Northwestern Mutual recently completed a headquarters project that uses built spaces to support diversity and inclusion among people with different work styles, disabilities, generational differences, genders, and body shapes. Architects followed the principles of universal design, and facilities designers used innovative furniture and varied spaces to accommodate differences among employees and to increase user engagement and productivity.
A focus on diversity helps Northwestern Mutual—a 160-year-old, client–owned financial services company based in Milwaukee, Wis.—attract and retain its 7,500 employees, and helps the company’s facilities designers stay on top of trends to ensure furniture, building layout, and workspaces encourage people to perform well with optimal ease.
“Our company is making an interior environment that allows for different work styles and maximum efficiency in our jobs,” says Heidi Vande Walle, senior interior designer and facility planning specialist.
Using an analogy of an iceberg, Vande Walle explains that “above the water” diversity includes basics, such as differing abilities, race, gender, and sexual orientation. For example, the company’s headquarters includes automatic door openers; wheelchair accessibility; braille on wayfinding; and assisted listening devices, closed-caption, and video recordings for town hall meetings—factors that earned the company a 100 percent score on the Disability Equality Index.
“It is standard for us to include above-water items in our design,” says Vande Walle. “But we take it one step further and try to focus on items that are below the surface, as well. The hope is to help our employees feel as comfortable as possible so that they can do their best work.”
Below-surface diversity needs include working style, requirements for personal space, and views on power or authority. To figure out what those needs are and how best to address them, facility planners visit a client group’s current space to understand how people work individually and in teams, the department’s project focus, and their long-term needs, paying close attention to “pain points.”
“Maybe they work collaboratively or they don’t work collaboratively,” adds Vande Walle. “They’re private, open, or they need two spaces. We have to pull it out of them and find out how they’re working. We know what furniture is out there that can suit their needs. We just need to listen to how they work.”
Determining Space Needs
Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons opened in 2017 on the company’s four-building campus in downtown Milwaukee. At 550 feet and 32 stories, the glass building is Milwaukee’s second tallest. It was designed by Pickard Chilton and connects to three other buildings, including the company’s 1914 headquarters. In addition to 1.1 million sf of workspace, the building boasts amenities such as an employee gym, upscale cafeteria, and an excellent view of Milwaukee’s skyline and Lake Michigan.
The company used to have fairly strict facilities guidelines that spelled out how space could be used, the portion each department received based on employee count, and hierarchy for office spaces and windows. Starting with the Tower project, these guidelines were eased and amended. For example, departments on each floor negotiated space among themselves. Each floor was built to include eight enclosed spaces, and occupants could choose whether they wanted to use this space for offices or project rooms. In most cases, departments preferred to use them as team spaces.
“Key rules today are that the facilities staff manages general workplace guidelines, which are supplemented with department protocols,” says Vande Walle. “There are no rules for eligibility. Space is not a reward for performance, and fair is not equal. But the facilities department does try to accommodate. We also balance the employee count to verify that floors are at optimal capacity.”
The tower workspaces include:
- mobile workstations;
- flex spaces—six per floor; these include walk stations, lounge seating, and group spaces;
- conference rooms;
- enclosed office spaces—eight per floor; depending on department’s preference, these can be private offices or group/team meeting rooms;
- focus rooms—built for one person, meant for heads-down work; these are either set up with a desk and office chair or a lounge chair; and
- back yards—comfortably hold two people for collaborative work; closed rooms that contain two chairs, a table, and a white board.
Northwestern Mutual designers worked with KI, a contract furniture company, to develop an innovative workstation solution. Now marketed by KI as their Tattoo Line, the workstations include 24-by-72-inch sit-stand desks, magnetic white boards on a side panel, privacy screens that can be raised or lowered, virtual phones run through computers, and castors on all furniture. Everything is mobile, and floor vents for each workstation area allow employees more control over heating and cooling.
