Workplace Culture

Some Companies Replace Cubicles With Flex Spaces

By Sarah Fister Gale

May. 30, 2013

When Yahoo Inc. CEO Marissa Mayer decreed that all telecommuting employees must immediately return to the office or risk termination, her argument was that people need to be together for innovation to happen. But it takes more than warm bodies in the same building to generate interactivity. You can make employees work in the office, but when you park them in isolated cubicles, days can go by before they engage with anyone beyond their adjoining cube mate.

If companies really want their people to be innovative, they have to create flexible workspaces that foster collaboration and give employees the technology—and permission—to work wherever in the space they will be most productive.

“Instead of forcing people to come to the office, you want to make them want to be there,” says Beth Moore, director of workplace strategy for CBRE, a global commercial real estate services firm based in Los Angeles.

In many companies that begins by replacing cramped cubicles with shared workstations, open collaboration spaces and lounges located to generate casual interactions. Such redesigns create a more productive work environment while simultaneously lowering real estate costs, says Diane Stegmeier, president of Stegmeier Consulting Group, a workplace change management consultancy in Cleveland. “A flexible work environment, in conjunction with flexible work policies, can accomplish both financial and performance benefits for the enterprise,” she says.

This trend toward creating a more mobile and flexible workplace is expected to grow in the coming years. A 2012 survey from Citrix suggests that, by 2020, the average workplace will provide just seven desks for every 10 office workers, and each person can access the corporate information technology network from an average of six different computing devices. The figure is expected to be as low as six desks for every 10 workers in the United States, Singapore, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

“Organizations are investing in the space they have to create enticing workplaces that foster collaboration, innovation and creativity,” said Mick Hollison, vice president, integrated marketing and strategy, at Citrix in a news release about the survey. “The result is a stronger organization with high-caliber people performing at their best.”

Global consulting firm Accenture has seen dramatic financial and productivity gains since adopting a flex-space environment. Twelve years ago the company replaced dedicated offices with shared work spaces, and implemented a telecommuting policy that encouraged employees to work wherever they were most productive.

Since then, the company has reduced its real estate portfolio by 50 percent while increasing head count and revenue. And workplace surveys show employees are more engaged and satisfied than ever before, says Dan Johnson, Accenture’s global director of workplace innovation. “Our flex-work arrangement is one of the reasons people stay at Accenture,” he says. “It’s a very valuable benefit.”

CBRE is seeing similar results as it rolls out flex-space redesigns in offices around the world, including its Los Angeles headquarters, which will open this summer. The new space will reduce the company’s real estate footprint by a third without cutting the number of employees, Moore says. It plans to use the savings to upgrade IT infrastructure, collaboration software and support services for employees, Moore says. “Giving people the right tools and easy connectivity will make them more effective,” she says.

However, the transformation to a flex-space environment isn’t always easy. Even if you offer employees comfy couches, coffee bars and wireless connectivity, they may not willingly give up their dedicated office space; and managers can struggle to figure out how to oversee a team that is suddenly scattered throughout the building.

“A big challenge is when the company embraces the idea of flexible-work environment, yet are unwilling to reduce the size of individual spaces or have people give up their dedicated private offices or cubicles altogether,” Stegmeier says. “The end result is often a requirement for more space, rather than less, which of course is less efficient and more costly.”

To avoid the drama that can come from such a dramatic culture change, facilities and HR teams should work together on a communication plan that sets expectations ahead of time about where employees will work in the new space, how the spaces will be used and why the redesign will enhance their work flow, she says. “A commitment between the facilities departments and human resources to work together is paramount to the success of flexible-work initiatives.”

Global office furniture company Steelcase Inc.’s corporate hub offers gourmet food, a range of seating options, and a state-of-the-art display wall where employees can catch up on the latest company news.

A few years ago, the cafeteria at Steelcase headquarters in Grand Rapids Michigan, looked like a typical corporate café. It was a vast, brightly lit room with a scattering of mostly empty tables and few other amenities to draw people in. When employees did go down there, they usually bought their lunch and returned to their office to eat it, says Sara Armbruster, Steelcase’s vice president of workspace futures and strategies.

Today, it’s the social hub of the corporate campus.

