Gensler Study: Give Workers What They Want

Osram Offices, Munich, Walter Henn, 1963: Bürolandschaft layout

| By Sharon Simonson |

Remember the “pigpen” office ethos of the 1999 startup era? Thankfully, the Bay Area technology company workplace has matured since then.

The dot-com logic flowed loosely from the tale of the famed HP garage and the unstated assumption that disorder and unorthodox behavior signal creativity, said Sheryl Friesz, senior director of talent acquisition for San Francisco’s Tagged Inc. and a technology-company veteran.

Organisational diagram
Organisational diagram

Since 2000, the industry has gained sophistication about design and “about keeping the energy and amazing innovation but lessening the chaos,” she said.

Global architecture firm Gensler has released its 2013 U.S. Workplace Survey finding that office employers are inadvertently undermining themselves by emphasizing collaborative space over “focus” space where knowledge workers can complete complex thinking and tasks. (See “Too Much We, Not Enough Me.”)

In contrast, when workers feel their workplaces offer a “balanced” mix of focus and collaboration space and that company policy gives workers autonomy to choose, benefits abound. Twenty-four percent of the workers in the Gensler survey of 2,035 American “knowledge workers” agreed that their companies communicated with their workplaces that focus and collaborative work are valuable. Those workers see their companies as more innovative, creative and strategic, the survey found.

It’s obvious to her that tech workers want and need quiet and collaborative space—sometimes at the same time, sometimes not, Friesz said. She herself has worked in settings where a folding table served as desk. “You are already flying at Mach 10, and you want somewhere you can have a comfortable landing.”

Tagged is the “largest social discovery network in the world with 330 million members in 220 countries,” according to its Web site. Its premise is to help participants meet and interact with people they don’t already know but with whom they have common interests.

When company policies free workers to choose where to be at any moment in time and provide responsive space, workers said they spent 70 percent of their work time in the office, the Gensler survey found.

Tagged occupies 40,000 square feet on two floors at Battery and Vallejo streets, Friesz said. It has 150 employees—70 percent of them engineers—and expects to reach 200 by year’s end.

Tagged has converted its entire upper floor with 15,000 square feet to perimeter meeting space, a library “for a very quiet time,” and an open seating area. There is also a roof deck. The entire perimeter of the company’s first floor, which has 25,000 square feet, also is meeting rooms, some enclosed, others not. She estimates there are 35 meeting rooms total, a one-room-to-five-worker ratio.

“One of the big beefs at some of my last companies—great on the bullpen, but fighting over the interview rooms. Not a good headcount-to-interview room ratio,” she said. That is not a problem at Tagged.

Office layout and space use have been subject to political and social forces as much as any other institution in society. Frank Lloyd Wright created the first “purpose-designed environment” for a mail-order soap company in 1904 in Buffalo, N.Y., according to a history of the office completed for Arts Council England in 2008. “Managers and clerks, many of them women, worked together in a single large space of galleries,” it says. Views to the outside were limited, and the company culture celebrated the “sacrament of work.”

In the U.S. and U.K. “shareholder” offices (as in shareholders own the company), space sharing reflects hierarchy: Managers get private offices, often with outside views. Workers get the donut hole in the middle, sometimes with regimented rows of desks and no natural lighting. Some associate them with “sick building syndrome,” according to the Arts Council England office history. They are featured inimitably in the 1980 Dolly Parton movie “Nine to Five.”

The open-plan offices are clearly an expression of individual power. The model rose in post-World War II Germany and stemmed from a desire “to create a non-hierarchical environment that increased communication between people and allowed for future flexibility,” according to the office history.

By giving workers what they need and want, Tagged’s Battery Street space also echoes the company’s culture and emphasis on a “mutually beneficial” relationship with its employees, rather than just transactions, Friesz said. Serious technologists seek companies that not only say they want innovation but create the conditions to achieve it.

As the person charged with recruiting talent in an “insanely competitive environment,” it’s very helpful, Friesz said. Expansive kitchens and lots of great food can only differentiate you so much.

Workers who completed the Gensler 2013 Workplace Survey represent a broad industry range:
Consumer Products/Retail/Manufacturing
Consulting/Accounting/Business Services

Source: Gensler

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