Cube Stakes

Cube Stakes

While CFOs cheer potential ROI from alternative office schemes, displaced cube dwellers may be less sanguine. Here's how to reconcile them to the new workplace orderIn this article, readers will learn - The reasons behind alternative workspaces - How cultural issues can torpedo such arrangements - Coping mechanisms to help employees accept a new office "Human beings have a sense of place, and hoteling violates that." - Tom Davenport, Andersen ConsultingThere's no place like home…even when you're at work. For decades, employees have latched on to their small patch of office space to create a miniature retreat: three or four walls that they are prepared to look at for 10 hours a day. They decorate them with children's colourful finger paintings, touching family photos, humorous cartoon clippings and postcards from exotic locations, where - in all honesty - they'd probably rather be. Knowing how employees cherish their space, what do you think would happen if management abruptly announced it was being taken away? It's a question worth asking. As companies increasingly shuck cubes and offices in favour of alternative work arrangements, such as hoteling (whereby multiple workers serially share a single space), team-oriented offices and telecommuting, loss of a dedicated workspace looms larger in the corporate landscape. And although such trends are not new, they are inching their way along a continuum that leads to a wholesale restructuring of the work environment. The Alternative Workplace Study, produced in 1998 by the International Facility Management Association and LaSalle Partners Inc., found that the number of telecommuters will more than double in the next three years and the number of people working out of virtual offices is expected to climb from 5 percent to 11 percent. While the numbers aren't large compared with mainstream office arrangements, they are growing fast.

Studies like this point out the fact that corporate workers are going mobile; eventually, perhaps, most will have no cube to call home, opting instead for alternatives such as telework centres, home offices or airplane seats. But whatever the final workplace picture may be, it's clear that as companies redesign office space, they are gradually weaning employees from the expectation of permanent digs. Workers may mourn the loss of their rectangle of permanent space, but most can see the writing on their fabric-covered walls.

And as these arrangements flow toward mainstream acceptance, wise companies will adopt mechanisms to help their employees cope with the change. Accepting a new reality and embracing it are two different things, after all.

What's the Attraction?

Since money lies at the root of so many business changes, it's not surprising to find that many companies have dumped their traditional offices to save on real estate costs. Timothy Kane, president and CEO of Kinetic Workplace Consulting Group, a Pittsburgh-based consultancy specialising in workplace integration, points out that reducing square footage can add up to significant savings. "Companies such as AT&T and Cisco are seeing that these strategies can [trim] by 20 to 30 percent the footage that they have in their portfolio," Kane says. He adds that at a company like AT&T, which may occupy up to 10 million square feet of real estate costing $ US 30 to $ US 35 per square foot, a 20 percent to 30 percent savings adds up to very big numbers.

Companies also use alternative space strategies to support new workstyles, such as team-based workgroups. For example, Sapient Corp., an e-business management consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass., gives each project team of engineers a room where they work closely for periods as short as 10 to 12 weeks or as long as 18 months. That room belongs to the group members for the duration of the project, and they can personalise it however they want.

Whatever the reasons for moving to an alternative workspace strategy, doing so will involve growing pains. The trouble is, executives often leap into these projects with no clear strategy for dealing with employee concerns and with little idea of the effect that proposed changes will have on workplace dynamics. Unless they create palliative measures to ease employee resistance and mitigate other likely effects, companies can pay a high price in employee turnover and lost productivity. Moreover, they risk wasting the sizeable IT and facility investments that are often required to support alternative workplace strategies.

For example, when TBWA/Chiat/Day advertising agency pioneered alternative office design in the early 1990s, it discovered riding the bleeding edge can have its downside. Chiat/Day, which was then based in Venice, Calif., designed an office that was entirely "free address," where employees chose a desk each day on a first-come, first-served basis. But even though the company offered guidelines on behaviour modification and put the latest in technology in each work area, "The space didn't work," says Kane. The office was great for collaborative design work and creative brainstorming, but there weren't enough private areas where workers could do more focused work. Employee feedback made it clear that the space didn't meet their needs, Kane says.

Alternative office designs fail for the fundamental reason that companies are making an investment in the facilities planning and the IT infrastructure to support a new strategy - but not in the employees who will be most affected by it. Many of the problems that are naturally raised by changing an employee's work environment can be overcome by paying serious attention, rather than lip service, to the employee's needs.

