Most designers agree with Kimberly Overton, a senior designer at Leo A. Daly in Omaha, that “to increase profit and dollars, it is necessary to pay attention to employees,” but, says Frank, “Very few clients are interested for the right reasons. The right reasons are productivity, work flow, happiness factors, but the bottom line is still real estate. That’s the sad part of it. As an immediate solution for facilities groups charged with saving money, alternative offices can save as much as 20 percent on real estate.” With real estate accounting for around five percent of a corporation’s office expenses, compared to 60 percent for personnel, Scott Wyatt, CEO at NBBJ in Seattle, calls such strategies “foolish economic sense.” He concedes, “It’s hard for CEOs to think long-term with shareholder pressure for next-quarter earnings, for what looks good on Wall Street. The late ’90s bull market, however, brought some relief from shareholder capitalism; they’re fat and happy with money now, and allowing CEOs to do their jobs, which is to create good long-term value.”
A soon-to-be-built jobs center in LA designed by Leo A Daly.
The projects that excite many designers are those that combine a thorough analysis of how work gets accomplished with a plan to make that process run with optimal smoothness. For instance, offices for computer companies are among the most intriguing being done today. Shay reports, “The creation of hardware and software right now is the most exciting and vicious business in the world. A new product takes 18 months from concept to obsolescence, and you need a new product to kill your old product before the competition does it.” A creative team can include mechanical, electrical, chemical and software engineers. “These people are like mad inventors. They have little shops in their cubicles, like Home Improvement’s Tim Allen, with soldering irons and hammers to build mockups.”
And they all need to brainstorm closely with programmers, who, as it happens, need almost total silence. Teams can mushroom overnight from two to up to sixty members and collapse suddenly at manufacturing time, with almost everyone assigned immediately to other products. At one client facility, the most brilliant and creative complained during an annual survey that they just wanted to be able to move on without spending three days — maybe four times a year — packing and unpacking so that systems partitions could be demounted and reinstalled elsewhere. The new design rolls power-equipped furniture into eight-by-ten-ft. “parking spaces” enclosed by permanent partitions, where the engineer’s simply plug in and get to work. The space plan involves pie-shaped wedges, noisier in the narrow segments, quieter at perimeters, and beyond, some silent rooms where programmers can temporarily retreat; these are designed so that no one will be tempted to camp out permanently. Shay’s ideal is a square footprint that can be laid out like an Italian town, with the noisy segment of each wedge pointed towards the piazza, but she has managed to use curved circulation in long narrow spaces to achieve much the same effect. Overton reports that in one 25,000-sq.-ft. Daly project, “168 people make a dull murmur” because the existing mechanical system supplies white noise. “It’s very common in a lot of office buildings,” she says.
What works in one industry company — or company, or even department — might well backfire in another. The ability to watch and hear one another go berserk seems to help stocks and bonds traders maintain an adrenaline high, and, according to Geoffrey Brown, a partner at Dyer/Brown & Associates in Boston, billing and payroll people constantly need to check with each other. Teamwork design can be a marketing strategy, as in the insurance industry, where Frank sees a trend towards cross-departmental teams as a means of assuring large accounts that their data are under control in one definable space. Cook, who claims he has procedures to identify the appropriate work environments for each job function but is “not giving it away to the competition,” says eavesdropping over low partitions may be ideal in real estate offices “so the baby brokers can learn from the experienced ones,” but as Wyatt points out, “Lawyers need both privacy and perceived privacy.”
Over the last 10 years, Frank notes, “Private offices in law firms have gotten smaller, from the biggest rainmakers down to the associate level. The profession has been attacked on fees, has become more bottom-line realistic, and has recognized the need to be low key. Partners are down from 350 sq. ft. to 250 sq. ft., first- and second-year associates are doubling up, tight space is becoming the culture. But I don’t see the door going away. Competing for the best out of school, the office with door is a recruiting tool. With young lawyers now online and networked, the library is no longer the recruiting showcase.”
The door is also an issue in publishing, where writers and editors seem willing to sacrifice almost anything for a modicum of silence. Because computer technology hasn’t changed the basic concentration needed to obtain and organize material for publication, Frank has a feeling that the private office is going to prevail on Mancini-Duffy’s current publishing jobs. A private office can shrink down to 7 1/2 by 10 ft., according to Kathy Rogers, principal of interior design services at Sverdrup in St. Louis, “but it can’t just be a cell with a plastic counter. We go to great lengths to make little offices wonderful, with direct/indirect pendants and glass sidelights with etched patterns to give a tactile and aesthetic quality.”
Telecommuting, Frank believes, is cost-efficient only when free-lancers work exclusively off-site; staff people who occasionally or regularly telecommute from home still need to maintain their own spaces with their own materials in the office. Overton adds that some employees as web as employers continue to believe that “if you are out of the office you are not doing anything.” It can’t help that in two recent television ads promoting telecommuting equipment, a man working on a ski slope is courting a case of condensation equal to pouring a cup of liquid into his computer, and a woman breaks a face-to-face appointment with a client in order to go to the beach where she conducts business while one child is yelling a foot away from the cell phone and the other is dancing around the edge of the water unsupervised.
Still, Margo Jones, director of interiors at Heery International in Atlanta, a firm where designing home offices for on-staff telecommuters is on the rise, believes this alternative concept can apply to any job function whose results can be clearly defined, including accounting, customer service and research and analysis. Telecommuting may not be appropriate for marketing or for members of teams who need instant feedback before moving on to the next step, although it could work for the latter if all members were networked into virtual chatrooms. One of the key ingredients for a telecommuter’s home office, she says, is a work environment that reinforces the employee’s connection to the corporation, whether that involves an exact duplication of a headquarters work station or a streamlined, more residential version, complete with appropriate ergonomic and lighting elements. Jones says the installation should carry the corporate message, “You are our employee. We care about you and are investing in you by putting all this in your home.”
A recent award winner by Heery.
Frank reports that proposals for collaborative or informal gathering spaces receive an incredulous look from publishing clients, but in most industries, management enthusiastically embraces coffee bars, war rooms and other spaces where people can accidentally or purposely rub shoulders and trade ideas. Actually getting people to use those spaces is another matter. “They look pretty in magazines,” says Shay, “and they are empty.” Their best chances of being used may be in companies where two people share an office at the same time, and, as in what Shay calls the old college-roommate syndrome, the one with the visitors has to go to a cafeteria or lounge to talk. In companies where everyone has a laptop computer, the more teleports a group space has, the higher the chance it will be used, if only initially by people looking for privacy. Wyatt believes that conference rooms should be designed to be “the most fun places to be” and that as many group activities as possible should be in plain view so that when even the most introverted loner goes from his lair to the lavatory, he’ll “see things happening.”
Most designers agree that hoteling works only when people like auditors and management consultants 95 percent of their time on their clients’ premises, but Overton points out that sales people have never sat in their offices all day. “They check messages on Monday morning, write up some materials, send them out — what do you do with their real estate the rest of the week? When you fly around the country, the planes are full. That’s how many offices are empty.” According to Rogers, “Any office has people who are out a lot, selling and servicing. You literally kick them out and don’t want them to come back.”