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Redesign for a Better Work Environment

February 1, 2000
Related Topics: Ergonomics and Facilities, Featured Article
No question about it -- 901 Cherry is a peach.

Spurred by its growth and approaching capacity at its various leasedbuildings in the Bay area, Gap Inc. moved its headquarters in 1994 to San Bruno,California. The decision marked the company’s first real estate projectcompleted on Gap Inc.-owned property.

Consider these design elements: Walking paths that wind through oak groves toinvite outdoor conversations. A roof covered with native grasses and wildflowersthat provides thermal and acoustic insulation, and increases energy savingsyear-round. Indoors, an entrance granting access to a lobby and commons areathat includes a teleconference center, meeting rooms and a café. Downstairs, afull-service fitness center -- featuring an aerobics studio and lap pool -- thatprovides onsite amenities for the Gap Inc.’s 500 headquarter employees.

For your employees, the office is like a second home.

Dilbert, are you listening? Individuals even receive clean air at theirworkspaces. Fresh air is drawn into the building, blown across the concretedecks and then fanned into the offices’ interior breathing zones viaadjustable grilles located on the floor. Like its clothing, Gap Inc.’sfacility is simple, clean and comfortable.

"The environment our employees work in is all part of what makes the Gap’sformula creative and innovative," says Mickey Drexler, president and CEO ofGap Inc. "Frankly, it’s what makes us feel good about our jobs everyday."

Likewise, for your employees, the office is like a second home. It’s wherethey spend the majority of their days. Planning and designing high-performanceworkplaces are key elements in business planning. Driven by global competition,growth, technology, time and financial pressures, companies can no longer banishemployees to their partitioned cubicles. If you make efficient use of yourenvironmental space, HR can encourage your employees to be more creative,collaborative and productive.

Indeed, such changes in the new millennium are for most organizations amatter of survival. They’re increasingly hitting every area of today’scorporations: human resources, information systems, marketing and sales -- andcorporate real estate and facilities management.

According to a survey last year by the American Society of InteriorDesigners, employees ranked the look and feel of their work spaces as theirthird most important consideration, after salary and benefits, in decidingwhether to accept or decline a job.

"People, knowledge and technology need to be integrated and supported bythe physical environment to achieve success," says David P. Secan,workplace development consultant and principal of Elkins Park,Pennsylvania-based Secan Associates. "People represent a company’slargest and most important asset. But corporate real estate and facilitiesrepresent the second."

Therein lies the irony. In most situations, human resources professionalsaren’t more involved in facilities planning. The responsibility for suchchanges are usually handed over to the folks whose priorities, by necessity, arecost cutting and efficiency, says Dorothy Leonard, co-author of "WhenSparks Fly." (See "Igniting Creativity" in the October 1999 issueof Workforce.) But anytime you design a work environment, planners need to bringin human resources professionals.

HR best understands employees’ behaviors, needs and functions. In the bestof scenarios, human resources, information systems and real estate staff shouldcome together as a team. By doing so, you’re more likely to transform atraditional workspace design based on entitlement to one based on today’sreal-time, team work processes.

Nortel Networks creates its own city.

Two years ago, Nortel Networks, a Canadian-based global telecommunicationsgiant, moved its global headquarters to Brampton, a northern suburbapproximately 15 miles outside of downtown Toronto. An older company, Nortel hadevolved from manufacturing to a $15-billion-plus, high-tech, knowledge-basedcompany. Before the move, its 3,000 headquarter employees were scattered betweenthree different locations.

Nortel Networks even has a "spirituality room" so employees of various religious beliefs can pray and meditate.

"We weren’t very productive," says Roy Dohner, a real estateprime at Nortel. "Our initial motivation for the move was to get peopleinto one location so they’d run into each other." Serendipity oftenserves as a catalyst for great ideas.

By reclaiming an old digital-switching factory, Nortel spent $50 millionremaking it into a horizontal office building/cityscape complete withcolor-coded neighborhoods. Employees now look forward to meeting each other onthe indoor streets.

There were financial advantages, as well. A new building would have cost asmuch as $150 million. According to Dohner, instead of paying $75 per square footfor a high-rise office building, the company now owns its own facility thatcosts $10 per square foot to operate, including taxes and utilities.

Described last year in U.S. News & World Report, Nortel is "theultimate example of the urban metaphor that has become the trend du jour inworkplace design." Since the company chose not the keep the building in thecity, it put the city into the building.

