SOME WORK ... AND SOME PLAY
The modern office is smaller, brighter, edgier and a lot more fun.
When it comes to workplace goals in the new office of Integral Group, the writing’s on the wall. “Collaborate — challenge — energy — create” are among the mantras painted in the revamped lobby of the engineering firm’s Granville Street workspace. Gone are the grey colour scheme, suspended ceiling tiles and fluorescent lighting of the previous tenant. Now white space, citrus green and glass dominate the airy space overlooking Vancouver Harbour.
This office for Integral Group, formerly known as Cobalt Engineering, is just one of many recent redesigns taking over Vancouver office towers as long- term leases are renewed at higher prices.
Downtown office space is at a premium in Vancouver. The vacancy rate for offices is declining and sits at 3.2 per cent, much lower than the national average, according to a recent market outlook report from real estate company CARE.
These local cost trends, coupled with rapidly changing business technology and an esthetic shift, are converging to produce new, edgy, and sometimes controversial, office designs.
According to CBRE, virtual and video conferencing, cloud computing and flexible work arrangements that allow for mobile employees — they can work at home or pretty well anywhere within the office that has a flat surface for a laptop computer — have reduced space requirements for many companies. And the “Google effect” — office spaces must offer cool designs with opportunities for workers to relax — has created a revolutionary shift in offices across the globe.
Expensive rental and lease agreements are partly driving the shift here, said Vancouverbased Ross Moore, CBRE’s director of research, Canada.
“When your lease comes up, you’re going to say, ‘ Why don’t we go from 10,000 square feet to 8,000? We’ll get some space planners in here and operate the same number of workstations but we’re going to do it in 8,000 square feet instead of 10.’
“I hear that all the time,” he said in an interview recently. “And I wasn’t hearing that five years ago. I really wasn’t.”
By some estimates, the average space per worker has dropped from about 800 square feet 20 years ago to about 480 square feet, Moore said.
Lighter, but tighter
Designers have ditched the much- derided cubicles. New office towers are built to allow in natural light and with better ventilation systems, so sitting close to co- workers is more comfortable. “You can now cram more people into a single floor,” Moore said.
Integral’s new look, completed last summer for about $ 1.2 million, is functional but also aims to evoke a feeling, said Loren Cavallin, the principal interior designer at global architectural firm Perkins+ Will.
The firm has done design work for numerous buildings in Vancouver, including Canada Line stations, the new Flatiron Building on Melville Street, One Wall Centre and the VanDusen Botanical Garden Visitor Centre.
Cavallin worked on the interiors of Integral’s award- winning, LEED- certified open office. ( Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification is an internationally recognized standard for green building technology.)
Her colleagues are working on designs for Google’s San Francisco offices and Microsoft’s Vancouver offices.
“With all our clients, we get into their heads and their business specifically. We go about setting the goals for the project and what they’re trying to evoke with their space and what cultural goals they may have,” Cavallin said.
“A dull monochromatic scheme can get very tiring. It doesn’t lead to that excitement we’re trying to build.”
While plain durability was once the key consideration in choosing materials, now sustainably sourced wood, and “healthy” non- toxic paints and flooring are top of mind for designers, she said. Designs are restrained, with more white space, more contrast and a more curated approach when it comes to art and decor.
“Daylighting” is one of the most significant improvements to sustainability from an electrical standpoint, said Susan Gushe, managing director and principal architect at Perkins+ Will. At the heart of the Cobalt renovation was making the perimeter offices, which had previously blocked an “incredible view of the North Shore,” transparent. That involved using floor- to- ceiling glass walls to let in maximum light, and organizing interior workstations so everyone could share the view, she said.
The offices are designed to be multi- functional: a meeting room is also an executive office is also a video conference centre. Rooms are interchangeable, less personalized and more interactive.
“We’re focused on ‘ we space’ versus ‘ my space,’” Cavallin said. “Especially in the last five years, we’re seeing our clients more and more receptive to that. We used to have to twist their arm and show them data to get them to do that,” Cavallin said. Sometimes that means investing in a beautiful table to sit around, or a total design overhaul.
It’s not only tech- savvy startups embracing modern designs such as open concept offices, pod- like workstations and meeting hubs, but more conservative sectors as well, such as accounting and law firms, banks and governments.
New office designs and technology are even changing how work is done.
Design changes work
At the Vancouver offices of law firm Fraser Milner Casgrain, an $ 8- million move and renovation has dramatically changed the firm’s workspace and even the people in it, said former managing partner John Sandrelli, who oversaw the move and advised design company HOK on strategy and vision.
A massive bamboo and frosted glass staircase winds through the centre of the office’s fourfloor plan at 250 Howe St., in the former location of Electronic Arts. One level down from the main reception area, a kitchen shared by staff and lawyers provides free coffee, streamlined seating, a television, bookshelves and communal dining tables.
The design aims to keep clients mainly on the 20th floor, so staff and lawyers working on the three floors below can talk openly without compromising client confidentiality.
Airflow is better. Both staff and lawyers are happier. Productivity has increased, and the staff turnover rate has dropped.
Before the move in 2010 from the Grosvenor Building on West Georgia Street, there was a 10- per- cent turnover rate. In 2012, only two people left the office of 165 staff and lawyers, Sandrelli said.
“Changing those things added to better mood, better morale, better productivity.”
Ergonomic furniture was carefully selected and even enforced: gone are the oak desks and the coveted corner offices. Each partner gets about
We were finding the younger generation doesn’t necessarily want to sit around a boardroom table.
ANDREA GOERTZ TELUS VP AND CREATOR OF WORKSTYLES PROGRAM
400 square feet of space.
