Designing spaces that appeal to as many occupants as possible has always been a challenge for office owners and developers. The modern workplace, which has up to five generations working side by side, adds even more complexity to the mix.
A session during CRE.Converge 2019 in Los Angeles, “Designing Office Space for Intergenerational Collaboration,” moderated by Rivka Altman, director portfolio manager, Invesco Real Estate, examined how offices can be designed to be effective for everyone regardless of age.
According to Shannon Woodcock, managing director of workplace strategy with Savills, it’s important to bring in office design consultants as soon as possible when considering a workspace update.
“We will attend meetings from the get-go,” she said.
Equally important is the data that Woodcock gathers during these meetings.
“We ask a lot of questions,” she said. “Like, what kind of culture does your company have? What are the complaints? What do they like?”
Woodcock said she uses a variety of data-gathering tools, including surveys. However, one-on-one interviews are the best because they reveal what people do each day.
“It’s interesting to learn what people do when they walk through the office door,” she said. “Learn what people do each day, then layer recommendations on top of that.”
Deanne Erpelding, principal at NELSON, said this data-gathering inspires what she called “activity-based design.” For example, she cited an office redesign for Fish & Richardson, a major law firm in Minneapolis.
The managing partner wanted to decentralize many administrative functions and set up shared services in one space. It was a radical change for the law firm, which had a traditional office set-up that didn’t inspire collaboration.
“It was very segregated by functions,” Erpelding said.
After going through a series of visioning and programming exercises, NELSON created a dynamic new space that was more open and collaborative. The redesign was so successful that the firm’s attorneys immediately wanted the same environment in their workplace.
“They still have private offices, but the space is more open and collaborative,” she said, adding that NELSON used a “kit-of-parts” approach for the redesign. According to a blog post from Watson Furniture, kit-of-parts refers to “a collection of modular, pre-fabricated components that are designed for future reuse and reconfigurability.”
Wellness is another major consideration for workplace makeovers. Erpelding cited the redesign of the offices for Minneapolis insurance company Cobb Strecker Dunphy & Zimmermann. She called the office space “miserable” because it had very little daylight and very high cubicles. After a major overhaul, it now has an open floorplan that’s filled with light and plants.
“Wellness is now moving into well-being in the workplace,” Erpelding said. “When you do that, you have happy employees who engage more and collaborate more, and that improves productivity.”
And with so many generations working together, that collaboration can be vitally important for future business operations.
“Companies want to capitalize on the knowledge transfer between older employees and younger ones,” she said.
Woodcock said many people in commercial real estate believe millennials alone are driving these changes to office amenities and layouts. That’s not true, she said.
“When we do our research and rank amenity interest, there’s not much variation between what people want between generations,” she said. “The younger generation is just more willing to express what they want. Everyone wants natural light. Everyone wants to go outside. Overall, the pattern we’re seeing is people want the same things.”
For example, Woodcock said that regardless of age or length of tenure, the overwhelming majority of employees want showers with fresh towels as an office amenity.
Regarding technological advancements in office amenities, Erpelding said people want a workplace that is uncomplicated. They want things to be easy and intuitive, so it’s important to take that into account when adding apps or touchscreens.
Finally, Erpelding noted that while office upgrades can be costly, pleasant workspaces can save companies a lot of money in the long run through employee retention.
“Tenant improvements are expensive, but people are more expensive than that,” she said.