The Future of Space is Flexible and People Focused

Offices and Work Environments are Designed for an Agile Work Force with Changing Priorities
  • No Assigned Seating at GSK

    An office building at GlaxoSmithKline provides small team meeting spaces in the central area, with conference rooms and more private work spaces on upper floors, making the most of natural light. The pharmaceutical company’s corporate offices have no assigned seating, not even for top executives.

    Photo courtesy of Francis Cauffman

  • "Action Office"

    A sample office layout from Herman Miller's Action Office line shows a small team/social co-working area, an open desk with storage, and an office area with glass panels that admit natural light while allowing for more private conversations.

    Photo ©Herman Miller

Getting the most out of workspace is no longer a matter of cramming in more cubicles. Increasingly, organizations are seeking to adapt their spaces to the ways people actually work and what makes them engaged and productive. Gone are the days when people sat at a desk for eight hours, with breaks for lunch and coffee. In some workplaces, people work at “their” desks for less than a third of their work time.

“Most people don’t spend as much time at their desks as they think they do,” says John Campbell, president and director of workplace strategies for the Francis Cauffman architectural firm.

Joy Staulcup, associate director for space management at George Mason University, agrees. “Some of the most underutilized spaces we have are faculty offices, due to the amount of time they spend during the week teaching, doing research in labs or other spaces, or because some faculty may elect to work from home for some portion of the day or week.”

Where are people the rest of the time? In meetings or conferences, working offsite, teleworking, or using specialized work facilities such as classrooms, labs, or libraries.

“We’re not telling people they need to change how they work. We’re saying these changes are already taking place, and therefore they need to change their workplace to support these new ways of working,” explains Margaret Serrato, workplace strategist for the Herman Miller furniture design company. She sees a need to move beyond the standard three types of work environments (office, cubicle, conference room) and use data to understand exactly how people in an organization work—a data-gathering exercise that may uncover the need for nine or 10 types of spaces. [Margaret Serrato will be speaking on the “New High-Productivity Workplace: Pre-Planning Processes, Post-Occupancy Results, Next Steps” at the Space Strategies 2017 conference in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Nov. 13-14.]

Who’s Sitting Where

To get there, those who plan and design spaces for today’s workers need data, a need reflected in the Tradeline Space Planning and Space Management Survey conducted earlier this year. Respondents targeted space utilization metrics and analytical techniques among their top priorities for 2017.

Data-gathering efforts can be low-tech—walking around and counting how many people are doing which activities, for example. Campbell did one pilot project where his firm brought in a variety of office furniture and asked people to try it and comment on what they were using it for (Intense concentration? Casual collaboration? Long periods of heads-down work?) and how it worked for them. “Understanding the activity use and postures helped us recommend appropriate furniture solutions for that activity setting,” he says.

Increasingly, designers rely on technologies such as motion detectors, in rooms or on chairs; lighting sensors, to detect how many people are using a space at what times; security badging that records entrances and exits; and even phone system logs.

With this information in place, planners and designers still need to analyze it and use it. That analysis takes different directions depending on an organization’s needs—making room for special projects, accommodating telework, driving innovation, or shifting work priorities.

A Reduction in Assigned Seating

One challenge for anyone designing these flexible offices is workers’ own nesting instincts. Older workers may have spent decades looking forward to having an office of their own. Department heads may feel the space assigned to them is a reflection of their prestige. This means that the planner sometimes has a difficult job persuading stakeholders to accept the new paradigm.

Charon Johnson, who recently moved from a space planning position at the Library of Congress to a similar role at the International Monetary Fund, says her stakeholders can appreciate changes if she couches them in terms of growth. “People know that space sharing is about growth. You know that you need five more economists on your team, but you’re landlocked.” IMF is also going through a major renewal program in an occupied building.

Judy Quasney is director of the Office of Workplace Solutions for the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Because the spaces she works with are ultimately responsible to the U.S. taxpayer, using space economically is a given, especially since May 2012, when all federal agencies were given a mandate to reduce their footprint.

That calls for creativity: Quasney must meet a standard of 80 sf of office space per employee, or 160 sf counting corridors, bathrooms, and other common areas. While she has an office for confidential discussions, she tries to set an example by using different spaces for different kinds of work. “We’re trying to depersonalize space as status,” she says.

