Companies reimagining office spaces to attract talent

Modern designs appeal to younger workers

Milwaukee Film’s downtown office was designed by Milwaukee-based Abacus Architects, with furniture provided by New Berlin-based Schroeder Solutions.
Milwaukee Film’s downtown office was designed by Milwaukee-based Abacus Architects, with furniture provided by New Berlin-based Schroeder Solutions. Credit: Schroeder Solutions

The shifting tastes of workers has led employers in southeastern Wisconsin to reimagine what their offices should consist of, according to those who are in the business of helping companies choose and design their office spaces.

Observable trends include more collaborative spaces, smaller workstations and greater attention being paid to design aesthetics and sustainability.

Amanda Stein, vice president of support services with New Berlin-based Schroeder Solutions, said a major trend designers have seen is clients adopting a smaller footprint for workstations.

About a decade ago, it was typical for employees to find themselves in six -by-six-foot, tall, gray cubicles, she said. They weren’t sexy, but they offered privacy.

“Slowly through the last ten years, people have kind of started to lower the panels, create a little bit more of an open office, and now … in the last couple years we’ve seen clients go from that cube to a more open, modern (look),” Stein said.

Companies are also adding more collaborative areas that encourage people to work outside of their designated stations.

“It’s not just a café or a lunch room,” Stein said. “They’re popping in a couple arm chairs in between a workstation, or a high-top table with two chairs and a screen. Even in our office, we’ve made our stations a little bit smaller and created one area with all different lounge furniture so that we can get away from our workstations and work.”

Bill Bonifas, executive vice president and office broker at CBRE’s Milwaukee office, said as office spaces have begun opening up, the use of private offices has decreased. He attributes the trend to the changing views of leadership hierarchy.

“People know who runs the show, but there may not be the old-school dominance and subservience there used to be,” he said. “It’s more, ‘O.K., we’re all in this together, how can we work together?’ So, I think we have more leadership and less bosses. And this environment helps to foster that.”

Activity-based design, phone booths trending

Stein also noted that activity-based design, something that was viewed as trendy five or so years ago, has now become more commonplace in office environments. Activity-based design refers to a workstation that allows employees to stand up while working. Desks can be raised or lowered so workers can switch from standing to sitting.

“Pretty much almost everyone we work with, in some capacity within their space, has a sit-to-stand (desk),” she said. “That’s definitely still a trend, but I would say it’s become more standard.”

Some employers go beyond standing desks. Bonifas noted that Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co., headquartered in downtown Milwaukee, offers treadmill workstations.

In addition, employers now more than ever are sensitive about their environmental footprint, Bonifas said. For instance, some companies now seek out buildings with LEED certification, which indicates the buildings meet certain environmental benchmarks.

A major driver of these changes comes from employers looking to attract younger workers, both Stein and Bonifas said.

“I think a lot of this is millennial-centric, because they’re trying to attract the younger workers who can embrace the new technology and drive different and new solutions,” Bonifas said.

Schroeder Solutions, in collaboration with Colliers International, funded a study of millennials’ views in metropolitan Milwaukee, which covered everything from design to furniture to amenities.

According to the study, most millennials value a workplace that promotes collaboration, but they also value the availability of quiet workspaces. Many also find benefit in office environments with natural elements, such as greenery and sunlight. In fact, nearly 70% of millennials surveyed said natural light is an important aspect of their ideal workplace.

Beyond office design, younger workers also have come to expect things like flexible scheduling, meaningful work experiences, an emphasis on health and wellness and strong corporate social responsibility.

Stein said younger workers want to be in a fun work environment, and that desire is a strong factor when choosing where they will end up working.

“It’s not just this concept that’s out there. Working with some of our larger clients, that’s exactly why they’ve redesigned their space because they want to attract and retain the best talent that they can,” she said. “Also, we’ve seen in our company personally and with our clients that it’s competitive out there now for (workers).”

Stein said Schroeder in June attended NeoCon in Chicago, an event that showcases innovations and trends in the commercial design industry. The hottest trend the company saw at the event, she said, was the incorporation of phone booth-like space in open-concept offices.

“One of the things that companies are doing, and we’ve seen this in Milwaukee to a smaller degree, they have these really cool little booths,” she said. “They’re super private, and you can go in there and make a phone call, or some of them have little tables where you can work. So, that was a very hot product.”

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Alex Zank, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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