Riding the Wave of the Contingent Workforce

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Gary Miciunas
Gary Miciunas
Gary Miciunas is an Associate Principal and Director of Strategy at Cuningham.

How design and innovation are transforming work at the SAP Fieldglass HQ.

A work cafe at the SAP Fieldglass HQ. Image courtesy of the authors.
A work cafe at the SAP Fieldglass HQ. Image courtesy of Padgett and Company, copyright 2015.

Design and innovation can transform the way we work. The Center for Workplace Innovation (CWI) at the Design Museum Foundation is a hub for thought leadership focused on this transformative power of design. It will be hosting the Workplace Innovation Summit, a one-day conference featuring the latest thinking in workplace design and impact. Design Impact Stories, a series to be published by CWI, will tell tales of creativity in problem solving through design.

One such story is the new headquarters for SAP Fieldglass in Chicago. In this article, NELSON‘s Gary Miciunas and Theresa Williams will take you behind the scenes to see how Fieldglass is integrating creative workplace design solutions in their new, not-so-corporate headquarters.

The Fieldglass story also ties into the broader context of workforce trends, specifically, the rise of the contingent workforce. According to Sam Aquillano, founder and executive director at the Design Museum Foundation, “The new headquarters for SAP Fieldglass demonstrates the reciprocal relationship of workplace design and culture in the changing world of work.”

Fieldglass was founded in 1999 and became a subsidiary of SAP, complementing its broader Enterprise Resource Planning platform, in 2014. The success of Fieldglass parallels the growth trajectory of the contingent workforce. The contingent workforce includes temporary and seasonal employees, consultants, independent contractors, and other non-employee workers, such as freelancers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this labor segment is projected to become almost half of the total USA workforce in 2020.

The new headquarters for SAP Fieldglass demonstrates the reciprocal relationship of workplace design and culture in the changing world of work.

Expenses related to utilizing these external workers may be almost half of the total labor spend in some organizations. SAP Fieldglass offers its customers a cloud-based vendor management system (VMS) that provides enterprise-wide visibility of all expenses associated with work performed by these workers who are in non-permanent employment arrangements. The VMS platform streamlines the processes of finding, qualifying, hiring, placing, on-boarding, tracking, and compensating such a flexible workforce.

SAP Fieldglass moved into its new headquarters in downtown Chicago at the end of 2014. At the beginning stages of the project, the company’s recent dramatic growth created two pressing concerns:

  1. The practical need of finding a larger footprint, ideally a single floor, to accommodate the expanding organization.
  2. The cultural need to sustain the entrepreneurial spirit that allowed this innovative startup to become a dominant industry player.

In order to address these concerns, Fieldglass’s founder and CEO, Jai Shekhawat, called for the participation of his management team in a visioning process to be facilitated by NELSON.

Stakeholders in the process included a cross-section of leaders from marketing, sales, development, operations, finance, technology, and HR/communications. The team committed to a series of group exercises to reflect on the essence of their company culture. The challenge was to describe, in as few words as possible, how their shared values and beliefs could be experienced and observed in attitudes and everyday behaviors in their new HQ.

Project stakeholders in visioning and imagery exercises. Image courtesy of the authors.
Project stakeholders in visioning and imagery exercises. Image courtesy of the authors.

The team began by combining similar ideas into themes. This exploratory process included an exercise of selecting visual imagery that conveyed what their words meant to them. They paired words and images to establish a visual “language” that all participants could agree upon as the basis to inform the overall direction of the workplace design. In parallel, NELSON conducted a quantitative analysis of the organization, space utilization, work flows, and work styles as part of the pre-design programming phase.

Throughout these exercises, there was one particular image to which the team kept coming back that captured the overall mood they wanted to create. It was industrial, but not at all corporate in any contemporary sense. In fact, it harkened back to earlier times in modern history when society was rapidly changing and an unfamiliar future was quickly emerging with innovations vastly reshaping ways of living and working. The style in the imagery was “steampunk“.

An inspiration image featuring a coffeehouse in Cape Town. Image courtesy of the authors.
An inspiration image featuring a coffeehouse in Cape Town. Image courtesy of the authors.

Coincidentally, the style was complementary to the vintage architecture of the modernized base buildings being selected as the new headquarters location.

SAP Fieldglass President Rob Brimm recalls the discussion about the importance of making customers and employees feel invited and welcomed: “We treat employees and customers alike and we want all to feel as if they are among family in our home,” he said. “We take what we do very seriously, but we do not take ourselves seriously. Upon entering our space, we want everyone to feel comfortable and at ease.”

This notion of welcoming and inviting also reflects the attitude and expectation that everyone should be accessible to each other. Accessibility and transparency was another major thread of discussion, and the ability to see people moving and interacting throughout the space also became a major theme.

“There’s no hiding in offices in our non-hierarchical structure,” said Brimm. “We need to count on our workplace as a social hub where everyone can connect in real-time in the presence of others. We want everyone to get a sense and a feel of our collective, positive energy at work, and no one is an island unto themselves.”

