Presented by: SoCal Real Estate, September 2018 Issue

Author: Carrie Rossenfeld

“Untethering” is the new phrase design experts are using to describe the movement away from traditional workplaces where workers are tethered to a desk, cubicle or closed-door office. Instead, as companies embrace new workplace strategies in the wake of open floor plans and exposed-beam ceilings, the very nature of how people work in an office is changing from restricting to less defined. The idea of untethering in an activity-based working environment (ABW) is to allow employees to be as productive as possible by cutting their ties to an assigned location within a workplace and setting them free to innovate, collaborate, and produce wherever they find themselves.

An office’s design can help facilitate that. H. Hendy Associates, an interior architecture and design firm in Newport Beach, California, is a proponent of the untethered office/activity-based working environment. Though many employers have tried to implement this type of workplace design—and failed—Hendy deploys change-management techniques as part of its methodology, leading to successful buy-in from employees, which is half the battle for any organization.

Drew Carter, a director of the currents studio at H. Hendy, has more than 20 years of experience creating high-performance workspaces that integrate technology and activity-based working into design. Carter and his team recently completed a project for a client that, H. Hendy tells SoCal Real Estate, increased employee ratings from 56 percent to 85 percent after a complete transformation of an old storage space into an activity-based workspace without designated seating. This was successful because H. Hendy trained the workers on how to best use the new space to their advantage.

We sat down with Carter for a chat about the untethering trend in office use, how it translates into office design, and how change management is an integral part of the success of any new office design.

SoCal Real Estate: Please explain what the “untethering trend” in office use is about and how it translates into office design.

Carter: Untethering employees is the idea of freeing workers from their desks by adopting an activity-based Working environment that enables them to choose where to do their work based on tasks and preferred working styles. The philosophy and science behind this working model is to facilitate higher-quality communication and interaction.

This trend emerged with the rise of new technologies, which have made the workplace increasingly mobile and connected. For employers, there are many benefits to untethering employees — from increased productivity to collaboration to retention and recruitment to a possible reduction in your office footprint.

The untethering trend is also built on the idea that traditional office spaces (such as bullpens or cubicles) are ill-adapted to the use of new technologies in our daily work. In contrast, ABW environments turn office spaces into assets by bolstering the exchange of resources and information. In terms of office design, it translates into two key concepts: flexibility and idiosyncrasy. We are stepping away from the traditional “one size fits all” approach to leverage a company’s culture, brand and technologies to optimize its workplace.

The end result is much more than a “work from home” policy, but rather it is a strategy for making staff effective from wherever they may be, by bringing together technology, culture and design.

SoCal Real Estate: How will this trend continue to evolve office design?

Carter: Gartner predicts that by 2020, organizations embracing a “choose your own work-style culture” will increase employee retention rates by more than 10 percent. ABW’s future is bright, and we are already noticing key emerging trends at its early stage. The separation of traditional work stations and break areas is blurring. Companies with an ABW environment are encouraging employees to meet and collaborate anywhere in the office by providing multi-use spaces and opportunities to interact. For example, equipping a traditional breakroom with a whiteboard or a computer monitor is a great way to facilitate impromptu brainstorming sessions or catch-up meetings around coffee or snacks.

This trend will also affect how people work independently by including environmental controls, such as lighting and temperature, and new technologies like audio streaming, voice assistants, wireless charging, and wireless control for sharing content. Companies are also introducing cloud-stored data to save employees’ files and preferences, so they can pick up right where they left off at any work station.

Office design is also becoming increasingly activity focused. Rather than owning workstations, employees can choose to work in the area that will maximize their productivity for a specific task. While physical walls are broken down to create a more open and collaborative environment, an ABW office still features a range of spaces — from quiet spaces, focus areas and collaborative zones — that allow employees to focus, socialize, collaborate, learn, make confidential calls, and more.

SoCal Real Estate: What will this trend mean for the type of office space corporations are looking for and how they use it?

Carter: For most organizations, adopting the untethering employees trend can result in saved office space. IDG research indicates that assigned workspaces are unoccupied up to 70 percent of the time. So, while we typically reduce the footprint of offices and other workspaces, the focus is to determine what people are doing that keeps them out of their desks — then develop spaces around those activities. Sometimes, this research results in lower square footage and other times it results in supporting growth in staff without having to move to a larger location. Regardless, the primary goal is to create an environment that is built to help be people do what they do best.

Office spaces also are increasingly going to complement home life and promote social interactions. By 2025, 75 percent of the global workforce will be millennials. According to a 2018 Deloitte study, the key to attracting and retaining millennials, aside from financial incentives, is flexibility and a positive workplace culture. In terms of office design, this will translate into more spaces and opportunities to connect informally in and around the building. Comfortable breakrooms and proximity to restaurants, bars, and shops will become a distinctive asset.

SoCal Real Estate: How is change management involved in making these concepts successful?

Carter: An ABW environment is a radical departure from the traditional office space. Because change can be difficult for many, change management is critical to untethering employees successfully. It’s a pivotal process that is used to train and educate workers on how to best use the new or improved space to their advantage, mitigate any concerns or angst regarding the new work environment, unite the team around a common vision, and ultimately, bolster comfort and enthusiasm to adopt the new space.

Before deployment of an ABW environment, the first step is developing a comprehensive training program that factors in company objectives, messaging, policies, and metric tracking and evaluation to ensure success throughout and after implementation. Define the “what’s in it for me?” for employees and management to help them stay engaged in the program. You also want to make sure that senior management is on board and will lead by example. Another crucial step is having a pilot team test the program to identify issues and help finetune it. Once the testing phase is completed, the pilot team can help rally their coworkers around this new program by teaching them how take advantage of the new workspace.