Leveraging the Workplace: A Return to Value Through Better Design

Winter 2015/2016
Google’s Madison, Wisconsin, offices welcome new recruits, primarily recent university graduates, with workspaces and a cafe that reflect the building’s history and support a variety of workstyles. Photographer Alan Gartzke

Workplaces designed for the ways people will work in the future differ significantly from those that are handcuffed to saving money today. 

SHIFTING DEMOGRAPHICS and evolving technology have created an untethered workforce for many industries. Why would a tablet-packing employee choose the beige hues of the corporate office over the comfort of his home or the heady aroma and Wi-Fi access of her local Starbucks? Such a question would not have troubled managers or designers even 15 years ago. It would have been laughed at before the advent of the Internet. Not so today.

More than ever before, today’s untethered workers have alluring options when deciding where their work gets done. This trend will only expand to include more workers in the future. But there are two strong reasons why those employees will keep commuting to the office: to connect to their colleagues and to contribute to the company culture. They recognize that collaboration is critical to their success as well as that of the business. These workers are also often drawn to the idea of being a part of something bigger than themselves. Real estate (RE) and human resources (HR) specialists are in a unique position to protect and promote these motivating factors.

It is a fact of economic life that increased pressure to save money through real estate has reached an all-time high. Reducing portfolio footprints and implementing alternative workplace initiatives have produced cost savings, but after a decade of going back to the same well, the limits of their effectiveness are becoming clear. As anyone trained in personnel management knows, simply reducing real estate costs cannot be expected to have a positive effect on productivity. The workspace itself must be reimagined.

Both RE and HR professionals have found themselves challenged to rethink the workplace. Their relationship began as an uneasy marriage, but the best teams have realized that a coordinated effort can create powerful results that exceed the C- suite’s expectations.

conference room with people sitting at the table

A large cafe/lounge has become the most popular destination in Baker Tilly’s new Midwest regional hub office in Milwaukee.  Photographer Peter McCullough

An even deeper collaboration among HR and RE professionals will be needed to make the workplace a culturally fulfilling and psychologically satisfying experience for the next generation of workers. These professionals will need to move away from a nearsighted focus on cost and toward an examination of long-term value. Ask anyone if they are working the same way today that they were 10, seven, or even five years ago; the answer will almost invariably be “no.” The workplace is changing so fast that employers can no longer rely on lease expirations as the milestones for implementing change. Unlocking the dormant value of workplace design will yield a return that will be measured in many dimensions beyond the bottom line, such as hiring rates, employee engagement levels and brand perception.

Designs for the way people will work in the future differ significantly from designs that are handcuffed to saving money today.  Everyone has seen the trap in one form or another: a space is designed for ultimate efficiency and, in the process, loses its connection to the individual and the organization. The lesson remains the same. Form must still follow function. One infinitely reconfigurable design does not fit all sizes and spaces, especially when it comes to today’s workers and their workplaces.  Members of the generation entering the workforce today are seeking more self-gratification from their work, so the workplace has to adapt to their changing needs and desires.

Everyone Matters

Everyone needs and wants to belong and to grow. Past generations of employees typically met these needs outside the workplace, through their relationships with family and friends, through service organizations and hobbies. In contrast, the millennial workforce is looking to their careers to satisfy these needs. Many are looking for missions with which they can connect; they want to work for companies with a higher purpose and firms that have designed their workplaces to be authentic expressions of those qualities. They also insist on working for organizations and in places that match their personal values. For this generation, work-life integration is becoming essential to achieving happiness. How does an employer keep pace, much less differentiate itself from the crowd?  That process starts with an authentic expression of who the organization is.

Employees’ enthusiasm is heightened by an organization and a workplace that make them proud of their contributions and eager to return to their assignments next week and next year. Google is well known for creating workplaces that reflect the company’s authentic philosophy. Its offices are designed to represent the Google brand consistently around the world, while also reflecting each office’s authentic local culture.

lighted hallway

Lighting, graphics and media screens along a corridor help Samsung Telecommunications America align the firm’s internal brand perception with its external image at the company’s Dallas offices. Photographer Peter McCullough

The Google location in Madison, Wisconsin, was designed to be compatible with the way new recruits, primarily local university students, are studying and collaborating in school. To reflect this style, Google uses open “pods” to encourage collaboration and provides plenty of alternative places — such as a restored tractor cab, a nod to the building’s history as a tractor manufacturer’s warehouse — where employees can work or make phone calls. Both task-based design and variety enable Google employees to choose to work where and how they work best. 

