High-Tech Firms: Increasing Collaboration & Comfort, While Cutting Real Estate Costs

By thinking outside the cubicle, high-tech firms such as Cisco are reaping substantial savings on space, while energizing employees.

Current trends in the design of workplaces for high-tech companies reflect the complexity, rapid change, and competitiveness of the technology industry. After decades of cubicle farms and lifeless work environments, technology companies are breaking new ground to create energetic work settings that:

  • promote collaboration;
  • increase employee comfort (and therefore aid attraction and retention);
  • reduce real estate costs.

Indeed, even the most mature technology companies are reassessing their work environments and moving toward more open and interactive office configurations. 

Photo courtesy Gensler
After decades of cubicle farms and lifeless work environments, technology companies are breaking new ground to create energetic work settings that promote collaboration.

 

Cisco’s Connected Workplace program has:

  • reduced space needs by 250,000 sq. ft. at one facility;
  • cut employee churn costs by 80%
  • cut IT infrastructure costs by 50%

Collaboration

A push towards collaboration is a common trend across the technology sector.  Some companies are utilizing a “scrum” format for product development, where software or product teams gather together on a regular basis throughout the course of the day to discuss concepts or development ideas. The workplace is structured to accommodate these product teams, utilizing dedicated project rooms or casual brainstorming areas for each team. 

With the combination of lower workstation panels (or no panels at all) and increased collaboration areas, there is a noticeable increase in the energy of the office environment. Not only do these new configurations support a more efficient work process, they promote social interaction and increase camaraderie among peers.

Comfort

Attention to creature comforts has also become more apparent among technology companies. Competition for the best and the brightest has led some companies to provide a variety of amenities, from fitness facilities to free snack/beverage areas (with some, such as Google and Facebook, providing free meals). 

Through the use of wireless technology, conference areas sometimes take on a Starbucks-like feeling, where staff can get away from their focused work setting.  Increased access to natural light, improved ventilation and lighting systems, and a greater environmental awareness have resulted in healthier, more comfortable office quarters with a stronger connection to the natural environment.

Thinking Outside the Cubicle

Tech companies are continually looking for ways to reduce their real estate overhead and increase speed to market for their products through effective facility planning. At the same time, attracting and retaining quality talent is essential—so they are trying to accommodate the needs and differences of at least three different generations (Baby Boomers, Gen X’ers, and Millennials) in the work force by providing an environment that supports varying work styles. 

Both these goals—reducing a company’s real estate footprint and meeting the evolving workspace needs of employees—can be achieved by utilizing wireless technology and untethering people from their cubicles.

In fact, many employees at high-tech firms may not require—or even desire—cubicles at all. Studies have shown that staff within technology companies spend only 25 to 30 percent of their time engaged in focused work (typically done in a cubicle or office setting). The majority of the day is spent in collaboration (conference rooms), training, or offsite settings (often with clients). 

In addition, wireless technology is allowing workers to do their jobs anywhere at any time. Many prefer to complete focused tasks, or even informal conferences, outside of the office environment. Companies have become more accepting of workers that telecommute one or more days per week. This has all lead to real estate that is woefully underutilized.

In response to these issues, technology companies are moving toward work environments that support the tasks, not the titles, of their work staff. Individual work areas are often reduced in size as a trade off for an increase in collaborative areas. Unassigned touchdown workstations are used by mobile workers (sales, etc.), eliminating the need for dedicated workspaces that are underutilized. 

Case Study: Cisco

Cisco Systems, the giant supplier of networking equipment and services, has taken this one step further through its Cisco Connected Workplace (CCW) program, which Gensler helped develop. The CCW concept makes use of formal and informal workspaces with embedded collaborative technologies that allow employees to choose the preferred work space for the task at hand. Workspaces are unassigned, but are supported by an IT infrastructure that enables employees to work seamlessly from any location. 

CCW provides employees with a choice of how and where they work. This strategic change in workplace design is something that is both desired by, and is of benefit to, all generations of workers—and it’s also a move that has resulted in substantial real estate savings:

  • Cisco has achieved an increase in capacity of 40 percent over a like-sized traditional office and cubicle environment. The strategy has allowed Cisco to grow in place, avoiding the acquisition of approximately 250,000 square feet of additional space that it would have needed at its San Jose facility alone.
  • Recently its customer-service organization grew by 23 percent in less than six months with no extra costs for space.
  • Costs associated with typical employee churn (workspace moves) are reduced by as much as 80 percent.
  • Traditional IT infrastructure costs have been cut in half by reducing the numbers of wired network outlets and associated switching equipment.

Engaging Its Engineers

Although Cisco’s CCW concept works well for many of its work groups, a modified version was needed to meet the requirements of its engineers. Often with the need for multiple computers and a tendency toward focused work, many engineers were resistant to such a radical change in the workplace. Although most of the engineers remained in dedicated workspaces, many of the same concepts were used to increase collaboration. Workstations were slightly reduced in size in order to offset the additional collaborative areas that have been added to the office environment.  Flexible touchdown spaces were also provided for employees visiting from out of town.

Conclusion

In the end, it all boils down to effective utilization of the work environment.  Employees want a workplace that better supports a variety of work modes whether that is collaboration with colleagues or focused work. They want to be energized by their work environment rather than feeling that it is just a place where they spend their working hours. Technology companies are pushing for greater benefits from coming together as teams rather than working in isolation. 

At the same time they are looking to maximize the value of their real estate assets.  The technology sector is leading the way in achieving these goals through thoughtful and innovative planning. As stated by a director at Cisco, “I could never go back to a traditional office.” And he probably won’t.

About the Author
Kevin Schaeffer is a licensed architect and Principal/Managing Director of Gensler’s office in San Jose, California. Schaeffer transferred from Gensler's San Francisco office to manage its fledgling San Jose office in January of 2003. Since that time, the office has grown from a staff of five to a team of 30 design professionals.  During his nearly 29-year career with Gensler, Schaeffer has managed a broad range of projects, from major renovations to the design of corporate and media facilities, including an impressive list of projects for Silicon Valley companies.

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