Everything — even the cappuccino — was deliberately chosen to encourage conversation, rather than awkward chat in the elevator or scurrying off alone to Starbucks. There’s even an outdoor patio on the 19th floor. If talk turns serious, workstations are scattered around common areas.
Such design strategies have been the mainstay of the hightech world for years, ever since Google made mini- putt golf in the office seem like a requirement, not a whimsical bonus.
That’s the way Andrew Reid saw it when planning the $ 1.5- million renovation for the offices of Vision Critical, the market research firm he founded last year.
In Vision Critical’s offices on the mezzanine level of 200 Granville St., a four- hole putting green is placed between the long tables where computer software coders work in teams and the glassed- in meeting rooms ( named after peaks on Whistler Blackcomb).
There are lime- green accent walls, walls sprayed with graffiti art, and walls turned into whiteboards and blackboards for brainstorming sessions.
What was once a corner office is now a meeting room overlooking Coal Harbour, complete with astro- turf carpeting, multicoloured stools and white leather couches.
With a beer fridge, ping- pong and foosball tables and arcade games on hand, how does Reid measure productivity if it’s never clear someone should be at their desk?
“Performance,” he said. “Velocity. How much code they’re writing and how quickly.”
The same philosophy prevails at telecommunications giant Telus, which will open its Telus Garden home and office building at Seymour and Georgia Streets in 2015, and has made smart design part of its “intelligent work culture.”
Also by 2015, the company plans to ensure 70 per cent of its workforce is mobile, greatly reducing the amount of office space required and saving $ 270 million in Canadian real estate costs by 2016.
Those employees can work “whenever and wherever it’s most productive for them,” said Andrea Goertz, senior vice- president of strategic initiatives and creator of the socalled Workstyles program.
“We’ve really seen our team members evolve in the way they work, and we started noticing this trend six or seven years ago, as we introduced more technology that allowed people to work from coffee shops or from home. We decided it was something we should embrace, given our focus on technology.”
Staff report feeling grateful for the time savings and flexibility to work late nights or early mornings. In turn, employees remain loyal to the company. It also keeps cars off the road and reduces Telus’s environmental footprint, Goertz said.
Telus is avoiding traditional closed- in offices and going open concept with workstations, some open cubicles, quiet spaces and group spaces “that almost have a family room or living room feel to it,” Goertz said.
“We were finding the younger generation doesn’t necessarily want to sit around a boardroom table,” she said. “That’s not how they work best.”
Such multi- functional work spaces have been popular for about a decade, but some warn a backlash could occur in a few years.
“I think we’re going to see a need for some private areas for people to have some quiet time, to do some head- down work. Collaboration has maybe reached its maximum level in our workplace,” said Cavallin of Perkins+ Will.
Working without elbow room can lead to conflicts among colleagues, said Paul Kingsbury, who teaches social and cultural geography at Simon Fraser University and studies how the psyche is affected by the environment and society.
Plants, ambient lighting, a clever layout and even cubicle height are some design considerations when trying to prevent workers from feeling trapped or “humdrum,” Kingsbury said. It avoids the “cellular, solitary workspace.”
The original purpose of the wall- less cubicle in open- floor plans was to cause low- grade paranoia.
Slacking off would be evident because visibility was so high, and productivity would thus increase, Kingsbury said.
The more modern sensibility tries to promote camaraderie and teamwork instead, but it doesn’t always work as planned.
But, warns Kingsbury, the trend to closer and tighter risks “taking away breathing space between you and your colleagues. You’d have over- proximity to the other person’s life, their annoying habits, the way they laugh on the phone.”
That makes it all the more important for human resource departments and managers to hire compatible employees, he said.
When her company’s lease was up in 2012, insurance broker Katherine Bell was excited about the decision made by the firm — which she did not want to name — to stay in its Burrard Street location but downsize and brighten up the space in a renovation that is still happening.
The move — from beige cubicles to an airy space with daylight streaming through — has proved beneficial in some ways and frustrating in others.
Besides the usual growing pains, like drywall putty still showing in the hallways and the occasional plaster shower from the ceiling, there’s also dealing with three departments in one room, and the new distraction of a dozen people talking on the phone with no sound barrier, Bell said.
“You can hear everyone’s phone conversations, whether it’s with a client or their wife or their husband or their kid.”
But sitting with a supervisor at her right elbow is beneficial.
“I’ve gained a huge advantage by sitting next to her because I will learn so much from her. I joked at lunch yesterday that I learn more from her talking to herself than I ever did sitting by myself secluded in a corner.”
In that spirit of equality, all but the most senior VPs have identical workstations, and an assistant vice- president with 40 years’ experience lost her office.
Before the move, Bell would have had her own within four years of joining the company. The way things are now, it’s likely to take decades for her to get an office with walls, she said.
At law fi rm Fraser Milner Casgrain, an $ 8- million move and renovation has dramatically changed the workspace. The design incorporates the latest thinking in offi ce environment and aims to make staff happier and more productive. Shown is the massive...
An eye- catching feature of Vision Critical’s offi ce is a four- hole putting green. It also has a beer fridge, ping- pong table, foosball tables and arcade games.
At left, Cobalt Engineering’s renovation replaced the solid walls of perimeter offi ces with glass to let in more light and give everyone an incredible view of the North Shore. Market research fi rm Vision Critical turned a corner offi ce, right, into...
At law fi rm Fraser Milner Casgrain, the design of an $ 8- million move and renovation creates a cutting- edge offi ce environment, including a staff room with free cappuccinos and TV.