Mobile workstations make up the bulk of employee space within the Tower. Each workstation is assigned to an employee, and people can configure their workstations the way that works best for them, as long as they keep to a particular footprint. They can customize them to the way they work and personalize them, just as they would any office space. Some teams move their workstations into a more circular configuration so they can easily confer with one another. As long as workstations don’t block walkways or interfere with ADA accessibility rules, teams can do as they like.
When first moving the workstations into each floor, designers used an invisible ink marker to note the beginning and end of each aisle. If an entire floor vacates—which so far has not happened—facilities personnel can find the aisles with a black light to return workstations to their original setup.
Roughly 66 percent of Northwestern Mutual employees move every year. In addition to moves into and out of the company, this number includes employees who change teams or simply switch to another part of the building to be closer to particular teammates. To reduce the amount of time facilities personnel spend on moves, the company instituted a “you move” plan and provides moving crates on each floor. Employees simply enter a request in a computer-aided facilities management program, and when the move is approved, they pack up their belongings and carry them to their new workstation. They’ll find similar furniture pieces there that they can configure to their liking.
The tower also has few hardwired connections, with architects and IT personnel focusing on wireless technology throughout the building. This allows employees to more easily move themselves and reduces the time and expense associated with IT workers needing to break down and set up wired connections each time someone switches workstations.
Learning and Transforming
The move into the tower required a significant organizational change effort. The different layout and a conversion from offices and cubicles to mobile workstations required some adjustment. To ease people’s reservations and help them acclimate, the company built mockups of everything from conference rooms to flex and lounge spaces, finished with the same carpeting and paint that would eventually be used in the real spaces.
“Offices became workstations, which was a dramatic shift for us,” says Cynthia Holland, senior interior designer and facility planning specialist at Northwestern Mutual. “We were used to high-end wood furniture in private offices. It helped that our former vice president was a great supporter. That said, we still have people who want offices. We are not going to be able to get 100 percent away from them.”
After each project is completed, Vande Walle and Holland say they learn about new and different ways employees work. And as computer technology changes, so do the ways people approach their daily tasks. This means facilities designers must stay on top of trends and understand that workspaces may need to change more frequently than they did in the past.
“You have to constantly evaluate your furniture solutions,” says Holland. “If you’re fairly current, you can alter spaces by taking out some old pieces and putting in new. But if your interior was done even five years ago, you probably have to start over. You might have a handful of pieces you can reuse, but probably not.”
Because Northwestern Mutual has carpenters and other tradespeople on staff, designers can rework furniture and spaces more readily than if they had to hire contractors for each project. Still, along the way, they’ve learned some tasks require too much effort and call for a change in procedure—especially regarding demountable walls and adhesives.
Demountable walls have panels that go to the ceiling and, in theory, are more flexible than drywall, but they should be considered permanent. “The intricacies of how they’re installed get so complicated, and there are so many pieces that you need to have in inventory, that you may as well just build that wall and take that wall down,” says Holland. In Milwaukee, the company has warehouse space where they can stack wall panels and all the pieces required to install or take down walls. In New York, where designers are outfitting a new satellite office, warehouse space isn’t available, so the company would either have to pay to store parts or throw them out, which is no different than with drywall, says Holland, though she adds there might be accounting reasons to use demountable walls, since they can be depreciated at a different rate.
Something as benign as sticky notes can take a toll on buildings, requiring a new approach to brainstorming and sharing fleeting pieces of information. “We have found that people use sticky notes and tape excessively, and they leave adhesive all over the walls and white boards,” says Vande Walle. “We have an in-house painter, but the residue remains on walls, and our white boards don’t work as well as they used to.” To remedy this, the company has taken a stand against sticky notes and replaced them with magnets to use on white boards. The company even restricts the purchase of sticky note products, so they’re less available. Vande Walle visited departments to explain the new policy, and magnets with the new rules written on them were left on white boards throughout the company.
By Amy Souza