCoy Workplace Solutions and Steelcase to implement sweeping changes. The transformation reduced three floors to one (from 66,000 square feet to 25,000 square feet) and shifted workspace from 90 percent individual offices to 90 percent shared space.
So far the results are promising. Accenture reports an increase of more than 25 percent in employee collaboration and communication. But the most significant metric is generational: the visibility and approachability of senior staff has increased by 41 percent — a huge achievement in opening communication channels between leadership and young workers.
The emerging sovereignty of open space
The raw space atmosphere of the garage startup has dominated the look of tech companies for years. Companies like Google and Facebook have “unboxed” workers on corporate campus playgrounds designed to tap the rich runoff of the unrestrained imagination. Even old-guard organizations like law firms are relaxing their rigid hierarchies when it comes to square footage.
But the quest for the ideal office continues, and the rise of collaboration and community, has produced the “bullpen” of the 21st century: open space. But far from evoking a cattle herd metaphor, this new space channels something else: the town square.
Jordan Goldstein, YPO member and managing director of Gensler’s Washington, D.C., USA, office, uses a neighborhood metaphor when he talks about the interactive potential of staircases and hallways connecting workers.
“There is no space that can’t become an important center of activity with the right design behind it,” says Goldstein. “A staircase can become an avenue of sorts between neighborhoods in an office, encouraging employees to pause and talk, while a hallway can be transformed by adding writeable surfaces on walls and casual café tables and chairs to encourage impromptu meetings.”
One of the biggest trends today is toward on-site “third spaces” — lounge or informal café settings where workers can brainstorm, hold a meeting, return emails or just chill. Joseph White, director of workplace strategy, design + management, for Herman Miller, likens these third spaces to plazas.
“Work has become inherently more social in nature,” says White. “These third spaces increase spontaneous interactions between colleagues, and those interactions provide opportunities for sharing knowledge. They are like plazas that spread energy and ideas throughout the entire workplace.”
The power of place
Innovation is untidy, elusive and a top priority for 97 percent of global chief executives, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey of CEOs worldwide. No wonder businesses will do just about anything to achieve it. Experts say top organizations recognize the connection between innovation and environment.
“Today’s leaders instinctively understand that place matters,” says YPO member Jenny Niemann, CEO of Forward Space, a workplace consulting firm and Steelcase dealership. “They know that bringing people together in a place that unites them can be the first step to creating engaged and resilient employees. But this cannot happen in yesterday’s office.”
Niemann describes the ideal workplace as resilient — durable and flexible in equal measure. “The resilient workplace is an ecosystem of spaces designed to evolve over time, optimizing real estate while fostering higher levels of employee engagement,” says Niemann. “These spaces unlock the potential of people and, ultimately, improve the bottom line.”
In working with companies throughout eastern Ontario and western Quebec, LeClair has seen business leaders’ thinking on office design evolve from “workstation procurement” to something far more multifaceted.
“Workspace budgets are now being spent on common areas and collaborative spaces, including soft seating, work cafés, wireless technologies, improved audio-visual presentation zones and user-adjustable furniture such as sit-stand work surfaces,” says LeClair. “We are seeing workplaces move away from rigid structure and assigned seating to flexible, work-anywhere environments that blend elements of home and office.”
The new metrics of success
We all know that what gets measured gets done. It also gets attention. How are business leaders measuring the success of their workspaces?
Gensler uses a proprietary online tool, the Workplace Performance Index (WPI), to evaluate how their clients’ employees work, what spaces they use, and how well those spaces support their needs. Gensler uses the survey before beginning a project and again shortly after its completion.
“The WPI allows us to pinpoint areas that were less successful and fix issues,” says Goldstein. “It’s a diagnostic tool we use to measure workplace effectiveness and benchmark the metrics against top-performing companies.” Meanwhile, a new information juggernaut is on the horizon: smart buildings capable of delivering more data on how office space functions than business leaders ever dreamed possible.
“Smart buildings can capture an extraordinary amount of data whether that is using smart meters to monitor energy use, sensors under desks to analyze space utilization or an app that can keep track of coffee consumption,” wrote Gareth Tancred, former chief executive of the British Institute of Facilities Management in his commentary “Buildings with Brains,” published by Your Ready Business. “The challenge we face isn’t capturing data, that’s the easy bit. It is … working out what decisions to make as a result.”
While smart buildings will give business leaders a plethora of data on facilities, knowing what makes employees tick remains more elusive. Metrics like absenteeism and turnover still reveal a great deal about employee satisfaction, but even old-fashioned happiness is in transition.
“Increasingly, it’s not just about climbing the ladder,” says Holly Honig, senior strategist of human dynamics + work for Herman Miller. “For many workers, finding purpose and meaningfulness in their work has taken on equal importance to compensation and title.”
Now trending: work-life flow
Once upon a time, the buzz phrase was work-life balance. Now it’s work-life flow. Being in the office or out of the office is no longer the point. Our digital daily lives are increasingly integrated into a seamless professional-personal continuum.
“Work no longer occurs between the hours of 9 to 5, and life no longer exists only before and after work,” says Cohen. “Top organizations have embraced this and are leading the charge to help their workforce transition easily between work mode and lifestyle mode.”
“This means a much more user-friendly work environment that encourages mobility and embraces telecommuting,” adds Goldstein, who credits the “untethering effect of technology” with driving change.
While companies continue to unbox and unbind their employees, there will always be those workplaces — some with baristas and some with barely a teabag — where the mystifying force of innovation generates the happy accident, lucky coincidence or stroke of genius that changes everything.
“If you take a look around popular culture and media today, you may assume the best offices are those with the trendiest perks,” says Niemann. “But the most forward-thinking organizations create workplaces that improve human interactions, propel innovation, and build trust and collaboration. No ping-pong table, beanbag chair or espresso bar can do that.”