The new workspace more about ‘we’ than ‘me’; Top firms redesign offices to encourage interaction, creativity and spontaneous collaboration
Toronto Star
Tuesday, January 31 2012
Page: A10
Section: Feature Pages
By: Mary Gooderham

When Hill+Knowlton Strategies moves into new Toronto quarters this September, the staff of the public relations agency should be seeing a lot more of each other.

Gone will be many of the office’s walls and some of its workstations, since some of the 120 employees telecommute or job-share. Instead the office will feature new spaces that bring staff together whenever they are around: an inviting lounge for lunching or brainstorming; room for town-hall sessions and social functions; cosy nooks for serendipitous tête-à-têtes.

There will also be “touchdown” spots to accommodate visitors and mobile workers, as well as screens that graphically illustrate the company’s products and brand.

It’s the office of tomorrow, with less “me” and more “we” space, countering the isolation of working remotely, providing privacy and quiet when necessary, but also promoting identity and encouraging the collaboration that’s critical to fuelling innovation.

“We believe quite strongly in the creative power of getting people together,” says Ilyse Smith, senior vice-president and general manager of Hill+Knowlton’s Toronto office, which will relocate to the floor above its current office in a building at Bloor and Church. “It re-engineers the way you think of, and work in, spaces.”

Amid predictions of the end of the office – given virtual technologies, soaring real-estate prices and the hassles of commuting – instead the workplace is getting new life and a facelift, using a mix of science and psychology that’s meant to tear down walls and hierarchies, leverage space and spark creativity.

“An engaged, collaborative, creative, more team-based employee culture is what everyone is looking for,” says Lisa Fulford-Roy, vice-president of client strategy for HOK Canada, an architecture and design firm.

Fulford-Roy says a wide range of companies is implementing new “agile workplace standards,” in order to reduce costs, recruit or retain staff and project their corporate image.

Even traditionally cloistered lawyers and bankers are opening up their offices, she says.

For example, Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP, a law firm with offices in six Canadian cities, including Vancouver, worked with HOK to create a café, coffee bars and lounges where lawyers and support staff interact.

Hatch, a global engineering company, reinforced its emphasis on teamwork by expanding its “we” space (lounges, meeting rooms) to 26 per cent from just 4 per cent and reducing its “me” space (offices, cubicles) to 70 per cent from 93 per cent.

AOL Canada created a new home on Spadina Ave. in Toronto that reflects its youthful, socially engaged culture, with a café, lounge and entertainment area capturing an inviting, eclectic feeling.

Space savings and greater flexibility are both motivating forces in the changes, Fulford-Roy says.

One bank found that 40 per cent of its employees were working remotely on an average day; shifting them out of “private environments” and into shared spaces allowed the company to save on real estate, with the ratio of workers to seats increasing to as much as 2:1.

Such “hotelling” avoids depressing seas of vacant cubicles while adding space for what Fulford-Roy calls “casual collisions,” while lounges and leisure activities draw staff into the office.

“The way we’re working is changing,” comments Lenore Richards, a professor and director of the Strategic Innovation Lab at OCAD University, “but we’ll never lose the need for actual environments to work in.”

Offices won’t be as large, she says, nor will they have “four walls and a door for everyone.” People come and go and move through different parts of the workspace, much as they do at home, she says, and younger people especially want to be engaged at all levels of the organizations they work for.

“There’s a real interest in collaboration and a lot less interest in hierarchy,” Richards says, adding that “experiential opportunities” such as learning and interacting are critical. “The more virtual things become, the more we’ll value real experience.”

Hill+Knowlton uses a number of technologies that encourage collaboration when staff work remotely, Smith says, from mobile applications that allow them to participate in video and conference calls to new software so their telephones follow them wherever they are.

In the office there are staff and team meetings and Friday gatherings that promote information-sharing. “It’s hard to be part of it if you’re physically absent.”

She says the new, light-filled space will have half as many actual offices as today, 25 in all, while open workstations will be “less cubicle-like,” with lower walls and the ability to slide whiteboards or tables between them for impromptu meetings. Those who need quiet or want to talk on the phone can book rooms set aside for that purpose.

Colin Ellard, an associate professor of environmental psychology at the University of Waterloo, says office design should “shake workers out of old habits, routines and routes.” Workplaces that include “main streets,” or pathways where staff interact, “increase the likelihood that people who don’t necessarily work together will bump into each other and talk.”

Ellard cautions that most people have a preference for “ownership” and locations where they have “prospect and refuge,” a genetic holdover from the time when “it minimized the possibility that we’d be attacked by predators.”

However, the tech-savvy younger generation will have a different notion of what “private space” actually means, he adds. “It may just be the space between their minds and their laptops.”

Remapping the modern office

Cafes and lounges invite workers to eat, chat, work individually or hold team brainstorming sessions.

“Touch-down” spots allow visitors and mobile workers to “perch” and plug in for a few minutes, or longer.

Smart rooms are equipped with technology to host project meetings and available for teams or workers with unassigned seating.

Telephone rooms as well as heads-down/silent spaces or one-on-one meeting rooms provide the privacy no longer afforded by enclosed offices.

Functional hubs like coffee and printing areas are centrally located to generate activity, energy and buzz.

Ad-hoc collaborative areas from small nooks to “huddle space” encourage interaction and idea-sharing.