Rethinking the office

So much about the office workplace has changed in the 21st century. The most obvious example of this is technology.

Personal computers and email took hold in the early 1990s. Today, 20 years later, it’s hard to imagine working without digital connections. Technologies such as laptop computers, wireless internet, tablets and mobile smartphones have all impacted the way business is done.

However, it’s not just technology that is changing the workplace. The office environment is undergoing dramatic changes too, with workplaces being transformed to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

“We’ve been talking for years and years about less individual space and more collaborative space,” said Glenn Roby, principal at Milwaukee-based architectural firm Kahler Slater. “I think we’re starting to hit that tipping point.”

Many offices are revamping their interiors to an open concept office design with more collaborative options, which in many cases is making the much-maligned workplace staple, the cubicle, a casualty of modern design.

Meeting space for undistracted teamwork, collaboration and interaction.

“The term cubicle is probably going away,” said Scott Gierhahn, president of New Berlin-based Schroeder Solutions Inc., a full-service officer interiors company. “What makes up a workspace has changed dramatically.”

“There is a change in how people work today,” said Gary Zimmerman, co-owner of Milwaukee-based Creative Business Interiors. “The old term, Dilbert-esque cubes, is gone. (Employees) all want to see the sun, see what’s going on outside, collaborate and be part of a team environment.”

In the 32-story tower it will build downtown, Northwestern Mutual is considering plans to use the employee dining area for collaborative work space.

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the cubicle is dying off completely.

“We’re building more collaborative areas than ever before, but I would not say that the cubicle is completely disappearing,” said Peter Kordus, president and chief operating officer of Waukesha-based Building Services Inc., which designs, builds and furnishes commercial interiors. “We call it productivity-based design. The principles behind it are that you need to balance areas for collaboration and concentration. We believe things have to be balanced to have the result of innovation and productivity.”

Schroeder Solutions office

Sometimes, this change means that the cubicle-type workstation is simply evolving, and businesses are looking at them differently.

“One of the big trends is that the horizons or panel heights (of cubicles) are being lowered,” said Zimmerman. “Workplaces are more open, lending to more and more collaboration among team members.”

Schroeder Solutions office

Creative environment
It is clear, however, that different trends in workplace design have gained steam in recent years, with companies incorporating new designs with more of a focus on collaboration and flexibility in creative environments.

“Ninety percent of the money spent running a business will be spent on employees,” said Gierhahn. “The ability to create a work environment that’s supportive to employees doing their jobs, is a collaborative and fun space to be in, and keeps people in the space is important today for businesses. What we’re doing is creating office environments where certain areas have a sense of home feel to them: a workout area, a full-service kitchen, quiet rooms, fun areas with ping pong areas and pool tables, etc.”

“Traditional service industries where people sit in workstation for eight hours a day and don’t talk to anyone, that’s gone,” said Zimmerman. “Everyone wants to work in a creative environment.”

Barbara Armstrong, a Milwaukee-area independent consultant working in workplace design and strategy and a contributor at Forbes magazine on issues of workplace design, said this change is positive because it is “people-driven.”
Armstrong said, “Space, and how people feel about the space, their pride in the space, whether it supports health and wellness, these are all people-driven things that are influencing how people do business. The push to recognize that people are an important part of business success, whether it’s space or amenities, all of those things are people-driven. That’s a shift, and that’s a shift that’s a great one. It’s not just about sitting down and getting your job done, it’s about the experience.”

Changing the experience of the office is playing out in several different ways. By and large, these changes are approached on a case-by-case basis, with each business changing its environment to meet its own individual needs.

“We don’t believe there’s a single cookie-cutter approach,” said Kordus. “We don’t think it should be that simple.”
“Until you get down to what folks do, day-to-day every day, one solution doesn’t necessarily fit all,” said Roby.

