Office space reconsidered: new style, new digs

Chris Kniola wants to radically redesign his company's call centers. Instead of eight-pack cubicles -- the sterile setup of four desks in two rows, separated by low walls and equipped with standard desktop computers and phones -- Kniola envisions a free-flowing space that offers customer service reps everything from comfortable chairs to garden-side work spots. "You walk into the office, the security desk gives you your computer, and you go sit wherever you want," he says.

Kniola, project manager of facility technology at a large financial services company near Chicago, says the evolution of technology is turning such visions into reality. Laptops, widespread wireless connectivity, voice-over-IP and increased bandwidth could create this call center of the future today, he says.

Corporate executives, spurred on by facility managers like Kniola, are beginning to embrace a new model of how the workplace should look and perform. They're endorsing plans that replace desks and offices with collaborative work spaces and "touchdown" areas for remote employees.

As an IT leader, you'd better be ready, because it will be up to you to make these changes possible.

The new paradigm

"Work is what you do; it's not where you go anymore," says Larry Barkley, former CIO of CoreNet Global, a US-based association for corporate real estate professionals and those in related fields.

He says that because IT's plate is full with other priorities, facilities and human resources people have been driving much of this change so far. "From the IT perspective, [the new workplace] is making their jobs more difficult, way more complicated," says Barkley, who is now senior vice president of consulting services at Computerized Facility Integration, a US-based consulting company.

But like it or not, CIOs will have to integrate more and more mobile technology, contend with the increased security concerns that accompany wireless and remote access, and support workers at remote locales, Barkley says. They will also have to support employees who drop into the office on both regular and irregular schedules and need a place to work.

Globalization and the increased competition it engenders are pushing companies to look for every advantage, and more efficient work space can increase worker productivity and reduce real estate costs -- the second-highest expense for most companies, after employee compensation.

As a result, the standard office design -- rows of cubicles bordered by executive offices -- is making way for common work areas and more collaborative spaces where workers of all levels, including executives, can mix.

If your company doesn't look like that yet, it soon will, Barkley says. "How quickly will it change? Probably as quickly as management recognizes that they damn well better change," he says.

There are obstacles to change, however, and the toughest are cultural. Some managers are still possessive about private offices and keeping their staffers together, says Michael Bell, an analyst at Gartner. But for enlightened companies, he says, "the office as a symbol of rank is gone."

Ready or not

Change is happening even if companies haven't planned for it. More people are working on the road, from hotels and from their homes, Bell says, which raises the question, "Why do we need all this space?"

To the rescue come integrated workplace management systems, which have become more sophisticated in recent years, allowing facilities managers to more easily analyze needs and reconfigure space. "These systems are shining a light," Bell says.

But it's a light some CIOs haven't seen. Bell, Barkley and others say CIOs need to work more closely with HR and facilities executives to successfully transform the traditional workplace into a more flexible configuration.

That's what's happening at Capital One Financial. Several thousand of the company's 21,000 employees work in flexible offices developed under its two-year-old Future of Work (FOW) program. The company refers to work space and workers with one of four categories: resident, anchor, mobile and executive.

Residents, some of whom have laptops so they can also work at home or from the road, work at assigned desks because that's what they prefer or that's more suitable to their roles.

Anchors, who tend to be administrative assistants, similarly have a dedicated work space, but it is larger than that of residents because the nature of their work requires it.

Mobile workers carry laptops and other mobile devices so they can work wherever they need to in various unassigned work areas, such as at traditional desks, quiet spaces where there are no phones, off-site locations or in-house cafeterias where they can brainstorm with other workers.

Executives sit at the "dining room table" -- a large, computer-equipped table out among the workers.

Capital One also has conference rooms, which need to be reserved in advance, and huddle rooms -- small, unreserved conference rooms designed for groups of four or fewer who need a private work space.

The company has wireless capabilities throughout its campuses to support its FOW program, which is continuing to expand throughout the company's workforce.

IT was already supporting mobile technologies before the FOW program started, says Lee Congdon, managing vice president of corporate technology. But it had to step up its distribution of cell phones to employees and continue to focus on security, which becomes more complex in a mobile environment. And because IT needed to work more frequently with remote employees, it had to expand services such as remote diagnostics offered through its help desk.

Now the company is moving to VOIP, which will allow even greater ease of movement, Congdon says.

The FOW rollout did come with additional expenditures, such as the costs of cell phones and docking stations for mobile devices. Capital One officials won't disclose investment costs, but Congdon says the expenses were more than offset by savings in work space on the real estate side. Moreover, he says, employees are happier, and productivity is up.

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