A major remodel in 2011 transformed the space into what is now known as the Steelcase Work Café, a collaborative space outfitted with the company’s state-of-the-art furnishings, a gourmet menu and a variety of seating areas to accommodate quiet work, casual networking, boisterous teams and formal meetings. Every seating area features outlets and IT connections for video and audio conferencing, and food service is available from early morning through late evening for employees doing international conference calls.

“It’s a phenomenal space,” says Steve Waugh, Steelcase’s director of global credit. In the past, he never spent more than a few minutes in the cafeteria, now he goes there all the time. “It’s a place I can hang out and run into people I need to connect with,” he says. “That connectivity makes it totally worth the investment.”

The naturally lit space is anchored by a giant media wall that sits beside the espresso bar, running a stream of Steelcase videos, news and project updates to keep local employees apprised of global corporate events. “Even though the café is in Grand Rapids, we want to create a sense of connection to the rest of the company,” Armbruster says.

And it is just one aspect of the company’s three-year campus reinvention project launched in 2010 to give its workforce a more collaborative office environment.

“Our old space was a Dilbert cube farm,” says Waugh, who was among the first employees to have their office redesigned. Now his team works in a ‘free-address’ space, where they can choose from shared workbenches, semi-enclosed spaces or a variety of conference rooms. They also share a café area with the procurement team, which was intentionally done to create opportunities for the two groups to come together throughout the day.

Waugh likes the new office, though he admits it was challenging for some of his team members to give up their dedicated spaces—and all the stuff they stored there. “It takes time to get used to having less material, and to choosing where to work every day,” he says. But eventually they adapted, and now most of them carry their office in their backpacks. “It’s important for employees to be open-minded, and to recognize that this is about giving them ‘best places’ to work.”

No one at Accenture has a dedicated office space—not even the company’s top executives. Instead, employees reserve space to suit their needs wherever they happen to be. That may be a shared workbench in a corporate office, a hotel conference room or their own kitchen table.

“We are a mobile workforce, and mobility and traditional offices don’t go together,” says Johnson, the global director of workplace innovation.

Accenture offices include a combination of shared bench tables and collaborative spaces. There are no desks and no cubicles. The proliferation of shared space is intentional. “We see the office is a place to be with people and to become part of the culture, so we prioritize collaboration over individual workspaces,” he says. Employees can reserve space for quiet tasks, but most people opt to do their “head-down work” at home or on the road.

Accenture embraced flex space more than a decade ago. It was a natural fit for the company’s road-warrior culture, Johnson says. It gave employees a better work-life balance, and enabled Accenture to cut its real estate footprint in half and achieve 85 percent usage of office space on any given day. That’s compared with the 50 percent average seen in most companies.

The company reinvests much of those real estate savings into leading-edge IT infrastructure and software. “Our overriding objective has been to minimize the cost of real estate and shift that investment to services and technology to support our people,” Johnson says.

All of the office workspaces feature shared monitors and wireless technology. Corporate phone lines are integrated into employees’ laptops so they ring wherever in the world that employee is working. Employees also have access to the latest collaborative software tools for chatting, video conferencing and desktop sharing from remote locations, so that teams can connect and collaborate virtually.

These collaboration tools are key to the success of Accenture’s distributed workplace culture, Johnson says. “Whether someone is in Chicago, Paris or another floor of the office, you can connect with them instantly.”

When Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey last year, CBRE had to close its Long Island office for weeks.

“If we had had a mobile workspace, continuity of the business would have been consistent,” says CBRE’s Moore. But all of the employees in that office had dedicated workspaces with desktop computers, so they were unable to operate until the office reopened.

It was bad timing for the company, which is currently in the process of redesigning all of its global offices to offer employees a more flexible, mobile, collaborative workplace environment.

The redesign began in 2011, after a workplace study showed that office space was often vacant or underutilized, and the siloed design of cubicles was preventing teams from working together.

“Instead of building out more space that wouldn’t get regularly used, we decided to break down the silos and create something that was more collaborative,” Moore says.

To be sure the new design met employees’ needs, Moore and her team launched a 360-degree assessment. They interviewed company leaders, conducted employee surveys, and did focus-group studies to see how employees used their space and what they thought was missing.

