It’s hard to escape the conclusion that most workplaces have not caught up with the technology inside them. Mobile computing and teleconferencing allows knowledge workers to be productive, collaborate on projects, and have meetings from almost anywhere on the planet. Yet many people are still working like it’s 1985, not 2015: sitting at desks, hunched over a keyboard, enclosed in a cubicle. The only difference between a scene in a modern office building and a Dilbert cartoon from the mid-1990s is the size of the computer monitors.
A few Princeton-area companies are trying to change that, each trying a different method of changing the workplace to meet modern needs. Whether any of them will provide a model for the future remains to be seen.
Siemens, the multinational industrial giant, operates a research and development facility in the Princeton Forrestal Center where about 250 engineers, scientists, and support staff work on technology projects. The Siemens Corporate Technology building at 500 College Road East was built in the 1980s and until last month was a very conventional office setup, with labs on the first floor and offices above.
But over the past year senior vice president Terry Heath, who is in charge of the site, has watched the cubicle walls come tumbling down. The company recently held a grand opening celebrating the completion of a total overhaul of the building’s 67,200 square feet of office space.
Mike Kruklinski, head of Siemens Real Estate for the Americas, oversaw the site’s conversion to Siemens’s New Way of Working (NewWoW) model, which is now used at 80 Siemens sites in 35 countries. The renovation was not just a change in the way the workplace was configured, but was an overhaul of the entire workday for its employees.
The most dramatic change from the standpoint of the worker was the replacement of cubicles with height-adjustable “pinwheel” desks with no walls. Many of the desks are arranged in pods of three so that small teams that collaborate closely can sit and work together. Each desk has a port and a monitor where a laptop computer can plug in, and little else.
Other desks are arranged in a line, or in zigzag formation. But the basic idea, and the lack of cubicle walls, are the same. Only managers get their own private offices, though even these have glass walls. The lack of interior walls allows for a lot of natural light to flood the office.
Even though the desks are occupied, there is a notable absence of potted plants, novelty coffee mugs, family portraits, books, and other personal items that normally accumulate on the average office personal space.
That’s because the “NewWoW” system does away with assigned seating for most workers. Employees have lockers where they store any needed paperwork, and they all have to clear their desks at the end of each day and put everything in a locker. The next day they can come in and sit with whomever they need to work next to that day. Researchers and some other employees who need high-powered computers still have dedicated desks.
A worker who gets tired of his or her pinwheel desk can take their laptop to a lounge area with soft chairs, or even kick off their shoes and take a seat on a giant beanbag. With wi-fi technology, it hardly matters where employees are sitting as long as they are getting their work done. They could even be at home sometimes. When meetings are necessary, there are plenty of small meeting rooms available that teams can occupy for hours or weeks at a time.
“It’s about recognizing that people work differently these days,” Heath says. “Maybe 20 years ago, people had to come into the office and they got rated depending on how much time they were there. But now with people working across cities, across countries, and across continents, you don’t have to sign into your office to do that. It’s no longer about managing presence, but managing output. It’s about empowerment and trust. It’s been a big positive change.”
Heath gave up his corner office in the renovation, trading it for a much smaller one similar to what lower-ranked managers at the company now have.
There has been some skepticism from employees, Heath says. “Resistance is huge because it’s change,” he says, adding that most people have grown to like the new way of working better than the old one.
Carolyn Joiner, marketing manager, says the changes took some getting used to. At first, employees would tote around boxes and boxes of materials back and forth to their lockers every day. “These people have learned to file more economically. More and more, people are using the electronic tools that are available.”
Openness can be a double-edged sword and bring with it distraction as well as increased collaboration. But there are simple ways of tuning out the rest of the world to focus on a job, if need be. “A pair of noise-canceling headphones is the new private office,” Heath says.
The renovation also brought about other changes such as an improved security system. In the partly-underground basement, which Siemens likes to call the ground floor, storage space was taken out in favor of a conference room, a workout room, and a yoga studio. There is also a small and little-used library in the basement that will soon go away when reference materials go all-electronic. Moving those functions to the basement saved space upstairs, which allowed a well-used Ping-Pong table to be installed on the second floor.
The entire wave of renovations was inspired by forward-thinking playground-like workplaces on the West Coast designed for Millennial software engineers. “We’ve spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley,” Kruklinski says. “We will never be Google, but we can get some of the elements because we are trying to attract similar talent now. We need to be elastic in that respect.” Though it may not be appropriate for every kind of office, Kruklinski says high-tech companies like Siemens can benefit from the openness and collaborative possibilities of the NewWoW approach.