Foster and Reflect a Unique Culture

Happy, engaged workers are more productive in a workplace that supports their culture. Workers are savvy enough to see through an escalating variety of perks. Such attractions can even send a false brand message to some. Instead of simply copying what appear to be the latest workplace trends, every company must discover its own culture and use that knowledge to put in place a work environment that reflects its own values and brand.

Baker Tilly, one of the 20 largest accounting and advisory firms in the U.S., took advantage of a regional office move to create opportunities for its employees to connect within the external business community as well as with the firm’s evolving internal culture. It needed to understand and address the needs of a generationally diverse workforce. On the one hand, private offices still exist and preserve the legacy of “earning a door” while, on the other, multiple social and collaborative spaces help all generations connect and work effectively.

In its new Midwest regional hub office in Milwaukee, Baker Tilly nearly doubled the number of collaboration spaces that existed in the previous facility. A large cafe and lounge, with great views, comfortable furniture, multiple media screens and Wi-Fi, has become the most popular destination in the office. Employees use it for impromptu meetings, heads-down work and unwinding during the grueling tax season. Other impromptu collaboration spaces are intentionally planned to ensure casual and synergistic collisions. While there are no foosball tables or massage chairs, there is, true to Baker Tilly’s culture, a private executive lounge that conveys prestige and creates incentives for advancing one’s career.

lobby and hallway

Graphic images at the entry to the Global Water Center in Milwaukee tell the center’s story, providing an immediate connection to the workplace within. Photographer Peter McCullough

By living its values, Baker Tilly has created an engaged, innovative workforce; more than 40 percent of new hires flow from employee referrals. Happy workers are eager to share their experience with others.  They are living proof that a company does not have to abandon its values to create a workplace that supports all workers, not just millennials.

Align Internal and External Branding

Companies can also use real estate to connect the internal brand experience with the external brand perception. When an organization is undergoing a workplace refresh, expansion or move, design can support and drive a new internal brand experience.

Samsung Telecommunications America in Dallas is known for an outward-facing brand that is well-recognized by its customers. However, the company’s offices were out of step with its image as an innovative, cutting-edge technology firm. The goal for its newly refreshed and expanded offices was to create a workspace that had the same “wow” element that the company’s products have had on so many consumers’ lives. The solution blended industrial, architectural and graphic design and created a space that reflects and nurtures the culture of a company looking years ahead.

Connect by Telling the Story

As Ron Friedman, Ph.D., observed in “The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace,” “anytime there is a disconnect between the front of the house and heart of the house, there’s the potential for employees to wonder whether their organizational message is simply a façade.” In other words, people are drawn to spaces that are authentic. As more millennials enter the workforce, honest, trustworthy and socially responsible companies will win the war for talent.

The Global Water Center (GWC) in Milwaukee houses water-related research facilities for universities and existing water-related companies as well as accelerator space for emerging ones. It brings together diverse groups and people to communicate the global fresh water crisis and develop fresh water-focused technology solutions. Walls, once thought of as simply a structural necessity, have been transformed into a powerful storytelling tool at the center. A mix of interactive and static graphic displays enables a visitor to the GWC to understand the complexity of the global fresh water issue and how the organizations housed there are making a difference.

Real estate is a powerful tool in every company’s arsenal. It is only now being appreciated as a value-generating asset rather than simply a necessary expense. Increasing value creates a ripple effect that is felt through the entire organization. Real estate professionals are now in the business of designing work-spaces that go beyond the cost control log, and they are making portfolios work harder for companies.

The challenges today’s businesses face — changing demographics, advancing technology and a new workforce that knows how it wants to work — give corporate real estate leaders an invitation to take center stage. From this stage, creative real estate solutions can express a company’s true culture, align its internal and external brands, and tell a compelling story that helps the company attract and retain talented, committed employees.