Kristi McKinney bounces around her company’s office like a pinball.
She meets with a co-worker at a long worktable in the kitchen area to discuss a project. She takes a call from her insurance agent to discuss hail damage at McKinney’s home and walks over to a couch to talk. Back at her cubicle, she arranges client meetings, fires off e-mails and surfs the web.
McKinney, who works at Clockwork Active Media in Minneapolis, is one of millions of people across the country who work in spaces that have been completely rethought to reflect changes in how people approach their jobs and their lives.
Offices are smaller and more open, so employees can roam around but remain engaged. Time for personal matters is provided without question, as bosses realize their colleagues also work at home during times when they feel they can be productive.
“Space is a tool. And people, your most expensive asset, are a tool that need to work well,” said Janet Pogue McLaurin, principal at the architectural firm Gensler. “So you want to create a work environment where people work their best”
It’s a change that has come on slowly but is so influential it’s reshaping skyscrapers and suburban office parks.
In downtown Minneapolis, one of the city’s tallest buildings, RBC Plaza, this summer completed a multimillion-dollar renovation that removed an atrium with a food court, a standard feature in towers since the 1970s. In its place went office space with high ceilings and open floors.
Technology shapes space
For decades, the “open” concept in offices meant warrens of cubicles that came to symbolize employee disposability and uniformity. Now, cubicles aren’t entirely gone, but they are designed with lower walls and broken up by common areas for small gatherings and even rooms when someone needs more privacy.
A big difference is in office technology. Computers have shrunk — from mainframes to desktops to laptops to phones. This means workers can do more with less space, reducing the total square footage required for a company to do business. And with wireless Internet now an office mainstay, workers are no longer tied to a static location.
“For literally decades we have been talking about flexible spaces and paperless offices, but now technology has actually caught up with it,” said Andi Simon, director of occupier services and project management at Cushman & Wakefield/NorthMarq. “In order to have a flexible office, you really have to be mobile. You have to be able to move around the office seamlessly.”
Along with technology came a change in the way bosses and employees perceive how work can be done and a blurring of where it can happen. More and more, companies are offering in-house coffee shops, medical services or fitness studios to assist their employees in multitasking their lives. With WiFi and mobile devices handy, an employee can have a change of scenery — in the office, at home or down the street — without leaving work behind.
“People say perception is reality. Is that person sitting at their desk 40 hours a week really getting more done? Not always,” said Donna Haeger, a Cornell University lecturer and researcher of workplace changes. “The more you trust them, the more the employees feel empowered and are loyal to the company.”
McKinney, who is 33 and works at Clockwork as a user experience architect, started her career in a traditional “sea of cubicles” environment. It was frowned upon if she wasn’t at her desk when the boss arrived and left each day, regardless of her work output. This lack of autonomy — or mobility — eroded her loyalty to the company, which she left in 2011.
“If I asked to work from home, they were very skeptical of it and just assumed I wasn’t actually getting work done,” McKinney said. “It was always insulting to me.”
Clockwork doesn’t micromanage her time. Her boss cares only that the billable hours are completed — whether at the office, at home late at night or waiting in her car mid-afternoon to pick up her daughter from preschool.
This flexibility permeates the design of the physical office — which occupies an old, converted automotive service station in Minneapolis. There are couches, desks and treadmill work stations as well as a large kitchen table where a dozen employees will be seen pecking away at their keyboards at any given time.
“What we hear every year from employee feedback is they want a place to call their own, but they also want options,” said Nancy Lyons, Clockwork’s president and chief executive.
Workspaces are still provided to everyone, but they’re smaller. Clockwork spent more on lavish common areas, “so people can move around wherever they feel most productive,” Lyons said.
Cubicles years ago were at least 8-by-8 feet in size. Today, according to Cushman’s Simon, they are often only 6-by-6 feet. Employees accept this shrinking of personal space at work because there is more common space with colleagues as well as more freedom to work outside the office.
This seeping of work into one’s personal life is tolerated because of the psychological job satisfaction associated with the sense of managing one’s own time, Haeger said. “There’s really no such thing as work-life balance because they are happening simultaneously and that’s how the changes are, and will, manifest in the workplace,” she said.
Private offices, too — which used to rim the edge of floorplans — have been brought to the interior and reduced in size. The average office, previously between 200 and 400 square feet, now hovers around 150 square feet. Simon said. Offices are shrinking not only in size but in number.
Weber Shandwick, a global public relations firm with a large office in Bloomington, is moving to a new workspace in downtown Minneapolis. Its current spot at Normandale Lake Office Park is traditional suburban design replete with drop ceilings; 60 percent offices and 40 percent open space. The new offices, in the renovated 510 Marquette building, will have high ceilings, large windows — and open floors. Only 15 percent of the space will be for private offices, said Eric Pehle, executive vice president and general manager of Weber Shandwick’s Minnesota operations.
Fresh look at work
Fish & Richardson, a law firm in Minneapolis and other cities, decided to create a “hub” where it would bring several departments from around the country together in a large room. Kristo Sween, the firm’s business development manager, was skeptical when he heard the plan, even though it contained amenities such as break area with a fancy espresso machine.
“I just didn’t understand how it would help the work I do,” said Sween, who has worked in four different law firms since 1990 and gave up a private office in Fish’s transition.
After the move earlier this year, Sween said he was pleasantly surprised that it made his work more efficient. “Our one-on-one interactions are more frequent and I think that gets us further faster because we are right on top of the work we are doing,” he said.
But just as the momentum has shifted toward these social-centric spaces, there is already some backlash. Several studies in recent years have found that the open floor plan diminishes productivity.
And for some professionals, it doesn’t work at all. At Fish & Richardson, where the hub buzzes with 150 employees on one floor, lawyers work in private offices 30 floors up.
Some early adopters of more open workspaces have had to create quiet zones with no-talking rules or other corrective measures. Other firms allow workers to come to the office late in order to finish their “focus work” at home.
“There are some companies that, when they tried this, it wasn’t successful for everyone,” Simon said.
Tanya Spaulding, a principal at Minneapolis-based design firm Shea Inc., thinks the transformation is here to stay for a majority of companies and workers.
“There has been a lifestyle and cultural shift in our country that has affected everything from the hotels we want to stay in to the restaurants we eat in. People eat at bars, they don’t want the traditional tables,” Spaulding said. “There’s a lot more openness and interactivity and people seek that in almost everything they do,”
Spaulding, who began working in the traditional model 20 years ago, said, “If I had to go back to an office, I would feel claustrophobic. I could never go back.”