Having toiled in lifeless cubicle farms for decades, technology firms are transforming their workplaces. This is partly in response to the innovation-hungry marketplace, but it also reflects a growing appreciation of how work environments engage the sector’s highly coveted workforce.
More than squeezing operations into the sparest square footage possible — a facilities practice widely adopted following the 2001 recession — tech firms are revisiting the fundamental purpose and functions of the workplace. The spurs behind this shift are straightforward enough — the need to promote employee collaboration and increase comfort — but the benefits to talent attraction and retention, not to mention reduced real estate costs, are worthy of broader consideration.
Collaboration is essential to the technology innovation process. Recognizing this, some companies are utilizing a “scrum” format where software and product development teams gather throughout the day to discuss evolving concepts. The new tech workplace is configured to accommodate group work, offering teams dedicated project rooms or casual brainstorming areas where individual offices once stood.
The effect of introducing collaboration areas in combination with lower-height workstation panels is a discernible increase in the energy of the office environment. These new open and interactive configurations support a more efficient work process, while promoting socializing and camaraderie among peers.
Employee comfort is another vital component of the tech firm workplace. With acute competition for top industry talent, companies have taken to providing a variety of on-site amenities, from fitness facilities to free snack and beverage areas. Tech titans like Google and Facebook even provide staff with free dining options. The aim isn’t to coddle employees, but to reinforce connections with the company and to boost staff productivity by putting people at ease.
Pride of place goes beyond the perks of an amenity-rich environment; it’s also about using traditional spaces in new ways. With wireless connections ubiquitous, conference areas evoke a Starbucks-like atmosphere, giving employees spaces to catch up with colleagues away from their focused work settings. Moreover, access to natural light and improved ventilation and lighting systems have yielded healthier, more comfortable offices with clearer connections to the natural environment.
Tech companies share two business objectives common to other industries: reducing real estate footprint and meeting the needs of a multi-generational workforce. What tech firms have realized is that both goals can be met by un-tethering employees from their cubicles and exploiting wireless technology.
Many high-tech employees may not require, let alone desire, a cubicle. Gensler’s workplace studies reveal that technology company staff spend as little as 30 percent of the day engaged in focus work, which is done typically in cubicles or individual workspaces. The majority of a tech workday takes place in collaboration (conference rooms), training or off-site (often with clients). Because wireless technology enables workers to do their jobs anywhere at any time, many prefer to undertake focused tasks, or even informal conferences, outside the office environment.
As a result, tech companies are opting for workplaces that support the tasks — not the titles — of their staff. Individual workspaces are reduced in favor of collaboration space; and unassigned touchdown workstations are shared among mobile workers in lieu of having dedicated individual stations.
Cisco Systems, a global supplier of networking equipment and services, has taken the concept of supporting tasks over titles one step further, establishing the Cisco Connected Workplace (CCW) program. Developed with Gensler, the CCW employs formal and informal workspaces with embedded collaborative technologies to enable employees to select their preferred workspace based on the task at hand. Workspaces are unassigned, but supported by an IT infrastructure that allows staff to work seamlessly from any location.
The strategic shift in workplace design has benefitted multiple generations of workers and resulted in substantial real estate savings. Cisco has achieved a capacity increase of 40 percent over a like-sized traditional office and cubicle environment. The strategy has allowed the firm to grow without the acquisition of an additional 250,000 square feet of space that would have been required at its San Jose facility.
Although Cisco’s CCW program serves its many work groups well, the firm’s engineers required a modified version. Given their need for multiple computers and tendency towards focused work, many engineers balked at the significant changes introduced by the CCW concept. In response, Cisco and Gensler modified the program to suit the specific needs of the engineering user group.
While most of the engineers retain dedicated individual workspaces, elements of the CCW program are incorporated by the group to enable collaboration. For example, workstations are reduced slightly in size to afford additional space for collaborative areas; and flexible touchdown spaces are provided for visiting, out-of-town employees.
Establishing an effective work environment comes down to understanding the space utilization and amenities that will best support staff. Employees expect their workplace to accommodate shifting work modes, whether they’re collaborating with colleagues or occupied by individual focused work. They also want to be energized and inspired by their work environment rather than feel it’s a container where they while away the day.
Technology companies are at the vanguard of deriving the benefits of working in concert rather than in isolation. Through thoughtful and innovative planning, these companies are maximizing the value of their real estate assets, shedding surplus square footage or re-designing it for different uses. “I could never go back to the traditional office,” said a Cisco director. And for many reasons, he likely won’t.
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