Like ancient Roman cities, Nortel Brampton Center has a recognizable plan.Its two main arteries -- Main Street and the Colonnade -- form the crux of thecity grid. Intimate pathways provide access to the neighborhoods -- a euphemismfor Nortel’s departments.

The city’s shared amenities include seven indoor parks, a Zen garden, afull-service branch of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, fitness centers,basketball and volleyball courts, a physiotherapy area, a dry cleaning service,the Ooops Café and the Docklands -- the shipping and receiving area thatfeatures an imposing 20-foot tall graffiti mural created by 12 local streetartists. It even has a "spirituality room" so employees of variousreligious beliefs can pray and meditate -- even wash their feet if they’reMuslim.

But we’re not just talking about employee benefits here. We’re talkingabout workplace design responding to business goals. To keep employees informedabout their customers, for example, Nortel’s shareholders’ meetings can beviewed via television. Individuals at Brampton need only walk down the hall andwatch the meeting with one’s colleagues in the public TV areas.

Moreover, executives such as Dohner don’t occupy formal offices. He sits ata desk attached to his secretary’s cubicle. If he has paperwork to do, heworks at that given spot. If he has a meeting, he connects his laptop into aconvenient docking station located somewhere in the facility. Otherwise, he maybe working at home or out in the field. Space at Nortel isn’t based onprivilege, but function, he says.

Include HR on the design planning team.

The innovative details at Nortel were realized with HR’s input on thedesign planning team, according to Steve Parshall, who worked on the Nortelproject and heads the workplace strategy division at the Houston office ofarchitects Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum Inc. "Human resources executivesand their personnel are absolutely critical to achieving a successful newworkplace environment."

At first, Nortel’s employees were adamantly opposed to the Brampton move.Thus, Parshall hit upon the concept of recreating an ersatz downtown in thesuburban facility. But it was human resources -- the first line of defense --that received the brunt of the employees’ negative feedback.

Dohner says the HR director at the time sat down with him and the informationsystems department to create a whole communications program for the employeebase. HR organized focus groups and made sure that real estate and IS repsattended the meetings. Each employee group also had representatives on thesteering committee to give their input. Human resources also facilitatedmeetings with senior executives to discuss the ramifications of the redesign."HR wanted to make sure they had buy-in from both parts of theorganization," he says.

Work-at-home practices often are limited by performance-review practices, and space is tied to salary.

"This change was difficult at first since many of us have had privateoffices for most of our careers," says Dale Pratt, director of corporateHR. "However, I can honestly say that I am [now] experiencing more jobsatisfaction due to the closer and more productive relationships with fellowteammates." Nortel’s internal customers, he adds, also see an increase inthe speed and creativity of new solutions.

HR also looked at its own departmental needs. Pratt says that human resourcesoften needs to hold confidential meetings with clients, so a closed, privatespace is a requirement. However, such private space can be shared by a group ofHR professionals because it isn’t needed every minute of every day. "Thespace can double as a private meeting room or a conference room equipped withteleconferencing equipment."

Clearly, people today will have greater choice of when and where they willwork, says Parshall. They’ll choose the workplace that best fits their workstyle. It may be at home, at a customer’s location or in a traditional officebuilding. "But the design of these traditional places will become moreblurred."

That’s why real estate staff and architectural designers also need topartner with HR to understand telecommuting or home-based workers’ imperativesand needs. For example, work-at-home practices often are limited by compensationand performance-review practices; amount of space assigned to people is tied tosalary classifications; and locations of offices are tied to command and controlhierarchies. HR can best speak to these issues and advise designers accordingly.

"There are very deep workplace norms," says Parshall. "If wejust change the workplace without changing the norms, human nature will notaccept the change." That viewpoint applies not only to larger companiessuch as Gap Inc. and Nortel Networks, but smaller companies such as New YorkCity-based Osho International and newer ventures such as San

Integrate aesthetics with your company’s vision.

Osho International is a relatively small and unique organization. It’s aliterary agency, internet design center and copyright administrative office thatlicenses rights to the works of Osho, a contemporary meditation teacher.Formerly housed in a public gallery space in London, it moved its internationalheadquarters to Manhattan in 1997.

"Our aim was to create a physical space that reflected the underlyingphilosophy of the company," says Klaus Steeg, president of OshoInternational. "Meditation, we believe, is not a specific ritual orpractice, but a state of being relaxed, centered and aware of one’s feelingsand actions every moment." So in that sense, everything can be a meditation-- even work, he adds.