Workplace reinvention
Roby leads Kahler Slater’s “Business Environment Team,” which focuses on corporate real estate and interiors. He’s been a part of big projects in Milwaukee, such as the Global Water Center, and myriad others for companies across the country, including Samsung, a major client.

“We have to be on top of workplace trends and be able to bring that to our clients as a value add,” he said. “We also look at it with a little bit broader perspective of the culture and the storytelling in the workplace, etc., that we feel really helps them leverage their space beyond what some people focus on.”

A big part of this workplace reinvention involves taking a fresh look at how space is utilized.

“We’re seeing people getting out of cubicles in a number of different ways,” said Roby. “Sometimes they’re getting completely out of the office. People are sharing the same space, the workforce is being sent home or some are using more dense solutions.”

“Benching” and “hoteling” are two of these trends that show how utilization of space within the workplace is changing.

“Benching” is where there is a long table with employees at laptops seated all around it “like it’s a huge dinner,” said Roby. The reason for doing this is that companies can “cut space utilization in half,” he said. Some companies will place dividers every few feet, and sometimes they’ll even use a “fold-up canopy” to create temporary private spaces within the benching arrangement.

“Hoteling,” or having an established “touchdown space,” means that an employee doesn’t “own” a specific workstation and “nothing is ever assigned,” said Roby.

“Even people that are there for 10 hours a day, they’re getting downsized to smaller and smaller spaces to the point where they no longer have what would be described as a traditional cubicle or workstation,” said Roby.

In addition to using workstation space differently, more businesses are looking to make their workplaces more collaborative.

“We’re getting more and more efficient spaces,” said Roby. “We’re doing less for the individual. We’re doing more for the collaborative and communal spaces.”

Part of the reason businesses are emphasizing collaboration is because of the millennials entering the workforce.
A recent study from Green Bay-based contract furniture company KI Furniture says companies need to rethink their workplaces to attract and retain young talent.

“Employers can’t expect the next generation of workers to sit idly in their cubicles,” said Jonathan Webb, vice president of business markets at KI Furniture and co-author of the study. “For four years in college, they’ve dictated how they’ll work – day or night, alone in the library or in groups on the quad. That’s what they expect in the workplace.”

At Kahler Slater, Roby said, they pay close attention to generational differences in the workplace, and millennials do in fact work differently from past generations.

“This is the first generation that’s had an education that was collaborative from day one, so we’re seeing them enter the workforce with that expectation,” he said. “The changes to corporate workplace design are really following those trends.”

Kordus said millennials are just a part of the larger equation.

“Millennials are more open to the idea of benching and collaboration, but all workers want to collaborate and all workers want that concentration area,” he said. “Part of the trend is because of the millennials, but it’s not exclusive to that.”

Some of this shift toward more collaborative environments is industry-specific. Creative firms, said Roby, are the ones on the forefront of the trend.

“Creative firms are so anti-barrier, in any way shape or form,” he said. “The openness and collaboration needs to occur to get those innovative solutions. We always look at the creatives at one end, and more old-school professional services on the other end, like law firms and maybe some accounting firms, etc. Creative firms are way ahead on the workplace environment and pushing the boundaries. They’re the ultimate collaborators. On the other end, it’s (businesses) holding on kicking and scratching to the individual office.”

There are indeed some companies that are not embracing the shift to open offices. In some offices, heads-down, distraction-free work is essential.

Kordus said some certain types of businesses and employees “need uninterrupted space.” He said one study his company has examined shows that “collaboration is only done 24 percent of the time, and 54 percent of the time is concentration.”

Even in collaborative environments, said Armstrong, people will create their own barriers to maintain a level of privacy.

“One of the fallacies of the open office is that people are going to hear each other and talk to each other more,” she said. “One strangeness of this is that everybody’s plugged into headphones. The new door is the headphones.”

Nevertheless, some more traditional companies that have been more resistant, such as law firms or accounting firms, are beginning to look at different options of this trend, as well.