Fitting Spaces to Jobs

Not every workspace strategy fits every job description. Hoteling, for example, works only for employees who are space nomads to begin with, such as sales reps and consultants. Companies deriving the greatest benefit from alternative workplace strategies employ a combination of methods that reflect the workstyles of individual groups. Robert Deering, managing principal at the Dallas office of Interior Architects Inc., stresses the importance of understanding how employees work. "Find out how workers utilise their office space, how they interact and how they use technology," he suggests. "Look at the work processes before conceiving a [generalised] way of housing people." There are times, however, when business executives purposely implement a new workplace design to change rather than complement how people work. At such times, managers should make sure they first train employees in the behaviours and workstyles required in the changed environment.

For example, Sapient's annual growth rate of 60 percent to 75 percent leaves the company with a constant influx of new employees who may never have worked in the kind of team-based environment the company espouses. To keep its team structure solid, Sapient puts every new employee through a week of intensive orientation in the underlying principles and modes of behaviour the business relies on. The company's culture is also supported by a team of 10 employees whose job is to reinforce and monitor Sapient's core values. Sapient founders Jerry Greenberg and Stuart Moore, who are co-chairmen and co-chief executives, created the corporate culture group early on when they realised that cultural issues would be integral to the success of their fledgling company.

Coping Mechanisms

Offering employees incentives that ease the pain of change can help the transition to new office space. The renovation of Xerox Corp.'s Square Building in Rochester, N.Y., will eliminate 30 of the 150 private offices and shrink the rest. Meanwhile, the number of cubicle workspaces will increase from around 1,200 to 1,500, allowing the company to move employees from a leased facility into the Xerox building.

Most employees have lost working space, but they are also getting something.

The old office setup was dark, and light from the windows seldom reached the office interior, which was largely inhabited by administrative staff. "Every cube now has outside lighting coming in," says Charlene Stephens, an editorial assistant who moved from an area that had little natural light. "Some people who were in an office are now in a cube, but they're by a window, so it doesn't feel like it." John Lynch, director of global outsourcing at Xerox, moved to a new office that's about half the size of his old one. Though he has less space, Lynch says the move was positive. "All my people are now on the same floor, so I have much better access to them," he says. Xerox has kept a close eye on employee reactions to the new space through surveys, and 84 percent of the employees currently rate their feelings as "satisfied" or "very satisfied." The move from a dedicated office to a hoteling strategy is perhaps the most drastic change for an employee and requires the most creativity by way of coping mechanisms. The more mobile a worker is, the more his or her morale is likely to be depressed by an alternative workspace. In fact, the Alternative Workplace Study found that 27 percent of companies where employees no longer had dedicated office space reported a decrease in morale.

Tom Davenport, professor of management information systems at Boston University School of Management and director of the Andersen Consulting Institute for Strategic Change in Wellesley, Mass. (and regular columnist for CIO), works in an office that uses hoteling and dislikes it. He calls it a false economy.

While Andersen saves money, Davenport thinks it does so at a certain human cost. "Human beings have a sense of place," he says, "and hoteling violates that." He also complains that employees who hotel tend to feel disconnected from their coworkers and neighbouring workers because the nearby cast of characters changes with each office visit.

For strategies like hoteling to work, experts say companies must provide methods that help their mobile employees cope with feelings of isolation and rootlessness. Franklin Becker, director of Cornell University's International Workplace Studies Program, points out that there can be a great deal of social isolation for individuals who spend significant time away from the office.

"Companies have to put in other support structures, like requiring that everyone comes in on a Friday, just to be in the office and interact with people," he says.

At Deloitte Consulting LLC in Pittsburgh, for example, the company created areas for social interaction and casual meeting places as part of its switch to hoteling. One popular perk is a cybercafe, where harried consultants can munch on free snacks while they plug in their laptops in a relaxed environment. The cafe offers six kinds of cappuccino, Starbucks coffee, fruit, bagels and M&Ms (plain and peanut). Deloitte also added touchdown areas - scattered groupings of tables and comfortable chairs with modem ports that people use for impromptu meetings or just to catch up. The company even stopped delivering mail to employees' desks, a move that fosters chance encounters and socialising.

Employees who now have to walk to the mailroom to get their mail often get a chance to meet and catch up with coworkers.

Private Space

The trend in office design is clearly toward more open areas and less personal ownership of space, which creates some significant privacy issues for employees. For example, when employees move from private offices to a team area or an open cubicle setup, they need to learn new working behaviours - like keeping the noise level down. Companies don't always take these factors into consideration when redesigning an office space. The key to team spaces is to keep them small, or companies risk a return to the open bullpen environments of the '40s and '50s. "Organisations that have taken down walls and thrown people together are lousy," says Mike Brill, president of the Buffalo Organisation for Social and Technological Innovation Associates (BOSTI) based in Buffalo, N.Y.

"Teams don't work in the open. They work in an enclosed team space where they are free from outside noise." To do otherwise is "a total misreading of what group work is," says Brill.

