CoreNet: Panel Debates Future Workspaces

When tasked with determining what tomorrow's digs will resemble, perhaps it is best to consult with what the young leaders of corporate real estate are doing at their organizations.

May 10, 2011
By Michael Ratliff, Associate Editor

Courtesy Flickr Creative Commons user marksebastian

CHICAGO – When tasked with determining what the future workplace will resemble, perhaps it is best to consult what the young leaders of corporate real estate are doing at their organization. On Monday, May 2, a panel of four such individuals, all under the age of 35, presented to a standing room crowd at one of the larger conference rooms at the CoreNet Global Summit in Chicago. From the discussion that ensured it was clear that the future workplace will embody a collaborative layout, green features that benefit the environment and employees, a seamless integration of information technology, and options for where to spend the workday.

Samantha Martz, a real estate strategist in the consulting practice area at global architecture firm Gensler, surveyed students at UC Berkeley and her peers in CoreNet’s Young Leaders to nail down what echo boomers are looking for in the workplace. At the top of the list, unsurprisingly, was a laid back fun place to work where you can actually get things done.

“We kind of want you to convince us that we are not really at work,” Martz said. “If you are creating environments that are really open, where there is the flexibility to move around, where you don’t feel like you are in ‘Dilbert-ville’, that empowers us to move forward and to work harder for you.”

This workplace has traits of a startup (not unlike the space portrayed in the Social Network), which helps facilitate quick acquisitions. Hospitality and retail aesthetics are gaining popularity for their ability to create a brand for workers to stand by. And while collaborative space was a hot topic throughout the conversation, Martz pointed out that there is still a need for ‘me space’, which creates a feeling of ownership and permanence.

Anthony Ravitz, the sustainability team lead for real estate and workplace place services at Google, spoke on green. He focused on sustainability from a very high level (not just how much water your toilets save) and maintained that green is key to attract the best talent and customers down the road. Number one on Ravitz’s criteria is the creation of space that promotes people. He seriously considers how to extend the lives of Google employees by 30 years when thinking about a new space. The notion of promoting people through sustainability comes up with increased frequency in his work. Ravitz brought up the ‘biophelia hypothesis’, an idea that there is an instinctive bond between people and other living systems, i.e. nature. This hypothesis is often applied to interior design, but is too often ignored when designing a building. When people are connected to nature in their workplace they feel better and are inherently more productive. Ample light and clean air are two of the top traits for supporting healthy and happy employees. Ravitz did point out that one of the major limitations in current sustainability measures is the lack of a way to truly measure performance.

“Each building should be more efficient than the one next door. That is a good metric for improvement,” said Ravitz. “But LEED has been criticized, and while there are things that can be improved, right now we don’t have the best predictive modeling. We need performance models so we can better learn what we need.”

Technology is another area that will truly shape the future office, according to Michael Pereira, a business analysis principal for corporate real estate at Symantec. He opened his talk with a comparison of how the student/professor relationship has changed over the last decade. Gone are the days of running across campus to turn in a paper.
“Most of the students coming out of college right now are all laptop, all the time,” Pereira said. “What are they expecting when they come to the workplace? At work they want to know what is going on instantly. Wi-Fi is extremely important. I don’t think the CFOs necessarily say ‘I think I need to spend more money on wireless.’ But young leaders are taken back when Wi-Fi is not working.”

Young leaders are also looking for a functioning environment for heterogeneous technology. Macs should work seamlessly with PCs. Tablets should sync with business phones. Pereira predicts that cloud computing will play a huge role in lessoning the need for the desktop and desk. Say you are at home watching TV and get a call asking for a report that was left a work. With cloud computing you can simply log in to a website and grab the file. This allows for a more mobile work life, something that will perhaps lesson the need for physical square footage, helping to improve the organization’s bottom line.

“Whether you are a VP or a techie, you have that ability to move around,” Pereira said. “You can access your work machine at a barbeque on a Sunday afternoon.”

One issue with cloud computing that raises concern is security. Having a company’s entire database remotely accessible through a website can be unnerving, especially with employees logging in on questionable public networks. Symantec, however, ensures that the software is secure, and that security is of the utmost priority when developing the software, which is really only in its infancy.

The final speaker at the future of workplace presentation was Michael Griffiths, the director of corporate real estate strategy at Visa Inc. According to Griffiths, the riskiest thing you can do with when developing a new real estate strategy amidst this changing market is nothing at all.

“We really have the most to lose by sitting here. What we manage is costly, has a long duration and is not flexible. If you make a bad move you are stuck with it,” Griffiths said. “You must seize the moment. Understand what corporate real estate can contribute to your organization. But then again, how do we plan for something that is such a nebulous concept?”

According to Griffiths, we must look at where we are today in relationship to where we want to be tomorrow. What is considered alternative workplace today could very well be the norm down the road. In 15 to 20 years the majority of employees at an organization may report for duty virtually. There are numerous factors at play to consider. How do you budget for a virtual office? If 75 percent of employees are on public Wi-Fi, is the company going to look at the corporate real estate department to design a virtual workspace? While that sounds a bit farfetched, Griffiths pulled up a news video from YouTube, already a year old, about businesses using virtual avatars to actually sit down and conduct meetings in a virtual office, complete with virtual water coolers.

While that model maybe a bit outlandish, there is a rise in the availability of co-work services across the globe. These locations are close to urban housing areas and offer space for any employee from any industry to set up a workstation on a fee basis.

“People just drop in and use it. It has become very popular in the Bay Area,” Griffiths said. “It truly improves the livability of working areas by bringing the working area to people.”

This type of model is very feasible example of the ways that changes in technology, sustainability and alternative workplace are melding into a new category of space that can benefit both employees and organizations.