The “Workplace” – Who Needs It?

Musings from a Facility Rambler

Ed Novak, CFM SFP

April 2013

Problem Statement

Recently, there has been a lot of buzz about the workplace in the FM world. From Marissa Mayer’s memo forbidding tele-working from home to Silicon Valley giants such as Apple, Google and Nvidia, proclaiming that their new mega-campus designs will be built for collaboration, it seems that everyone is talking about how important “Workplace” is. I capitalize and quote around “Workplace” to differentiate the term from all other workplaces. The “Workplace” as I hear it being discussed, is this magical place where employees go to work to be more productive than anywhere else in the world. Wow, that’s ambitious! It’s also unrealistic and taking the human race down the wrong path. Here’s why…

My Experience

Over the past 4 years, I have worked more often than not outside of my company’s office workplace. Have I changed jobs since then? Yes. Are my jobs different? Yes and No. Over the past 20 years I have been providing real estate and facilities management services. During most of that time I worked directly for the company that I support, but not in the past four years. Instead, I, like most of the professionals in my industry, have been working for out-sourced providers. This is not an aberration nor is this unique to my industry, but has become the reality for more workers as their companies outsource “non-core” functions and refuse to hire employees direct as quickly as they did prior to the 2008 financial meltdown. Okay, you say, but someone is hiring and these employees need to work somewhere, right?

Types of Workplaces

Yes, we still need to work somewhere; it’s just not likely to be at the traditional office locations of the company that we work for. Today, we have many other work location options available to us. Despite the Yahoo! situation, the vast majority of companies are allowing more employees to work more hours from home. In addition, when a function is outsourced, the jobs are rarely located at the company office. I worked for over a year for Johnson Controls (JCI), a real estate and facilities management outsourcing company and did not once work at a JCI site. I either worked from home, at a customer site or at a fourth location type that I call “Transit”. I define Transit work locations as: in a plane, bus or train (hopefully not an auto; at a café or other retail establishment, in a hotel and even at the beach. Yes, I sometimes work at the beach. The point of Transit work locations is that you only work at these locations for a temporary period of time, sometimes only once, never to return.

Convergence – Technology, Globalization & Outsourcing

Work isn’t what it used to be and the workplace needs to reflect this change. One of the reasons that more of us are working at Transit or other locations besides our employer’s office is due to the rapid improvement of technology for work. When you compound technological changes with the decades old trends in Globalization and Outsourcing, we have enabled teams of workers that work across continents, time zones and companies. For example, recently I led a team of facility managers that were located around the globe from Singapore to Scotland. None of us worked from our company’s offices as we all worked at our customer sites. For over a year I led this team of professionals from start-up through the commissioning of both the facilities and the operations. During that I time, I only met one of my direct reports and none ever met each other, yet we all understood and executed to the same goals, achieved similar objectives and had to manage and report in a consistent fashion so that the customer could see that we were one team. How did we do this? First, technology tools enabled us to collaborate regularly and share information rapidly. Second, implementing a strong and consistent management approach along with earning trust and respect via good leadership skills became even more important than working with your team right next to you. If I can do it with a team thousands of miles away, there is no reason why any manager who practices good management skills and core values can’t do it with a team that usually chooses to work somewhere besides the office space that has been assigned to them.

Workplace Productivity – can it really be measured?

The “holy grail” of workplace design has been chased by facility planners and designers for decades. Aside from routine or production type jobs where repetitive tasks can be measured fairly easily, productivity of team tasks are notoriously difficult to measure. Job satisfaction surveys, which is related to productivity but not quite the same , have been used quite often but there are difficulties in relating these to the workplace environment. Past surveys showed that job satisfaction depended upon many factors which assumed greater impact than workplace environment. Job interest has been consistently rated a much higher factor in productivity or performance than the workplace. This is not to say that workplace doesn’t have an impact because the same surveys showed that people thought the workplace was very important. Two indicators that can help determine how a workplace change affected productivity would be to measure the absentee/sickness record and unplanned staff turnover before and after. The reduction in churn should not only provide cost savings but also reduce disruption.

Collaboration – Fact or Myth?

Vertical Spaces vs. Horizontal Spaces or To Bump or To Avoid

There has been a lot of noise lately about how much better a horizontal workspace is vs. a vertical one. Facebook, for example is planning to build what I have called, “The Barn On The Bay”, a 400K SF room, all on one level. Recently I attended presentations from CRE executives from Google and Nvidia talk about the new campus expansions that they are planning. The BayView campus from Google will be limited to 3 floors across multiple buildings with no floor more than one level away from a horizontal pathway to another part of the campus. The triangle inspired Nvidia planned buildings will only have two levels for people (and two for car parking – go figure) with the idea that everyone will drive to work and enter the arena-like facility via a sole, central portal. Why do they want to do this? Because, the VP of REFM claims it will encourage employees to bump into each other which will cause a collaboration event to occur that supposedly wouldn’t happen if people took public transit, entered the building from a perimeter door and took an elevator to the work area. Really, is there research to support this hypothesis? If I really need to collaborate with someone, I can find them pretty easily (can you say Smart-Phone?) without hoping that some magical, spontaneous bump will occur through a weird facility design. Now if I wanted to avoid someone and not chance a random bump, I’m pretty sure that I could find ways to do that too.