These ideal intentions met up with the realities of existing conditions in the base building architecture. The River Center complex at 111 North Canal Street, made possible by joining two adjacent buildings, posed a challenge to creating a unified workplace experience. The combined, large floor of approximately 58,000 square feet has only two limited openings in a common wall separating the two original floor plates.

The architectural “parti pris” — or “big idea” — that emerged was to feature a “main road” or interior street of primary circulation as an axis across both parts of the combined floor. By concentrating the location of shared amenities along this singular, major route, visitors and employees alike would have easy access to all services and conveniences.


A conceptual floor diagram, courtesy of the authors.

A conceptual floor diagram and plan, courtesy of the authors.
A conceptual floor diagram and plan, courtesy of the authors.

While no measures have been quantified, client testimonial speaks to the transformative power of design:

“Now after a year-and-a-half of occupying the new headquarters, the overall impact is very positive” said Brimm. “We’ve made a few adjustments, however, that have had the serendipitous benefit of employees making the workplace more their own.”

For example, they converted an underutilized space into a social lounge, while additional casual spaces cater to other tastes. This builds a sense of community among people across the organization and increases the variety of experiences that are available for all to socialize at work.

“These opportunities for informal interaction build trust and relationships that pay big dividends in getting our work done under the everyday realities of schedules, budgets, and lean resources,” said Brimm.

“We knew we wanted to create a workplace that was more engaging to employees, definitely not a corporate environment,” he added. “And it is now clear that our new HQ is strengthening the sense of community at work for our people.”

A reception area. Image courtesy of the authors.
A reception area. Image courtesy of Padgett and Company, copyright 2015.

Departments — each with their own designated neighborhood — still tend to hang out together as a group in shared amenity spaces such as the work café. However, they are increasingly choosing to convene in the common areas over their neighborhoods. This creates a place to see and be seen where departmental teams tend to cross paths and intermingle with each other. While the local business district offers a multitude of attractive venues outside the building complex, employees are more often choosing to remain in the HQ during regular business hours and afterward to both work together and socialize.

Visitors are regularly commenting positively about their first impressions of energy and gravity upon arrival in the space.

“They get the impression that SAP Fieldglass is a company on the move, making things happen,” said Brimm. “And it’s definitely helping us in creating a buzz for attracting and retaining talent — so much so that employees from other locations enjoy coming here and working in the space.”

In the midst of all of the serious work going on, there is also a bit of whimsy, as on any given day, an employee may be seen in clear view making phone calls from a hammock in a room along the main street.

A bit of whimsy in the office. Image courtesy of the authors.
A bit of whimsy in the office. Image courtesy of Padgett and Company, copyright 2015.

That employees feel comfortable to routinely use a hammock at work is also testimony to the link between the culture and the space. It is easy for a company to say they take their work seriously, but not themselves. It is difficult to actually pull that off unless, of course, it’s done in a not-so-corporate headquarters with an attitude that having fun at work is part of the culture.

The SAP Fieldglass HQ is an example of workplace innovation that reflects a new attitude about work culture. Many have referred to this attitude as the “creative office” increasingly found in the sector now called Technology Advertising Media Information (TAMI). We believe this new attitude has these five cultural underpinnings:

  1. Playfulness

The cliché about “work hard, play hard” maintains the myth of work/life balance that keeps work and play categorized in two separate spheres of our human lives. The boundaries of work and life are blurring. The new workplace encourages social interaction, a sense of community, and a sense of belonging to a larger organization with a meaningful purpose. A sense of fun and playfulness at work is carried throughout the day.

  1. Trustfulness

There’s a lot of talk that management must trust employees. New workplaces turn that around from the viewpoint of the individual employee experience. Employees must trust management. If employees watch management leading by example, modeling desired work behaviors and adopting new ways of working, then employees will trust those personal observations as cultural cues about what is to be expected of everyone.

  1. Mindfulness

In the new workplace, individuals must take responsibility to be more aware of themselves, their own behavior, and the needs of their coworkers. The new workplace expects people to “be present” in mind and spirit. This relies upon engagement as an individual choice. There is little tolerance or room for “people who quit, but don’t leave”.

  1. Wellness

Beyond incorporating healthier materials and principles of sustainability — such as access to daylight and views — the new workplace brings indoors the principles of active design. Well-being in the office relies upon an anti-sedentary work style consistent with activity-based work. In fact, by design a bit of inconvenience may be intentional in locating services and amenities in ways that require people to get up and walk around. Along the way, impromptu encounters with coworkers take place.

  1. Delightfulness

A live poll conducted at CWI’s launch celebration found that the workplace related topic that most employees value is bringing joy into the workplace. In response, CWI conducted its first workshop with in late June, called Project Joy, in collaboration with Fidelity. Increasingly, there’s more emphasis on customer experience and employee experience. The big idea is that if employees experience delight, then they will be in a better position to create that experience for customers.

These underpinnings will continue to lead the evolution of the office as it becomes a more human-centered workplace.


Gary Miciunas
Gary Miciunas
Gary Miciunas is an Associate Principal and Director of Strategy at Cuningham.
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