“What’s been really interesting in the last 18 months to two years is we are actually seeing even the old brand law firms – these legacy law firms – looking at their space utilization, saying ‘We’ve got to start looking at doing something different,'” said Roby. “Law firm planning trending is actually starting to go to same-size offices. That is a huge move for them, and they’re actually internalizing their offices and putting more of their admin functions on the perimeter. That would be absolutely unheard of a decade ago. You wouldn’t have been a ‘serious’ law firm if that’s what you did.”

Milwaukee is catching up on these workplace changes that were first embraced in other more progressive markets, Roby said.

“Like everything, we’re a little behind the coasts,” he said. “In other markets, it’s pure cost. It’s pure, cost-driven equation-al reasoning. That’s why I think it’s a little slower to hit here. If we were getting $50 per square foot rent, people would be looking at alternative work solutions. But market rents being what they are and not rising much within the last decade, people (here) don’t have to think differently.”

Companies in other areas, such Facebook and Google in the Silicon Valley, embraced the open office concept years ago.

“They would sit around in a totally non-traditional workplace environment so they didn’t have that thought process,” said Roby. “When they had to actually put up an office and hire people, they didn’t go to the norms.”

“We space”
The modern workplace space may not be embraced at the same pace in Milwaukee as it has been on the coasts, but several businesses in the Milwaukee area are exploring new options.

Kahler Slater and Schroeder Solutions recently collaborated on a new interior for Baker Tilly’s new office space in the U.S. Bank Center in downtown Milwaukee.

“Baker Tilly is looked at as one of the most traditional companies around because of the business that they’re in,” said Gierhahn. “Yet, their new space downtown in the U.S. Bank Center, they created a work environment that is totally different than what they’ve had before.”

Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. is another local company exploring different options for its office environments as it prepares to build a new $450 million, 32-story, 1.1-million-square-foot office tower in downtown Milwaukee.

“When John Schlifske became CEO, he was interested in increasing informal collaboration,” and wanted to incorporate more “we space” instead of “I space,” said Chris Partleton, vice president of facility operations at the firm.

Currently, said Partleton, the company is testing out different options for the interior of the tower at 733 N. Van Buren St., such as a “neighborhood” of offices – as opposed to private offices —with a lot of conferencing and collaborative space. The company also may add “sit/stand workstations” where employees can adjust the height of their work surface.

In addition, Northwestern Mutual also exploring different options with the employee restaurant planned for the new tower, which will be on the east end of the building with a view of Lake Michigan.

“We’d like to be able to maximize the usage of that space, not just during the lunch period,” said Partleton. “We’re hoping to set it up for a viable space for collaboration.”

Companies such as Waterstone Mortgage, Joy Global Inc, Generac, Briggs & Stratton Corp., Kohler Co., BuySeasons and others have all made changes in their office environments in recent years.

Businesses that implement these change, like Kahler Slater, Schroeder Solutions, Creative Business Interiors, Building Services Inc. and others have all incorporated elements of these trends into their own offices, as well.
The key to rethinking the office is the ability to be flexible.

“One thing all clients want in their workstations is flexibility,” said Zimmerman. “Flexibility is huge.”

One example of having that flexibility in more of a “hybrid approach,” said Roby, is at the Greater Milwaukee Committee’s new office space within the Global Water Center.

“They wanted individual offices and those offices are big enough and were designed so that they could be co-offices with two people,” said Roby. “But then they wanted this cool, collaborative area in the middle where they could all get together. That’s a great example of the hybrid model that we see sometimes.”

Kordus advocates finding the right balance: heads down space, open plan offices, “campsites” where there is privacy within an open plan, conference rooms – both traditional and more high-tech, and casual meeting spaces.

“We have entered a new age in the economy,” said Kordus. “We’ve shifted to a knowledge economy. It is vital that we get that area right where people are working every day because that’s where innovation and productivity come from.”

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Dan Shafer, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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