“The results helped us paint a picture,” she says. Using that data, they are slowly rolling out redesign projects around the world to coincide with their current lease arrangements.

One of the first transformations occurred in the Amsterdam office, where CBRE replaced individual cubicles with assigned “neighborhoods” where teams co-locate at comfortable activity-based work areas flanked by open collaboration rooms. Each neighborhood is strategically located so that teams who often work together have adjoining spaces to foster more interdisciplinary work.

“Having assigned neighborhoods gives people the comfort of home so it doesn’t feel like a free-for-all,” she says. It also enabled her to reduce the number of seats from 240 to 198, which cut real estate costs without cramping employee space.

“We’ve never reached peak capacity,” she says.

The company is now redesigning offices across the U.S., where 40 percent of its leases are up in the next 36 months. The downtown Los Angeles office, which is set to open this summer, will also feature the activity-based neighborhoods, lots of open collaboration spaces, and state-of-the-art wireless technology and collaboration software.

The new office is 30 percent smaller than the old space, enabling Moore to double her IT spending without going over budget. She was also able to add a dedicated concierge to the office to book meeting rooms, help solve technical issues, and make sure all catering and event planning needs are addressed. “It’s our way of making sure clients and employees have the best customer service possible,” she says.

And while CBRE employees are also free to telecommute, Moore hopes the new office design will make them want to come to the office. “We give them great technology, and make it easy to connect and communicate with team members, so they can have a more meaningful experience at work.”

When Microsoft opened its corporate campus in Redmond, Washington, in the late ’80s, employees believed that software projects were better done behind doors, and the office design reflected that, says Martha Clarkson, global workplace strategist at Microsoft. “There were a lot of doors and hallways with a lot of medium gray walls and teal and purple carpet.”

But Microsoft is a very different company today. “We used to be a software company; now we are a products and services company,” she says. In the past several years, the company has acquired or launched a diverse range of products and businesses, including Bing, Hotmail, MSN and Xbox. The projects and teams that support these diverse product lines have changed, she says, and so, too, has the way people work.

Clarkson has spent the past 10 years redesigning the spaces in which Microsoft employees do their jobs, which is no small task. The Redmond campus alone has 100 buildings, all of which were originally designed for a less mobile, office-centric work environment.

Many of those buildings have been torn down, while others are in the process of being remodeled with shared workspaces, dedicated collaboration spaces and lounges on every floor. The standard-issue desks and chairs have been replaced with modern colorful furniture framed by giant display screens and interactive white boards that curve to the angle of the space. Shared spaces also feature the occasional climbing wall, game table or grown-up slide to get creative juices flowing.

Each remodeled office follows a few basic tenets: People need space to collaborate, access to technology and opportunities to showcase Microsoft products. But employees require different kinds of space for different types of activities, says Harald Becker, the company’s senior product planner. Game developers may want a single shared space, for example, while Windows programmers may need more private space. “Variety is important and you have to involve the employees in decisions about their space,” he says.

Becker’s office was redesigned 18 months ago, and now features lots of small collaboration spaces and shared offices with movable tables and dual-user monitors. It is adjacent to the design team’s space, which features larger collaboration spaces because they tend to work in bigger groups.

He likes the option to choose between quiet and collaboration spaces, and the open flow between office areas that lets him bump into people he’d otherwise have to actively seek out. “I have a lot more visibility with a broader spectrum of people,” he says. “That makes it much easier to get a sense of what’s going on with other teams.”

To ensure teams are comfortable in the new offices, Clarkson crafts a communication strategy to both educate them about the intent of the space and to offer tips on appropriate behavior when working in a shared environment. “You have to let people know why you are making that change,” she says. “Because otherwise they can forget.”

Clarkson worked with HR to craft a series of funny protocol videos that show employees eating stinky lunches, taking over collaboration spaces as their personal office and talking loudly on their cellphone in public workspaces. She emails the video ‘episodes’ periodically to employees as they become accustomed to their new office environment. “People need reminding, not instructing,” she says of the video series. “When you show them what not to do, they are more likely to remember.”

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer based in the Chicago area. Comment below or email Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer in Chicago.

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