Redesigns are always exciting—be it the home, office, or otherwise—and can create a tremendous sense of expectation and possibility. However, office transformations out of the employees’ control can provoke fear and concern. Will I have an office or private space? Will there be access to windows? Will there be higher noise levels or more foot traffic near my workstation?
Imagine your organization decides to reduce the office square footage by a third while still accommodating the same number of staff. Rumors of this type of unilateral action can send morale plummeting, especially since the way to make such a drastic change, is for employees to inhabit workstations instead of offices.
Futures Group, a global health consulting firm, faced this exact situation. The owners planned to slash overhead costs by reducing its Washington, D.C. office space by approximately 33 percent, while maintaining current staff levels of 150. In order to create an office space that met their needs, Futures Group enlisted renowned design firm BBGM to create a functional and aesthetically appealing work environment without making employees feel like they were being squeezed into a shoebox.
How do we make this significant change, without upsetting a majority of the staff?
Futures Group faced a tough question. How do we make this significant change, without upsetting a majority of the staff? The decision was to incorporate staff throughout the design process and empower them to give feedback based on the proposed plans.
Prior to involving the entire staff, BBGM educated Futures Group management with the latest trends, taking into account the location, industry, and staff profile. American workers spend more time at work than citizens of any other country. At the same time, BBGM observed the high percentage of millennials on staff, which is the norm for policy-focused firms, especially those operating around the nation’s capital. Well aware of the lifestyle benefits offered by 21st century businesses such as Google and Facebook—everything from napping pods to onsite acupuncture—millennials want their offices to be an extension of their homes. It’s more than having a comfortable chair and access to a snack machine. Today’s employees crave natural light. They also seek casual group spaces, such as an oversized kitchen with plenty of seating, modern furniture and wall décor to add flavor to the office, and flexible office spaces to accommodate different work styles.
At the same time, BBGM knew any change would be jarring, especially for the older generation. They would be designing their new office space that had once consisted of 80 percent private offices into an open environment with few walls, flexible workstations, and no individual offices. Longer-tenured staff members would be concerned they would lose a personal office or desk, lack exposure to light, take on more noise and foot traffic, and gain unwanted neighbors. Privacy concerns would also arise, such as nursing mothers and staff who handled sensitive documents.
In consultation with BBGM, Futures Group invited staff into the design process. First, Futures Group announced to its workers that it intended to redesign the office and invited them to serve on a committee. The committee, which represented different generations, would discuss the project, offer opinions, and communicate with the design team. Futures Group was up front about the need to reduce office space from 35,000 square feet to 24,000 square feet, and earnestly solicited the committee’s advice how that could best be done with minimal disruption. In addition, the company emphasized staff buy-in, through their representatives on the committee, was an essential prerequisite before any changes occurred. Key to the process was selecting members who were enthusiastic about the project as the committee members became the ambassadors for the project and regularly communicated to the rest of the staff to ease any concerns.
They would be designing their new office space that had once consisted of 80 percent private offices into an open environment with few walls, flexible workstations, and no individual offices.
Having been part of the process from the outset, committee members felt like empowered contributors, not titular members merely to provide the perception of collaboration. Committee members met with managers and BBGM regularly to review design progress, answer questions, and offer feedback. Designers walked committee members through the plan and explained why specific decisions were made. They then displayed conceptual images, which excited the committee and allowed them to better visualize the changes.
Periodically through the four month design process, Futures Group management convened two all-staff meetings to explain the plan step-by-step and discuss the thinking behind the design and process. Through this approach, workers who felt removed from the project were brought into the fold. Sketches and diagrams were shown to staff at these meetings for their feedback and to generate excitement. HR posted a suggestion box to solicit feedback, and all employees were emailed a survey so they could offer their opinions or voice any concerns. Since most staff members would be moving from private offices to workstations, BBGM decided a mockup of the final typical workstation should be installed in their present office for all employees to experience. The workstation was the most important element, since this would become the new work space for all staff and would define the office space.
Clusters of workstations with low panel walls were created to ease collaboration, and small breakout areas were developed to provide a café-like feel.
To accommodate privacy, storage bins between work spaces were incorporated so employees had privacy and storage when seated. Private meeting spaces were added so employees had a space for a conference call, meeting, or a quiet place to work or think. A sound-masking system was installed to reduce noise, and carpet tiles and ceiling tiles augment the space’s acoustics. A locked mobile pedestal was made available for personal valuables, such as purses, and sensitive materials. Nursing mothers are accommodated immediately outside of the office, near the restrooms, where a wellness room and two health rooms provide a private setting.
Developing a space that welcomed natural light and emphasizes vibrant colors was critical. A sense of warmth immediately envelops anyone who walks through the glass entry doors. In the reception area, natural wood flooring accents high-gloss white panels and back painted glass. A long reception desk is immediately to the left, across from four spotless modern white chairs that sit atop a bright orange accent rug. From the glass-walled conference room at the end of the corridor brings natural light that bathes the reception area.
Private meeting spaces were added so employees had a space for a conference call, meeting, or a quiet place to work or think. A sound-masking system was installed to reduce noise, and carpet tiles and ceiling tiles augment the space’s acoustics.
Across from the seating area displays a thirty-foot feature wall incorporating large photographs of Futures Group projects from around the globe. Hangings of bright accent colors were added to set off these spectacular images. BBGM and Futures Group thought it was important to incorporate the work the organization performs into this very design, conveying a sense of pride and accomplishment as one walks into the space.
Nearby is a “prefunction” space, which features large catering counters with generous storage areas. To the right is a conference room which can be divided by movable partitions to create three separate rooms or kept open to create one large room. Warm wood doors and striped frosted film accentuate the glass to the conference rooms, letting in natural light, but still allowing for privacy. Training tables and nesting chairs, both on casters, make the room easy to configure based on the function.
Across from the main conference room is a glass wall and door to the employee lounge/pantry. This room becomes the gathering space for employees as they take a coffee break, eat lunch, or meet informally with coworkers. The lounge features a large banquette with a vibrant patterned fabric, an undulating wave ceiling element in a wood finish, and large painted stripes of turquoise and eggplant that emulate the feel of a cafe. Several small tables and colorful chairs are spaced throughout and can be arranged in multiple configurations, depending on the function. Exposed ceilings and floating ceiling elements, such as acoustical clouds, take advantage of the higher ceilings but keep noise levels in mind. Accent track fixtures and decorative pendants add splashes of light to the colorful walls and furniture to set the ambience.
Entering the main open office area off of the prefuntion, employees are invigorated by brightness and energetic design elements. Windows surround the entire area, flooding light onto the large three-, six- and nine-person modern workstations that occupy most of the space. Interspersed geometric patches of orange, lime, and eggplant, and chartreuse walls liven the space, and became way finding for sixteen meeting and breakout rooms throughout.
Once Futures Group settled into their new space, BBGM met with the committee for a post-occupancy review to solicit feedback. The feedback from Futures Group staff was overwhelmingly positive; everyone was pleasantly surprised by how much space they were given and many felt the environment was quieter than they had anticipated. Overall, staff was happy and excited to come to the office each day.
Reducing office space in half without alerting staff could become an HR nightmare. Involving and empowering employees in the design process from the outset, BBGM and Futures Group management created a solution that met Futures Group’s financial requirements while accommodating the needs of various generations.