Giving employees privacy need not be complicated. At Sapient, employees can use telephones that have been placed outside the team rooms for times when they need to make a private call.

Companies should also encourage employees to create their own standards of behaviour when sharing office space. Team members at Sapient often institute rules that allow people to have time when they can focus without being asked questions. A rule might stipulate that if an engineer is wearing a baseball cap or has headphones on, he or she cannot be disturbed.

For years the private office has been more than a place to work; it has been a status symbol. Once an employee reached a certain rung on the corporate ladder, one of the trappings of that position was a private office with the most coveted of features: a door. In the future, not only will employees be stripped of their personal offices, it is quite likely that they won't have an office to go to at all. And many analysts predict that in the not-so-distant future, most white-collar workers will be entirely mobile. Instead of spending time in a corporate office, they will work alongside employees from other companies in telecenters that are equipped with faxes, copiers, computers and administrative help.

As companies progress along this continuum, different iterations of the increasingly mobile workspace are bound to develop. Organisations that want to navigate the new workspace successfully will have to worry about more than keeping up with the latest trends in office design. It is their responsibility to ensure that employees are prepared to face those trends as well.

Staff Writer Daintry Duffy can be reached at

Office Speak

A glossary of space-age terms

When cubicles were created in 1968 by Robert Propst, a designer at Herman Miller Inc. in Zeeland, Mich., they seemed the perfect privacy solution for the then-standard open "bullpen" office areas. But as cubicles gained notoriety for their bland and boxy nature, critics began to lambaste them as demoralising to workers and inefficient in their use of space. Trends toward team-based working environments and open office areas have spurred some companies to explore alternatives.

Read on for a glossary of new-age workspace lingo.

Free range: Workspaces that are available to anyone in the company on a first-come, first-served basis - no reservations required.

Group address: Unassigned team spaces designed for use by project teams and other groups.

Home office: The most common form of telecommuting, in which employees work at home one or more days per week.

Hot desking: Open office spaces with easily movable furniture and partitions that support on-the-spot group meetings or quickly assembled individual work areas.

Hoteling: A system whereby unassigned workspaces are reserved for certain blocks of time - usually facilitated by a "concierge." This strategy is effective only when used by employees who are out of the office more than 50 percent of the time (for example, consultants and sales reps).

Huddle spaces: Areas such as cybercafes, which are designed for informal meetings, chance encounters and work breaks to foster idea exchange and communication.

Learning spaces: Rooms that provide a traditional classroom environment or a space for interactive learning experiences.

Permanent assigned: The traditional situation of one workspace being assigned solely to a single employee or group to support individual or collaborative work.

Shared assigned: Two or more employees are assigned to the same workspace and figure out a schedule to use the area at different times.

Telecenters: Business centres where many companies rent space for their employees. Centres are equipped with receptionists, clerical help, e-mail and voice mail.

Tenant space: Group spaces that are rented for projects where employees will be working together for a short but intense period.

Videoconferencing rooms: A room specially designed to support the lighting, acoustic and other special technological requirements of group communication.

Virtual office: Employees who are constantly on the move carry their offices with them. Laptops and various telecommunications services allow mobile workers to connect to the central office from virtually any location Hoop Dreams One company brings basketball into the office - and shoots and scores Integrating athletic facilities into the office space is a growing trend among companies that are trying to lure today's free-agent employees, but few have taken the unique spin on this phenomenon chosen by Cignal Global Communications Inc., an international telecom carrier in Cambridge, Mass.

When Cignal founders Andrew Perlman, 23, and Mark Land, 24, first looked at their office space, they found an 18-foot by 40-foot room with a lofty 22-foot ceiling filled with natural light from high windows at the top. The room would look strange as a private office, and it didn't seem functional as an open workspace either. When their real estate agent jokingly suggested turning it into a basketball court, a mental light bulb flicked on.

Realising that the building management might not approve of a basketball court in the middle of an office space, Perlman and Land had the contractors soundproof the floors and insulate the walls to cut down on distracting game rumble. They also put in safety glass windows for spectators to watch impromptu pickup games. At the advice of a lawyer, they covered the windows with safety netting so that a bad bounce wouldn't send a ball bouncing onto the busy Cambridge streets.

The court has become much more than a place for stressed employees to blow off steam. The company also convenes client strategy sessions between the hoops.

Perlman points out that when the group is stuck on a particular problem, having the basketball hoop can give an added boost to the group's creativity - though not without a price. Stray shots can play havoc with laptop computers and send soda cans careening across the table. But Perlman shrugs it off as part of the fun. "When the boss throws a few shots that don't hit...what are you going to do?" he asks.

Staff Writer Daintry Duffy can be reached at

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