Presented by: The Registry SF, December 28, 2018

Author: Michele Chandler

No permanently assigned desks, even for executives? No dedicated personal workspace to display framed photos of your kids? Just one file drawer for documents? And the corner spot with the jaw-dropping view – that’s the employee break room, not a lounge for top company directors?

Welcome to the new San Francisco office of CBRE Group, Inc., an early adopter of an office concept to “untether” workers from their desks. That setup saves money while improving workplace efficiency, according to CBRE.

The rise of access to office systems via the internet cloud – along with the wide capabilities of mobile devices – are driving the move to untethered workplaces, said Drew Carter, director of the Currents design studio at H. Hendy Associates. Carter’s Newport Beach-based architecture firm has helped clients including Yamaha Music Interactive, Inc., Mark IV Capital, Inc. and Goodman transform their old-school offices into cutting edge, tech-connected workplaces.

The change comes in response to a recent survey from research group IDC finding that workers reported being out of their offices up to 70 percent of the day, Carter said. Often, they’re attending meetings or engaged in other group-focused efforts. “Organizations are really looking at, ‘well, then, what do we build for? How do we allocate real estate, because real estate is not cheap?” Carter said.

The situation has left organizations wanting their staffers to be just as effective “in a conference room or a corridor, whatever that space is,” he said. “What we’re really focused on is how do you need to work, and so we design a space around that.”

With its rows of desks clustered around glass-enclosed conference rooms, CBRE’s San Francisco office illustrates the trend. Staffers moved into their workspace on Mission Street in June.

After arriving at the commercial real estate services and investment company for the day, staffers and executives alike must first retrieve their personal supplies from an assigned locker, where they’re kept overnight. Typically, those items included a laptop, a computer power cord and a telephone headset to connect with a docking mechanism that is permanently installed at each workstation. Every desk is also equipped with a keyboard and a wireless mouse.

Then, it’s time for employees – from top managers on down – to choose where to sit, depending on the duties that lie ahead.

They might choose to sit in a ‘neighborhood’ – CBRE-speak for a bank of desks. For extended telephone calls, gatherings requiring acoustic privacy or someone who doesn’t want to be interrupted, staffers can utilize one of the glass-enclosed, technology-enabled conference rooms of varying sizes that are located around the office.

“I’m sitting in a ‘neighborhood’ right now that probably has 24 desks in two rows and then there’s a bank of enclosed space. And then we have another 24 desks, and then there’s a bank of enclosed space,” said Georgia Collins, executive managing director of the Workplace practice at CBRE. “We’ve created some smaller spaces, where between them they’re open, but we also have that enclosed space,” she said. “It means that no one in the open workspace is more than a couple of feet away from an enclosed space if they need it.”

On the technology side, telephone calls are automatically directed to wherever a person is located for the day, which means a seamless setup for employees going between offices in different cities. “If I were to be visiting Houston tomorrow, my laptop would plug into the docking station, my headset would work with the phone, and I could print [documents],” Collins said.

It’s a bit different when it comes to keeping personal items such as decorative plants or photos close at hand. Explained Collins: “when you move to a free-adjust or untethered environment… people don’t own their desks. You can’t put your stuff [out] and leave it there.” Also, while not paper-free, the new offices are much less paper-tolerant. Before moving into their new digs, employees were required to either purge or digitize many of their paper files.

All those changes have made the switch from traditional office to the innovative workplace design format “an adjustment for some, but I think most people make that transition pretty effectively,” Collins said.

She’s seen the scenario repeat time and again, as her team has led the company’s transition to what it calls Workplace360 for many of CBRE’s offices around the world during the last several years. Amsterdam was the first CBRE office to go untethered in 2011. Two years later, the company reconfigured its Los Angeles office to the new format, its first in the United States.

Now, approximately 26 percent of CBRE’s 134 offices in the United States – or 40 percent of the company’s total rentable square feet of office space in this country – have been converted to an untethered format. More conversions are on the way, as leases expire.

Savings have served as an incentive. On average, the company says it has been able to trim leased office space by 25 percent because of the new workplace design. That reduction has come even though the company has added employees and experienced 10 percent growth in capital expenditure spending during the period. CBRE’s capex spending would have been higher without the untethered office design, which requires less space. “We have saved money while drastically improving the quality of the space we provide for our people,” Collins explained.

Even though people must give up a dedicated desk, they appear to favor the flexible workspaces. Employee satisfaction surveys conducted after teams have spent six months in their new offices revealed that 93 percent would not go back to their old way of working, said Collins, while 94 percent of workers agreed that they were more easily able to collaborate.

Upgraded community spaces in the new offices are a feature that CBRE’s untethered workers particularly like.

“Instead of having a kind of lackluster and depressing break room that no one wants to spend any time in, we’ve taken some of the most choice space in the office, and we’ve made that what we call the heart of our space. That is a place where employees can gather and have lunch or we can have client events,” said Collins. “That’s an absolutely key feature of our offices. We’re creating places where people want to be.”