Collaboration, not cubicles, drives modern office design

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Posted: Tuesday, May 14, 2013 12:00 am

Some months ago, the commercial real estate firm Cassidy Turley contemplated moving to new quarters in downtown Minneapolis once its lease expired at its office.

There certainly was ample space to choose from. At first, Cassidy Turley’s principals considered what they could afford. But the decision-making process took a turn, thanks in large part to several millennial employees who served on an in-house steering committee.

“They said, ‘We want to be in the middle of the action and excitement,’ ” said Dennis Panzer, managing principal of the firm’s Minneapolis operations. That led the search to the IDS Center, a signature skyscraper that hugs Nicollet Mall, downtown Minneapolis’ Main Street. “We wanted to be in a space where we could run into potential clients in the skyway or on the street.”

While more expensive per square foot, the layout of the new office is configured in such a way that less space is needed. The firm had leased 22,500 square feet before, but needed only 12,600 square feet at IDS. It was all about working smarter, and with less space, Panzer said.

But the broader point, according to Panzer, is how millennials are changing office design and configuration and, by extension, the way work is done.

The nation’s 80 million millennials — young people born after 1980 — are beginning to exert considerable influence in the workplace, and no wonder. By 2020, millennials will make up roughly half of the U.S. workforce, and 75 percent by 2030. The sheer size of this demographic group will force many organizations to retool their workplace practices, including where and how they work.

Collaborative and technologically savvy, millennials tend to eschew the cubicle farms of the previous century, as well as the stature affixed to a corner office.

Cassidy Turley interpreted this trend by designing space that is largely open — there are no boxy, walled-in cubicles. Each work station is adjustable so the firm’s 41 employees downtown (a third of which are millennials) can work standing up if they choose, and there are no tall cubicle walls to isolate people. The space has centrally located tables to encourage collaboration, although there are several quiet rooms on the periphery if privacy is needed. The kitchen space is open, as well, encouraging employees to mix and engage with one another.

Walls throughout the space shift and collapse so that meeting rooms can be easily converted into open space for receptions. A sound-masking system constantly monitors noise levels and adjusts them accordingly. And storage space was minimized to promote a paperless office — there are only two printers in the space. All told, there are only three private offices.

“Where we used to work, it felt very closed off,” said Jon Engel, a 27-year-old transaction manager for Cassidy Turley. “While teams functioned well amongst themselves, you would have very little interaction with other teams. You could go a whole day without seeing a person from another team.”

The new space provides “more energy and activity and collaboration among teams,” he said. Engel said this appeals to millennials because “everything we do involves a team approach.”

Thomas Fisher, dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Design, says millennials “don’t want to sit in cubicles. Just the nature of the work, using computers, means that people need more breaks.”

What is most striking about the Cassidy Turley space, which has a midcentury-modern feel, is the natural light that streams from the floor-to-ceiling windows, even on the dreariest of days. Because many of the walls are glass, light reaches easily throughout the space.

At the old quarters, “the office was configured when organizations were much more hierarchal than today,” said Brian Woolsey, Cassidy Turley’s managing director, and principal of office services. “This spurs collaboration, more so than ever before.”

Millennials “are interested in being part of a team,” he said. “They not only want to know what to do, but why.”

Panzer agreed: “They want to be part of a solution. They want to have an impact on the world.”

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