Balancing Employee Happiness & The Bottom Line

The key concern for any business seeking new office space is always going to be “The Bottom Line.” No client walks into a space and asks “is there something more expensive available?” However, a big takeaway from last week’s BISNOW Seattle panel discussion “Workplace of the Future” is that the focus of the new office search continues to turn more and more towards employee satisfaction and productivity. Kristin Jensen, VP at Touchstone recalled “the number one priority used to be that the location was close to a CEO’s home. Now it’s all about the group.”

Kinzer Partners Brody stations by Steelcase.

Kinzer Partners Brody stations by Steelcase.

Not Just Tech Companies

For years, Tech companies have been the tenants most interested in experimenting with their office environments in order to attract and retain the best talent in their fields. But today, as Jon Slavet, General Manager of WeWork Seattle said, “Corporate America wants in.” Freelancers are still the heart and soul of WeWork, but the demand for their collaborative work spaces is shifting to large companies as well. And it’s more than foosball tables and bean bag chairs. Wende Miller, Senior Leasing Director at Talon Private Capital said across the board all varieties of businesses are inquiring about premium building amenities like fitness centers, bicycle storage, and community lounge areas. In the work spaces themselves, there is increasing interest in collaborative areas and alternate work space, meaning options that are something other than a desk; a quiet room, living room, or outdoor courtyard. And the developers are hearing the call.

 

Kinzer Partners "Living Room"

Kinzer Partners “Living Room”

Keeping Them Close

A great workplace can attract great employees, but businesses are equally concerned about keeping their team close to work. The comfort, flexibility and connectivity of the office are key to achieving that end. For example, at Kinzer we replaced our traditional desktop computers with Surface Tablets and docking stations, and increased our Wi-Fi access points. This wireless office allows all of us to seamlessly move from desks to call rooms to collaborative areas and couches.

In addition, every single one of our clients regularly inquire about the convenience of restaurants, banks, drug stores, salons and daycare so that their employees don’t have to travel far to tend to their personal needs. Greg Krape, President of SECO Development stressed that the creation of urban villages, which not only include these businesses in the surrounding neighborhood, but also in the office buildings themselves. Mixed use as opposed to single use can be a complex challenge for developers, but it brings people closer together. When our team toured The Mark this past week, the planned on-site amenities included a tenant lounge, conference center, fitness center with locker rooms, on-site restaurants, and a concierge. They also mapped out dozens of area restaurants, shops, and attractions.

The Millennial Question

Is this because all new businesses are trying to lure Millennials? The consensus in this panel discussion seemed to be that our clients have moved beyond that specific focus. Kristen Jensen explained “It’s not just a millennial thing. We all need to adjust to the technologies with regard to work/life balance.” Employers keeping staff happy and healthy is not limited by generation. They want the office to be efficient and functional and to retain the brightest employees, whether they are Millennial, Gen X or Baby Boomer. One could say that the side effect of giving such close attention to what Millennials want has made employers recognize that individuals work differently, and offering their employees the flexibility to work in different types of spaces within the office allows for them to achieve a better output.

But What About That “Bottom Line”?

Joslyn Balzarini, Senior Associate of Interior Design at B+H Architects said “we all hit a metric for square footage, but it’s what we do with those numbers that adds value.” Some of that value can be drawn from the overall efficiency of the building itself. Lindsay Baker, President of Building Robotics mentioned their application “Comfy” which is software that allows occupants to adjust their HVAC systems in specific locations in the office space; make it cooler in one small space rather than cooling down the entire floor. Another example is View Dynamic Glass, windows that among other things allows the user to adjust the tint of the glass to allow more or less light into a room. Both of these systems make employees more comfortable, but also reduce operating costs by increasing energy efficiency.

At WeWork locations, Jon Slavet has observed that “On any given day 50-60% of the desks in an office are actually used.” To do more with less space, some designers are recommending smaller desks, as well as more alternate spaces like collaborative areas, multi-use conference rooms, lounge space and even outdoor space. Other offices are trying out unassigned seating. When one needs a place to plug in they can set their laptop at the nearest desk to complete a task, but then move on to the next meeting, freeing that space for the next user.

Greg Krape said “The tenants definitely need operating costs that don’t break them. But amenity rich, creative and collaborative space is so powerful to creating a good environment for happy and therefore highly productive workers, that the cost seems reasonable.” At the same time, he said that developers are looking into addressing the need to densify by including more elevators and creating wider stairwells to more efficiently move people, and also plan room for generators and backup generators to address increased electrical capacity.

The Long Term

When asked about technology’s impact on the future of the workplace, Lindsay Baker stressed that “tech should drive the experience, not be the experience.” New tech should be easy to use and not draw attention to itself. It should just work and not necessarily be a complicated gadget. She used the example of conference rooms with panels of switches and dials. They all do amazing things, but does anyone ever really remember how to lower the projector? Good technology should work simply and seamlessly so that it is almost invisible.

Then there is the question of Seattle’s boom. Late last fall Craig Kinzer said the consensus in the industry is that “2016 and 2017 are going to be strong, but 2018 and 2019 is where we [will] have a slowdown…” The panelists seemed to agree that we should at least expect a pinch. The word of the day was “flexibility.” At Joslyn Balzarini’s office, they say “one size misfits all.” The design should be flexible enough that it can be taken apart and reassembled as the business evolves. Kristin Jensen said that in terms of shell and core design, they have experimented with including spaces that can be used as “pop-ups”, meaning the use can change seasonally or as often as the user desires. For example, one client clears out their space to be a studio for when they bring in yoga instructors, transforms it into a flower shop during the holidays, and then a veggie market in the summer.

Mark Ludtka, Northwest Region Workplace Sector Leader at DLR Group suggested that with the city running out of land to develop and the potential for reduced demand, developers should look to the “Tired buildings we need to rejuvenate. Not tear-downs, but unique spaces with good bones that need fundamental updates can be lucrative opportunities.” Starting from scratch without completely starting from scratch, all the while considering flexibility in the design.

But everyone seemed to agree that Seattle will stay healthy, even in a pinch, as long as developers continue to focus on work/life balance and accommodating businesses as they grow or shrink. If the Seattle workplace is a place where people want to be and where they want to go back to, great businesses will continue to be attracted to our region.