Will work for space: Toward design for the bottom line

New ways of designing office space are increasing efficiency and potentially saving business big money.

Come July 2007, going to the office will have an entirely new meaning for the 550 workers of IBM's banking, insurance, government and innovation centre teams in downtown Toronto. No longer will employees call a Dilbert-style cubicle, personalized by a name plate and a few family photographs, their home-away-from-home. Instead, those workers who do make the trek to the Bloor St. and Wellington St. offices — and IBM estimates fewer than 70% will do that on any given day — will use a touch screen on a kiosk to see which of 312 workstations are available that day. Pre-book online if you want.

Welcome to the non-territorial office. It's one innovative way design is changing to increase productivity and boost the bottom line.

“Two decades ago, when you said you were going to work it meant you were going to an office building where you would sit in a dedicated space for most of the day,” says Michael Joroff, senior lecturer at MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning in Cambridge, Mass. “Today, when people say they are going to work it could be anywhere in the world.”

Jim Brodie, IBM Canada's Toronto-based program manager of national mobility, made this discovery last year when faced with the task of reassigning 250 IBM workers into the downtown spaces — which on paper were nearing full capacity — when the lease on a third space wasn't renewed. “On an average day, we've found that anywhere from 30% to 60% of our office space isn't being utilized,” says Brodie.

As a result, IBM developed e-Place On Demand, a strategy for developing space based on needs. “We're getting away from the entitlement model, where one person is assigned to one workstation,” he explains. “Our workers are really sorting out for themselves what parts of their jobs can be best performed where, and it's definitely not all in the office anymore.”

While technology's coming-of-age is a major contributor to the empty cubicle epidemic, the increasingly collaborative nature of most office work is another major driver behind non-territorial office spaces.

“In the last decade, the biggest factor in office design has been the shift from individual to collaborative work,” says Jacqueline Vischer, director of the University of Montreal's Interior Design program and founder of the New Work Environments Research Group. She argues that workplace design is as important a tool in improving worker productivity and collaboration as technology. “What most designers are working toward now is shrinking individual space allocations and increasing the amount of shared and communal space.”

At IBM, clusters of workstations will be arranged in semicircles around a large table to facilitate group work. Futuristic looking white resin-like group workbenches with individual lighting controls and movable partitions — called “touchdown” spaces — allow mobile employees to connect wirelessly to the Internet. Glass-doored interview rooms — Vischer and Joroff refer to these as “just-in-time” spaces — provide privacy for individuals and small groups. And VoIP technology eliminates the need for a fixed phone extension. “I really don't know what the future of the desk phone will be a year from now,” says Brodie.

The IBM offices are the guinea pig for the e-Place on Demand program, and expectations are high. “We are very much hoping to increase productivity and efficiency, as well as cost savings,” says Brodie. “The teams we've tested the new design with are very excited about the ability it is going to give them to work closer together and share information more readily.”

While it will take time for actual metrics to be tabulated, the success of a similar strategy employed by Nortel suggests a bright outcome for IBM. Nortel is no stranger to office design innovation. In the 1990s, the company embarked on an ambitious redesign of a Brampton, Ont., factory space that in 1995 became corporate headquarters. The space was also designed on a street grid with colour-coded neighbourhoods, seven indoor parks and a Zen garden. “Our big idea was the notion of creating a sense of place,” says David Dunn, group lead of workplace planning, innovation and construction for Nortel Real Estate. The problem? Like IBM, about half of Nortel's office space was unoccupied at any given time.

Fast-forward a dozen years, to a new HQ in Etobicoke, Ont., and the implementation of the Integrated Work Environments (IWE) strategy, a radically different approach to office space. “I haven't had a dedicated workstation at Nortel for 12 years,” says Dunn, speaking from his home office outside of Ottawa. “We have a much higher workstation sharing ratio than we did in the past.”

Nortel sites now have the capacity to support 21% more workers without the need for additional space, and the company has seen a significant increase in a key space utilization metric: square feet per person served. “Our new headquarters is approaching half the square feet per person served of the Brampton location,” says Dunn (375 square feet for Brampton versus less than 200 square feet for Etobicoke). Nortel also saves $30 per square foot eliminated. While some team members continue to retain fixed workstations — “More traditional accounting or financial functions don't tend to be that mobile,” he explains — other more collaboratively-focussed groups have worker-to-workstation ratios of 5-to-1. Utilization isn't the only metric that improved under Nortel's space transformation. At several offices in Australia and the U.S. a 2005 report revealed employee satisfaction numbers went up 67%.

Attracting — and adapting to — the workforce of tomorrow is another huge motivator behind the shift to non-territorial office space. “People who were born in the mid-'80s are starting to hit the workforce now, and IBM wants to attract that talent,” says Brodie, who notes that the 'Net Generation — already “pre-wired” — will likely require even less office space than previous generations due to greater levels of collaboration and mobility.

Joroff agrees they'll have a huge impact on future office space design. “You have a generation of future workers growing up playing games with people around the world,” says Joroff. “As they start entering the workforce, they're going to want a hell of a lot of flexibility.”