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Designing Offices with Mobile Employees in Mind

Publish Date:

Thursday, January 10, 2013


News Organization:

CIO Journal

Source URL:

A mobile-wielding workforce no longer chained to the desktop computer is forcing some companies to reconsider workspace design. Some companies are removing individual desks for more common areas. Other companies are taking it further… removing the office entirely for work-from-home programs. Whatever the case, companies are finding they rely more on technology to virtually stitch together employees.

Many companies are creating offices with less individual space but more flexible meeting and collaboration space, according to Mary Lee Duff, principal at IA Interior Architects, the firm that designed the new Twitter headquarters in San Francisco which opened in June. Because employees have better mobile technology, they’re less likely to sit in one place all day. “It used to be that if you weren’t in your seat, you weren’t working. Now the entire office space is your workspace,” she said.

An office at PlantronicsPLT -0.07%, Inc. in Santa Cruz, Calif.

At Twitter, there are plenty of open work spaces – light blue restaurant-style booths, seats that look like building blocks, lounge-style areas and a rooftop garden with tables and outdoor seating, said Nancy McEvers Anderson, also of IA Interior Architects.

At headset maker Plantronics, Inc. the practice of allowing employees to work from home didn’t fully take off until the company started using so-called unified communications which includes instant messaging, IP telephony, web conferencing and online collaboration tools. “It’s been a migration but it didn’t stick until we had the tools,” said CIO Tom Gill.

Plantronics’s technology redesign favoring mobile employees dovetailed with the design of its new Santa Cruz, Calif., headquarters that incorporates flexible space for folks who would be in the office only a couple days per week. Roughly half of the employees regularly work at home, said Mr. Gill. There’s no assigned seating for employees who only come into the office a few days a week. Instead, they can choose different kinds of work areas, from restaurant-style booths, café tables and desks to small rooms for work that requires concentration. One IT employee commutes from San Francisco once a week and she prefers the red restaurant-style booth that’s enclosed on three sides, said Mr. Gill. It’s quiet enough so she can make phone calls but it’s in the main thoroughfare of foot traffic so she can interact with colleagues, he said.

In about a year,  Gill will move out of his office into an open space when the company renovates the building where he works. Then he’ll have the opportunity to try the company’s new flexible office space, first hand.

When employees work from home, it can be a huge cost savings for the company. At Aetna Inc,AET +0.51% about 47% of its 35,000 U.S. employees work from home, saving the company nearly $80 million per year in real estate and related costs, according to a December article in The Wall Street Journal.  When the company started to expand the number of work-at-home employees in 2005, the technology wasn’t quite ready to accommodate certain types of workers. The company didn’t have the technology to forward calls to employees like call center reps and nurses.

By 2008, Aetna did have that technology and the number of telecommuters jumped to 30% from less than 10% in 2005.

Law firm Clearspire has taken the idea of virtual communication one step further. About 99% of its attorneys work from home through a web-enabled virtual office the company built. The company still has offices in major cities, but those are designed primarily for meetings with clients. For instance, one office is located about a block from the White House and is about 3,800 square feet with fifteen offices and a conference room, says Clearspire founder Bryce Arrowood. Taking large offices out of the equation lets Clearspire offer talent comparable to the biggest law firms “for about half the cost,” he said.

Yet, even when lawyers are in the office, they’re always hooked into the company’s virtual workplace and community called Coral. The virtual office captures some of what it feels like to work in a physical office with virtual hallways so that people working together in a practice group, city or on legal cases can easily communicate with one another, whether it’s a call, instant message or email.

That doesn’t mean that employees never see one another. “We recognized in the early days that we felt there was a lot of importance for face-to-face time,” said Mr. Arrowood. The offices are frequently used as a place to have face-to-face meetings either monthly or quarterly for different areas of practice. The company has 35 attorneys now and will likely grow to 100 by the end of the year. That growth will be easier since the company doesn’t have to increase physical space to grow headcount, he said.

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