With a small staff of six employees in New York City, 10 agents worldwide andan Internet design team of 30 in 12 countries, Osho International wanted toretain the aesthetic quality of the gallery with the functional qualities of anoffice space.

To accomplish that vision, Osho International hired New York City-based DanRowen Architects. "We wanted a firm with a minimalist or Zen sensibilityand the flexibility to work in an unusual situation," says Steeg.

Publishing offices in the past have been notoriously cluttered with piles ofpaper and overstuffed filing cabinets. Osho International wanted to defy thatmessy legacy. Located on the 46th floor of a large mid-town Manhattan officetower, the company’s new location has become a meeting place both for itsinternationally based staff and for its clients.

"We connect with publishers around the world in this office and alsohave created an exhibition/presentation space," says Steeg. Flexibility isthe key word at Osho. There are no doors in the office. And rather than buildingindividual cubicles, employees are provided larger work spaces -- with theunderstanding that they will keep their noise level down in respect for theirnearby colleagues.

Rethink your use of space.

Open space also is a major feature at -- a new online gallerythat features an extensive selection of original contemporary art works for saleon the Internet. The site offers more than 4,500 pieces of art includingpaintings, sculpture, photography, drawings and prints.

Its 38 employees work in an industrial warehouse in SoMa -- a gentrified areasouth of Market Street in San Francisco. Says Marian Kwon, director ofmarketing: "Our open space encourages collaboration, and it’s alsoegalitarian. No one has a better spot than anyone else." Indeed, CEO MyrnaNickelsen’s desk is the same size as her employees’ L-shaped work stations,and is situated along the side wall in view of her entire staff.

Even with the open space, phone calls are rarely a problem, says Kwon.Because NextMonet is an Internet company, much of the business is conductedonline.

Here, too, aesthetics serve to inspire and motivate the employees who rangein ages between their 20s and 60s. For example, the walls are decorated withoriginal artwork that changes every other month. And because the warehouse islocated near the local flower mart, desks often are adorned with freshsunflowers, lilies, amaryllis and daisies.

Clearly, an aesthetically pleasing environment doesn’t have to cost as muchas Nortel Networks’ and Gap Inc.’s renovations. is an exampleof more modest physical arrangements. Organizations can thus use simple andinexpensive design elements to foster employees’ perceptions that theorganization cares about them, says Wally C. Weimer, manager of process andmeasurement technology product line at Richland, Washington-based PacificNorthwest National Laboratory.

Weimer conducted a study in 1995 that established improvements in staffperformance after workspace renovations. In one such area, a windowlessmezzanine environment that was a former pipe gallery, researchers documentedreductions in staff turnover and absenteeism after the makeover. Moreover, theincrease in staff productivity was so dramatic that the cost of the renovation($1.5 million) was recovered in less than two years. In order to justifyrenovation expenses, design teams need to consider such measurement tools.

Establish measurements for success.

The private sector isn’t the only place where one observes environmentalwork redesigns. In fact, the main theme of the new work environment for U.S.Vice President Al Gore’s National Partnership for Reinventing Government (NPR)is interactivity. NPR worked with the General Services Administration (GSA) totranslate their work criteria of teaming, workspace flexibility andtelecommuting into a new office environment.

Again, HR was very much a part of the planning and evaluation process,according to Lois E. Bennett, a space planning project manager for the GSA. Inits Adaptable Workplace Lab, which conducts research on workspace design, theagency went beyond planning to also establish concrete measurements for success:

  • Hard-data measurement of the environmental performance of new buildingsystems: airflow, temperatures, carbon-dioxide levels, acoustical and lightlevels, and energy use.

  • Soft-data measurement: how the end users perceive the performance of thebuilding systems, furniture, organizational change and effectiveness(customer satisfaction).

  • Product/process re-engineering: partnering with suppliers to assess how orwhy certain products do or don’t work.

  • Individual effectiveness: combining instrumentation and questionnaires(hard and soft measurements) to assess some measure of individualproductivity.

Clearly, as companies increasingly acknowledge the relationship between thephysical environment and human activity, HR has an enormous opportunity toenhance employer innovations and employee creativity.

"I certainly would think that human resources departments would want toget involved," says author Leonard. "Today, you have to design aworkplace where people can gather. There’s no question about it. Working insterile quarters is the absolute pits."

Workforce, February2000, Vol. 79, No. 2, pp. 38-46 -- Subscribenow!

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