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Designing and Planning the Workplace for Today's Corporate Culture

The right working environment is essential to attract the new generation of workers, retain talent, and foster innovation.

Andrew Harnish, CCIM,  (Winter 2012)
Imagine a workplace specifically designed to fit a company's culture, rather than the physical elements of real estate or business operations. It would enable employees to be naturally engaged, therefore stimulating growth and innovation. The design and layout of these workspaces would encourage and promote interaction. It would have a comfortable, energetic atmosphere that kept employees happy and proud to be a part of the organization.

This ideal workplace can exist when careful thought and planning is put into the project well before site selection and space programming occurs. Since no two industries, social cultures, or leadership mentalities are alike, a strategy needs to be created for each site.

The new generation of workers is more emotionally engaged with the workplace compared to prior generations, so a thriving environment needs to be crafted around them. "Oxygenz," a study of 8,500 respondents' workplace preferences from Johnson Controls Global WorkPlace Innovation, revealed that Generation Y workers regard culture and social connectivity to be more important than compensation. This means that employers will have to create employee satisfaction in ways beyond a paycheck.

To employers, this means that the site selection and design process must be much more focused and exact in order to leverage and foster the company's culture. In the past, a company's buildings would influence its culture, but today the company culture should shape the building and its location.

The role of corporate real estate is not to simply ensure that buildings are adequate for a company's needs, but rather to promote the company culture and help executive management achieve its strategic and financial objectives.

Location and Labor

If you consider the many different types of companies, from financial analysts to gaming programmers, it is easy to see that identifying a company's culture and work habits determines location and facility design. Transportation also needs to be taken into account. Generally, in the United States and India, the preferred commuting method is by car, while commuters in the United Kingdom and China might favor public transport systems.

Real estate cannot drive labor source decisions. However, catering to the optimal labor pool for the company's business goals becomes important to the culture itself, and being as close to the preferred labor as possible will attract and retain quality employees. Organizations should consider a zip code analysis of the labor pool to see if employees would be more satisfied and motivated if the site were relocated within a certain region. In recruiting, if prospective employees are continually turning down opportunities to work with a company because the commute is too far, then the company could be missing out on key human capital.

The "Oxygenz" study indicated that the top three reasons that today's workers aged 35 and younger choose an employer are opportunities for learning, quality of life, and assimilation with other work colleagues. Being near a selective, targeted work force encourages successful recruiting.

Site and Community
The type of site for a workplace and its relationship to its community affect the company culture. Therefore, buildings need to be in harmony with the surrounding community.

A recent example is a high-tech employer who built a site in a rural town in the Pacific Northwest, and tried to operate covertly as a defense to global competition. The local community felt it was largely ignored by the company; this perception was made worse by the fact that local government incentives were used for the project. The lack of connection to the community and building signage impacted employee morale. The company made an anonymous donation to the city in goodwill, but townspeople knew whom the donor was, creating confusion about the company's desire to be a part of the community. Only after the employer changed its position and became more public about its presence could a connection to the community and local culture be established. Supporting the community helps build connectedness and translates to employee retention.

In site design, consider the impact of multiple buildings within a campus, or even peppered throughout a specific submarket. How will this impact company culture? In some cases, there could be a beneficial separation of functions, such as sales and engineering, or accounting and marketing, but the ideal multi-building concept is designed with synergy and culture in mind.

Within the real estate strategy, organizations should continue to consider how employees work together. Will adding more space or more locations create enough value to justify the expense, given the culture of the specific organization? Living in an era where we are fully connected professionally and socially through web-based technologies, many company cultures can stay intact digitally, if not physically. Therefore dividing floors or buildings might become less of an issue in design and workplace culture.

Maximized Work Environments
Redesigning the overall workplace can give an occupier the opportunity to downsize while keeping the same headcount. Studies show that nearly 30 to 40 percent of leased or owned space can go unused or lightly used during a workday, resulting in higher than necessary overhead. Cutting the size and quantity of conference rooms, offices, and workspaces can help, but when taking the company's culture into account, fewer work areas per person may be beneficial. "Hot desking," or sharing desk environments, and flexible work schedules can enhance company culture with more favorable interaction and communication.

Smaller and more collaborative spaces may be designed within the office areas for that quick team meeting, which helps drive the company culture. Connectedness through the right workplace is what builds a culture and keeps people engaged at work. To build and retain a company's culture, the workplace must support both formal and informal teamwork. This means listening to the input of employees during the design stage. Consider common areas, recreational outlets, and spaces for people to intentionally and unintentionally collaborate both formally and informally.

The design of the workplace contributes to the level of emotional engagement individuals have with their work. The right atmosphere within meeting and social spaces can trigger interaction. The "Oxygenz" study revealed that a younger work force is attracted to colors that are subtle and not too intense. The light should be natural rather than artificial, calling for wide windows and openings. Finishes should be soft and made out of natural and warm materials, rather than hard materials.

Those designing a workspace should bear in mind that, according to the study, 35- to 44-year-olds require formal meeting rooms less than their peers from other age groups. The study also showed that 41 percent of workers under 30 prefer access to team spaces, and 32 percent prefer breakout spaces versus conventional meeting rooms. As a result, the design of today's office workplace to accommodate the younger workers can be smaller, more efficient, and more economical.

Individual and customizable workspaces are important to today's under-30 work force. Design of the workspace allocation and technological provisions contribute to productivity and creativity. The working arrangements must be flexible and adaptable to satisfy the work-life balance they demand. Having the right workspace in terms of design, layout, furniture, colors, and style complements the company culture.

Corporate Social Responsibility

Social responsibility also plays a role in corporate culture when selecting a site. For example, a large sporting goods company in the United States runs carbon emission studies of its concentric employment base and customer base prior to opening a store. Because a part of its corporate culture is to put the planet first, if the carbon count is too great under its model, the store will be placed elsewhere or not opened at all. The larger goal is to allow customers and employees to feel good about where they shop and work, thus building a brand on solid values.

The "Oxygenz" study indicated that 96 percent of today's work force wants an environmentally friendly place of work. In designing a workplace, the environmental position of the employees should be taken into account.

After Occupancy Considerations

Looking beyond the physical real estate, today's work force feels that the function of facilities management is not only to maintain the building, but also to provide a service that takes care of the building's occupants. Facilities management services are becoming more people-focused to cater specifically to the corporate culture of today's workplaces.

For example, catering vendors may be asked to amend their hours of operation or alter the menu to accommodate the corporate culture of later meal times. Cleaners may find themselves participating more in the company's corporate social responsibility programs when it comes to trashing and recycling. Canteen vendors may be providing a different mix of products to accommodate different employees by age, race, and region.

Accommodating Global Collaboration

With globalization on the rise, company culture needs to be more flexible now than ever before, and the workday for many has been extended beyond the traditional hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For instance, when U.S.-based employees connect with colleagues in Europe and Asia, collaboration may need to take place in the early morning or into the evening to account for the difference in time zones. For this reason, global companies have increasingly grown to expect workers to work outside of normal business hours. This has led to many companies adopting flexible working practices and supporting the use of consumer technologies.

In sum, the best approach to designing a new or renovated facility is to begin with analyzing people's needs, desires, and the culture, and let the sticks and bricks fall in around the results. Doing so should create a positive, more enjoyable, and more productive place to work.
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