Privacy is also good, particularly for tasks that require intense concentration, the thinking goes. That doesn’t mean a return to the glory days of private offices, but it does mean workers have more space and more places to seek solitude than in the neo-Dickensian workbench settings. The new designs often include “isolation rooms,” soundproof phone booths, and even lounges where technology is forbidden.
And it’s meant to be tweaked as needs change. “This continues to be iterated,” said Frank Cuevas, who is working on a major redesign at IBM — and whose use of the word “iterated” hints at the kind of start-up mentality the changes are intended to evoke.
“It’s not something we’re going stop and say, ‘This is it,’” he said.
The corporations setting the new standard are not young Silicon Valley companies known for free food, slides and foosball tables at work — or for carefree spending, as at Apple, whose new corporate mothership cost a reported $5 billion. Nor are the designs one-of-a-kind projects that veer toward eccentricity. Salesforce’s new skyscraper campus in San Francisco, for example, has areas on every floor for meditation, partly inspired by the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk.
Instead, the companies behind the emerging new norm in workplace design are a lineup of more staid companies across a range of industries, and they may spend heavily but also systematically. They include Microsoft, IBM and General Electric. Certain workspace innovations may surface first at Google or Facebook, but the older stalwarts are combining and refining them for mainstream businesses.
“These workplace ideas are beginning to be adopted across all industries,” said Arlyn Vogelmann, a principal at Gensler, an architecture and design firm whose clients include Facebook and G.E.
The new designs are not about looks. They are an attempt to adapt to the spread of internet-era digital technology — and its hurry-up ways — into every industry. Space drives behavior, experts say, and the goal of the new designs is to hasten the pace of sharing ideas, making decisions and creating new products. They are also meant to appeal to millennial recruits, many of whom are more comfortable working in a Starbucks than in a traditional office.
The new model eschews the common dogmas of work life: Everybody gets an office, or everyone gets a cubicle, or everybody gets a seat on a workbench. A diversity of spaces, experts say, is more productive, and the new concept is called “activity-based workplace design,” tailoring spaces for the kind of work done.
“Office geography matters, and it can be a key managerial lever to increase communication and the cross-fertilization of ideas,” said Christopher Liu, an assistant professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.
One of the most aggressive makeovers is happening at Microsoft, a change forced by business necessity. The company faces a new wave of technology, as the market has shifted to software delivered and constantly updated as a service over the internet cloud, as opposed to being loaded onto individual computers, with the code often stored on compact discs and sold as a product every few years. To compete, Microsoft has had to adopt a faster pace.
“You have to collaborate more,” said Michael Ford, Microsoft’s general manager of global real estate. “We absolutely have to change.”
For decades, the company, based outside Seattle, housed its software engineers in secluded offices, thinking that the privacy helped employees focus while writing computer code. But in 2010, Microsoft started testing open designs with a quarter of a floor, and then expanded. Since 2014, it has opened 10 renovated buildings without offices, including four this year.
Microsoft, Mr. Ford said, has taken a test-and-learn approach. It learned, for example, that its early designs were too open plan, with 16 to 24 engineers in team-based spaces. Engineers found those spaces noisy and distracting, and concentration suffered. Too much openness can cause workers to “do a turtle,” researchers say, and retrench and communicate less — colleagues who retreat into their headphones all day, for example
Today, there are more private spaces, and the team areas hold only eight to 12 engineers. “That’s the sweet spot for Microsoft,” Mr. Ford said.
The company thinks it is working. Microsoft’s Azure cloud software business has surged in the last few years, as has the company’s stock price. Mr. Ford said about 20 percent of the workplaces have been redone on Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, Wash., and the surrounding area. Within five years, he said, he expects the renovated share to reach 80 percent.
Offices, he said, will not disappear entirely, but they will be reserved mainly for people who regularly have confidential conversations, like lawyers and top executives.
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