When the law firm Hill Wallack began to outgrow its space at 202 Carnegie Center, it was up to managing partner Robert Bacso to search for a suitable new location. There were many reasons to move to a new space instead of renovating their old one, including that moving altogether would be less disruptive. But the deciding factor was something that visitors never see — the power grid.
“We kept getting power outages at our old location,” Bacso said. “It was through no fault of the space itself, but we were experiencing significant power outages.”
With the firm’s entire work output depending on the ability of employees to use computers to write and communicate, and the fact that their entire law library was online, power was more crucial than ever before. Bacso laid down the requirement that the new space had to have backup power no matter what. He became insistent upon it, and some would say obsessed with the issue.
And that’s why Hill Wallack’s new three-story headquarters, opened on Roszel Road in March, has a big, tan box out back of it that says “Bob’s Generator” in bold letters on top, visible from upstairs. Bob’s diesel-fueled generator automatically kicks in if the power goes out and can provide electricity for the entire building. The lights at Hill Wallack will be off no more than 6.5 seconds at a time, Bacso says.
Other improvements over the company’s old location are more visible. The three-story headquarters boasts modern furniture and a clean style with lots of sunlight coming in from large windows. Even the IT room has a small window that admits some sunlight into the domain of the firm’s tech workers.
Bacso said that such a light and airy atmosphere was never achievable in the older office buildings. “It was a whole different corporate style,” he said.
Hill Wallack’s new offices may not be revolutionary in terms of its layout. Staff members sit at desks with chest-high cubicles, most with a nice outside view. Open workspaces for attorneys was out of the question, Bosco says, because of their need to have private conversations. The attorney’s offices, however, are all the same size, and no one gets a corner office. The corner locations are all “war rooms” where small teams can convene. (The decor, which includes a Zen sand garden in one case, isn’t very warlike, however.)
Most of the conference rooms are equipped with videoconferencing software, with the boardroom boasting two giant screens and a “Hot Mic” sign above warning when the board’s deliberations are being broadcast.
The building’s most forward-thinking features are beneath the surface and built with high-speed computing in mind. Every workstation has a direct link to the company’s IT center. Most significantly, the building’s design places a heavy emphasis on security. Keycards control access to different parts of the building, and visitors can’t take the elevator to the third floor without one. Other rooms and areas of the building are also sealed off by keycards, and security cameras are everywhere.
Four cameras even monitor the cantina in the lobby, where sandwiches and drinks are available on the honor system, and can be paid for with a credit card or a thumbprint scan.
Hill Wallack has about 75 lawyers, 55 of whom work in the Princeton headquarters, with the rest in satellite offices in Yardley and Morristown, both of which can connect to the Roszel Road IT system remotely. The firm takes up the top two floors of the building plus some of the bottom floor. An IT company is leasing part of the first floor, leaving Hill Wallack with some room to expand. And since the firm has been growing steadily at about 15 percent a year, that may come in handy.
“The firm has made a philosophical decision that we’re not interested in being acquired by a larger law firm,” Bosco says. “So we’re very determined that we’re going to use a pattern of responsible but continued growth, and we intend to continue expanding throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.”
NRG, an energy company currently headquartered in three different locations in Carnegie Center, was ahead of the game when it comes to innovative workplaces. When the company moved to a single building in the complex in 2004, the founder, David W. Crane, insisted upon a unique setup for the office space: one big room, full of desks. No offices, just meeting rooms. Every desk is equal in size, including the CEO’s.
As the company expanded so too did its workforce, and it has stuck with Crane’s egalitarian workplace vision. NRG now operates in 11 states and has more than 10,000 employees, with 550 working at the Carnegie Center headquarters. It is building a new headquarters at 804 Carnegie Center that will consolidate its existing locations into 130,000 square feet of office space.
Bill Walsh, director of facilities, came to NRG nine years ago shortly after the company opened shop, and was taken aback by the open office setup.
“When I first got here, I kind of raised an eyebrow,” Walsh says. “But I soon saw the advantages of an open office. If you need to communicate with somebody, you can stand up and see if that individual is at their desk. If I need somebody in financial, I can look over my left shoulder. It saves a whole lot of time to be able to walk over and have a quick conversation. It’s a great advantage when promoting a team atmosphere.”
