Pivot, iterate, sprint: Speed has become a requirement for modern-day companies. But pep talks and bonuses only go so far if employees aren’t actually set up to succeed. Increasingly, businesses are embracing smart workplace design to give them a competitive edge in everything from improved collaboration to faster execution.
As co-leads of the workplace strategy group at CBRE, the world’s largest commercial real estate and investment firm, Georgia Collins and Lenny Beaudoin are adept at helping companies embrace real estate as a strategic business tool. Here, they share their rules for rethinking office design and the approaches that they’ve seen work (and not work) at some of today’s most innovative work spaces.
"Organizations often come to us because they want to change something about how they operate today," Collins says. "They want to drive new behaviors, attract a different kind of talent, or accelerate a particular product or service line, and that requires doing things differently. That vision helps shape our recommendations. The technology, the equipment, the level of service, the way a work space is laid out—all of those things can layer in strategically to drive an organization toward their goals."
In other words, figure out what you want to accomplish, and then use your work environment as a tool to get it done.
Close your eyes and picture a successful startup. What do you see? Open floor plans? Ping-Pong tables? A farm-to-table cafeteria? Certain elements have become a trope by now, but just because something works for one company doesn’t mean it works for all.
"There's a tendency in many organizations to look around and think they should adopt a fad," says Collins. "The companies that are more successful are ones that are really true to who they are and what they value, and use their financial resources to get to the right place for their organization."
"People don’t always know what they want," Beaudoin explains. "Especially when it comes to their workplace. But if you ask them questions about their business, their values, and their aspirations, and if you temper that with real research about how they communicate in the office, the social-network patterns, and how they use space and technology, a clearer picture often emerges. We use that user-centered research process to give clients the confidence to challenge the status quo."
That data also enables clients to prioritize their design decisions—and make a compelling case to any stakeholders who are dragging their feet.
According to Collins, one of the most frequent complaints they hear from employees is that their office doesn’t have enough conference rooms. "And what we often find is that compared to other organizations, they have plenty. But the way they manage them and the way they use the space, say, through a reservation system, is fundamentally broken. These are things you can solve immediately in just changing the way you use the space and tools you have today."
Getting an entire organization to agree on a design is no easy feat, but avoid the trap of making decisions too early or, worse, without input from the people who will actually be working in the space. CBRE’s Workplace Strategy team encourages clients to create a cross-functional design team with representatives from each department.
"It's not that everybody has to have a vote in the final decision," Beaudoin says. "But giving them a voice in shaping that outline and being transparent helps build a level of consensus. Organizations that limit feedback—that drive a mandate and have their employees just show up to a new place—miss an opportunity to engage and excite them."
A redesign isn’t just about improving aesthetics. It’s about creating a more effective work space. "If you're going to do an open-office environment, the open space should truly be open to promote the benefit of being visible and accessible," says Collins. "High-paneled cubes aren’t good for anything. If you want to foster focus and create enclosed space, then it should be truly acoustically sound. Those are promises you make to your people, and those spaces have to be optimized for them."
Once you develop a strategy that reflects everyone’s needs, apply those standards consistently. Resist the urge to make exceptions. "If you’re going to move everybody to an activity-based workplace where people share space, but one person says, ‘I don't think I should share space and I shouldn't have to,’ and you grant that exception, it always plays out poorly," Beaudoin says. "Employees care about fairness and transparency and equity in the way services and physical space are provided in the office."
In the end, a space that reflects—and supports—the desired company culture solves problems, rather than creating new ones. It becomes more than an effective business tool. It becomes an essential one.
This article was created and commissioned by CBRE, and the views expressed are their own.