Worker Types

Not all workers are the same, so why does the workplace look the same? An architect friend of mine several years ago identified only four types of workers. He termed them: Monks, Shopkeepers, Road Warriors, & Circuit Riders. They either need to generally work in one location or multiple ones and either in a closed (heads down) environment or in an open one. You should be able to figure out the nature of each type by choosing one characteristic from each choice in the previous sentence. Go ahead, I can wait. Okay, ready? It’s an interesting idea to categorize workers and I suppose that some come close to fitting one of these types nearly 100% of the time, but you couldn’t place me in one of those boxes. That’s because I’m all four, just not all four at once. I suspect that you and the vast majority of workers are two or more types during a typical day. Do you ever have days without meetings? Can you only do you work at your assigned desk? No and fewer and fewer workers will in the future. Not only do most of us perform a lot of different types of work, I believe most of us actually like the variety of doing different things. Plus, it’s not healthy for anyone to perform the same task everyday in the same location – we need the diversity.  Which brings me to my next point: age diversity


Gen-X, Baby Boomer, etc.: we’ve all heard the labels placed on the multiple generation of workers that now work around us. The generalization goes like this. Older workers like their privacy and hierarchal assigned work spaces while younger one don’t care. While I believe that this generalization is somewhat true, it’s always dangerous to label people. Let’s face it, we’re all slightly different and like to work differently and different times. So, do you design a workplace to mold your employees to work a certain way – let’s open the space so we can all now collaborate! Or do you let the organization, team leaders and their trusted staff determine the best way to work? I say, give them the tools, set the expectations and let organizations decide what works best for them. I really like the new digs at the SAP campus in Palo Alto, CA. They created a series of zones where a team is assigned, gave them the tools to be mobile and flexible and let them figure out where and how they get their work done. One size does not fit all or even one person all the time.

Sustainability is the Key

All this talk about worker productivity and collaboration is fine – for the CEO, CFO and shareholders, but in the overall scheme of things it’s not that important. Doing our part to preserve our planet by living and working in more sustainable ways is way more important, almost as important as you personal life. Which means that if you are forcing employees to show up at the “Workplace” for most of their work activities, then how are the employees getting to and from work? What type of housing is near their “Workplace” that minimizes their commute time? What other amenities are found nearby (within a ¼ mile walk, thereby avoiding getting in a car)? As a certified Sustainable Facility Professional, I know that there are opportunities that should be pursued at every workplace to make it a more sustainable place to work. But, we need to tackle the big, external sustainable issues, not just the low-hanging fruit within a facility. For more on this, you can purchase or borrow my Kindle Direct Publishing eBook, titled “SMART Cluster Development for Silicon Valley”. Click on my Publications page. And it’s not just for Silicon Valley.

Mega-Campus vs. Work Anywhere

I’ve commented on this issue at several LinkedIn groups, but I believe that the Mega-Campus concept will be as dead as a dinosaur in the not too distant future. If the Apple Spaceship Ring Memorial campus to Steve Jobs ever gets built (I heard today that it is a mere $2 Billion over budget), years from now tourists will visit it as they do the Great Pyramid or the Taj Mahal – a great monument to a deceased leader. There is a battle going on here between control by the corporate executives that are controlling a lot of money and power (bad economic times) and the free market where technology gives workers the freedom to work when and where to work. I believe in and am rooting for the people.

Free Agent Nation

Finally, it does come down to the individual. We have the power to make choices: where to live, who to work for, what to buy, how to get to work and on and on. Not only do we have the freedom to choose, but companies have pushed us in this direction, almost against our will. We all know that the days of the “Company Man” where men (usually) rarely worked for more than one or two companies in their career. I get it: I lost track of how many times my employer dumped when after my services were no longer needed and I’ve seen it at every place that I ever worked at for the past 32 years. We are a nation of Free Agents. When I read Daniel Pink’s “Free Agent Nation” back in 2002, I could see it happening, but it hadn’t happened to me yet. Even though I had worked for the same company for 8 years at the time, I saw how employers treated employees (you’re fired) at the first sign of a business down-turn. Eleven years later, it’s pretty much all around us: temporary workers who only need a workspace part of the time. So, who needs the “Workplace”? Turns out that we all do, at least some of the time. So, let’s give workers the freedom, tools and leadership direction to choose when


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