Walsh says that when you’re in an open office, you’re more part of what’s going on. “If you have an office, you can island yourself from everybody,” he says. “You can go into the office, shut your door, and you’re out of sight, out of mind. You’re basically disconnected from the other workers.”
Walsh also endorsed the headphones technique for when concentration is needed. “One of the first things I purchased when I came here was noise-canceling headphones,” he says. “They worked great. But to be honest I have never replaced the batteries in them. After the first couple of weeks, I never used them. You really learn to adapt to the atmosphere and your surroundings.”
Apart from that, quiet rooms and conference rooms provide refuge for team meetings and individuals who want to escape the main floor. Like Siemens, NRG gives its workers laptops so they can work from home or anywhere in the office.
The company is taking its design philosophy with it into the new headquarters, including the equal desk sizes. “David Crane’s philosophy was open-office atmosphere and it’s been that way ever since,” Walsh said. “The reason David Crane picked out our current address at 211 Carnegie Center was the single-floor. The NRG standard is that nobody is above everybody else, and nobody is below anybody else. There is no ivory tower per se. We try to keep that philosophy across the company. With 804 Carnegie, there were quite a few conversations about getting a second floor and a third floor approved.”
The new office will have the same setup, with only the energy traders getting wider desks to accommodate their sprawling arrays of monitors. Each of the three floors will be about 43,000 square feet. One new feature is some high-top desks, not assigned to anyone, where small groups can have quick, casual meetings. “We call it a bar-level or file-cabinet level that can just give you that more friendly atmosphere,” Walsh says.
The desks will be organized in pods of 8 to 10, with every row having one adjustable-height desk at the end farthest from the windows.
Walsh says the open office arrangement saves a lot of time trying to reach colleagues by phone and E-mail when a quick face-to-face meeting would suffice.
On the outside, the new NRG building will be like no other in the Route 1 corridor. As a company, NRG is emphasizing renewable power, and the headquarters will be a showcase of green energy technology.
The entire building will be designed to operate without any power off the grid. Visitors will be greeted by two wind turbines by the building’s entrance, mounted just 14 feet off the ground so people can see their inner workings.
The parking lots will be covered in solar panels that will harvest even more energy, adding to power produced from an enormous solar “wing” atop the building. Power from sunny and windy days will be stored in a 500 kilowatt battery for use in times when nature does not provide for the building’s energy needs. Should the battery prove insufficient, there is a generator that runs on diesel and natural gas.
“What prompted that was Superstorm Sandy,” Walsh said. “We had backup power here so the trading floor stayed up. But we lost power from 4:30 that Monday when the storm was hitting, to 11:30 that Friday. After that David Crane said to make the new headquarters totally sustainable. I feel we are achieving that.”
The building has other environmentally friendly features. An electric shuttle bus will ferry employees to and from the Princeton Junction train station to encourage use of mass transit. There are electrical power charging stations in the parking lot, including some that employees can reserve so they can be sure of the ability to juice up their electric cars. A heated walkway will keep the building’s entrance free of ice year round. Two underground cisterns will collect rainwater and use it for the building’s toilets.
If the renovations and new construction by these three companies are any indication, the future of office space is brighter, more open, and more environmentally sustainable than the Dilbertvilles of the previous generation.
Not everyone agrees that the prospect of an open office future is a bright one. In 2013 the magazine Fast Company wrote a series of articles lambasting open offices and accusing the open office movement of being “like some gigantic experiment in willful delusion.” Instead, the article called for more enclosed offices because they offer “peace and quiet and privacy and decency and respect for all.”
A 2013 study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology compared different types of office plans and found that employees working in open office schemes had enhanced interaction, but suffered distraction from noise and privacy loss, and that people working in enclosed private offices had higher “indoor environmental quality” than those working in offices with open floor plans.
And as the example of Hill Wallack shows, open offices are not suitable for every company, especially ones that must guarantee confidentiality to their clients. And even Siemens, which touts its New Way of Working, has offices for its senior management.
Interestingly, whether open or closed, there does appear to be a shift towards less hierarchical office arrangements. NRG, Hill Wallack, and Siemens have all done away with corner offices for senior management, and are moving towards equal sized work spaces based on job requirements.
In the classic 1999 workplace satire Office Space, a bored tech worker, Peter Gibbbons, fulminates against his office conditions: “We don’t have a lot of time on this earth! We weren’t meant to spend it this way! Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements!”
Gibbons has been heard. In more and more workplaces, human beings may stare at computer screens all day, but not necessarily in little cubicles.