Staulcup, whose university depends in large part on state funding that has diminished, and will continue to diminish, says colleagues don’t envy her when it’s time to break bad news about office spaces. Still, “when you educate people that the constraints require changes in how space is allocated and used, they get that we need to do things differently,” she says.

At George Mason, she’s working on breaking down the idea of specific people or departments owning specific spaces. Instead of each professor having a book-filled office, for example, she’s recommending the creation of shared libraries, when possible. Conference areas and labs can become shared spaces, with logistical and scheduling needs rather than space needs. “We have a lot of duplication, and we need to break down the barriers of ‘I own it, and only I can use it.’”

Flexibility Brings Opportunity

Once people get used to newer space strategies, many organizations say they see benefits. “The ones who seem to be getting it right are the ones who are not focused just on getting more people on the floor,” says Serrato. With her Herman Miller clients, she encourages bolder thinking, moving collaborative spaces to higher-traffic areas and providing quieter areas at the edges for those who need to concentrate.

She’s working with RAND Corporation on research to document productivity changes from different work environments. In the meantime, she encourages organizations to focus on choice and step away from assigned seating. “We hire people to be bright and engaged. It doesn’t work to tell them, ‘This is your 6-by-6 seat, and you sit in it.’” [Donn Williams, director of Facilities and Real Estate, and Eric Peltz, executive director of Research Services and Operations for RAND Corporation will be speaking on “Interaction and Collaboration Can Go Hand-in-Hand with Deep Concentration, Even in a Think Tank” at the Space Strategies 2017 conference in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Nov. 13-14.]

At NIH, flexible office spaces also enable more flexible collaboration among scientists who may be assigned to different projects as diseases break out and funding fluctuates. “We relocate 20 to 30 percent of our people every year,” explains Quasney.

Because her agency deals with allergies, everyone in the workforce is aware of hygiene and allergens. Quasney says she strives for LEED certification whenever possible, and selects interior products for factors like antimicrobial fabrics and wipe-down surfaces.

Beyond improving the allergen situation, she says decoupling people from their offices has led to senior people spending more time in team rooms, and the change has led to more interaction and chance encounters. At the same time, she knows she needs to provide quiet, out-of-the-way spots for scientists to think, and privacy for people to make sensitive calls.

“It’s hard to quantify a productivity result, but people seem pretty happy,” she says.

Campbell has done significant work with GlaxoSmithKline, one of the few major corporations that has gone to 100 percent unassigned seating at its facilities worldwide. The reasons behind the move include better real estate utilization, flexibility to rapidly accommodate changing business needs, visibility, and connectivity across employees.

With his architecture clients, says Campbell, “If you want to attract the right employees, it’s amazing what space can do.” Younger workers are often coming out of school environments where they worked in teams, and sitting in a cubicle makes that less likely to occur naturally. He’s learned that quiet spaces still need daylight and views, and that often a furniture solution is more flexible and effective than a construction solution.

He cites a company president whose team moved to 100 percent unassigned space. “She thinks her email traffic was down 25 percent! When she was in the office, people had access to her. She could make decisions and meet with people much more quickly, and handle issues as they arose.”

Prioritizing People and Engaging Employees

Michael Case, a senior broker for JLL, says his office-space clients often come in with a priority of making their people happy. When the client is purely cost-focused, he can often change the conversation by talking about the price of productivity. “I want them to do well, and if their employees are more productive, that’s a significant impact.”

It also leads to some decision-making that isn’t purely based on rent. He and colleague Doug Hitchcox devised a calculator based on the “3-30-300” principle. If your organization is paying $3 per sf for utilities, and $30 per sf on rent, you’re probably paying $300 per sf for your employees. Looking through that lens, it becomes much more important to consider getting the most for the money spent on people, and that means giving them an environment designed for maximal productivity.

Case offers an example: A client came to his team wanting cheap real estate near the financial district of a major city. Obedient to instructions, “We found the cheapest and arguably worst building ever,” he says. “We really felt it was a bad decision—it had small windows, bad air quality, but they were ready to sign a lease.”

Instead, he introduced the client to the 3-30-300 principle, and brought in the World Green Building Council’s guidelines for what makes workspaces more productive. Two of the major factors they cite are access to fresh air and natural light. The client made a complete turnaround, choosing a space in a new LEED Platinum office tower. The rent was one of the most expensive in the city, but factoring in reductions in absenteeism and attrition made the business case. “It all made sense,” says Case.

By Patricia Washburn

Project Data
Completion Date: 
June, 2017
Published 6-28-2017