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Humanizing The Workplace Of The Future

Workplace design has changed dramatically in the past decade with the rapid evolution of technology. According to the speakers at our Bisnow Seattle Workplace of the Future event, today’s employers must invest in a thoughtful office space if they hope to remain competitive and attract top talent.

Open office, co-working, open-plan, offices

No two companies are identical, the panelists agreed. An ideal workplace takes into account not only the desires of company leadership, but the individual needs of the employees that work there.

“As a designer, I’m usually given directives by leadership for what they envision. But I’m not really given a lot of time or access to the employees that I’m actually designing for,” CallisonRTKL interior designer Bonnie Toland said.“We need to look at what are our attitudes toward work and how has that been dehumanizing in the past and how can we make work a place that we want to go and makes us feel fully alive.”

Many corporate cultures have been shifting toward collaborative workspaces, where there is less physical division in the space between workers. Although this fosters a high level of productivity and creativity for some, it can be a detractor for others.

“I think the tech industry is condensing the space too much when it comes to your actual work area. I think that takes away from the subconscious need for a little elbow room between you and your co-workers,” F5 Networks Director of Global Real Estate and Operations Jay Phillips said. “Plus, just the actual visual privacy. These open bench areas where everyone can see you — I think the employees push back, everyone wants a little privacy.”

Seattle Workplace of the Future: Moderator Jamie Moore of DPR Construction, Callison RTKL's Bonnie Toland, F5 Networks' Jay Phillips and CBRE's Ashley Branca
Moderator Jamie Moore of DPR Construction, Callison RTKL's Bonnie Toland, F5 Networks' Jay Phillips and CBRE's Ashley Branca

Technology is an essential piece of most office spaces, but panelists say a high price tag does not necessarily make for a more efficient workplace. Sometimes the best solutions are simpler, and catered more specifically to a company’s day-to-day requirements.

“We hear a lot of fear around technology sometimes because there is such a rapid evolution,” CBRE Director of Workplace Strategy Ashley Branca said. "It’s important to ask, how could you potentially invest in standard space hardware and really flexible software? Rather than investing in Bluescape, which is amazingly powerful and wonderful, but really resource-intensive, how could you instead invest in television screens and then Realtime board technology. Those things allow there to be more flexibility.”

The panel discussed the increasing demand for new office developments that are built with sustainable green features. Though green building may align ethically with a client’s values, there are few financial incentives provided by the City of Seattle driving developers to invest in environmentally conscious design.

“In Germany I learned to look at green building in a holistic way,” Martin Selig Real Estate Managing Director Jordan Selig said. “The tendency is to look at the quantitative pieces — energy reduction, water consumption reduction. But equally important is sustainability — air flow, the amount of natural light in your office, looking at the chemicals that are being used and the materials that you are building your building with. You can’t just focus on one aspect because it will be to the detriment of others.”

In addition to new office developments, the panelists discussed the revitalization of older buildings in Seattle into relevant, desirable office spaces.

“There’s some old buildings that are functionally obsolete, but there are others that have a lot of character, so I like finding the things that simply can’t ever be replaced. If you can breathe life back into them and make them vibrant and applicable to modern tenants you can have a perpetual competitive advantage,” Unico Properties Senior Vice President of Development and Acquisitions Ned Carner said.

Seattle Workplace of the Future: Moderator Virginia Nicholson of Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt, Unico Properties' Ned Carner, Martin Selig Real Estate's Jordan Selig, Talon Private Capital's Bill Pollard and Perkins + Will's Brad Hinthorne
Moderator Virginia Nicholson of Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt, Unico Properties' Ned Carner, Martin Selig Real Estate's Jordan Selig, Talon Private Capital's Bill Pollard and Perkins+Will's Brad Hinthorne

Though many in the real estate community would like to make the most of pre-existing buildings, panelists said the current process of renovating an older space in Seattle is particularly prohibitive.

“You’ve got two boards: the design review board, which is beholden to the zoning code and overseen by the department of construction and inspections. Then you have the landmarks preservation board and it’s overseen by the department of neighborhoods and is not in any way beholden to the zoning code,” Selig said. “So what often happens as a developer is you go to one board and it gives you one set of marching orders and you go to the other board and you hear something totally contradictory. Then you’re in the middle and don’t know where to go. The process ends up taking a really long time, it costs a lot of money and at the end of the day its highly unpredictable. So the system is, in a way, self-defeating.”

Mayor Ed Murray recently proposed legislation to reform the design review process. If the new policies are approved, it will be the first update to the design review board process since it was initiated in 1994.

Other major changes are being implemented in the city, as Seattle experiences increasing growth and economic vitality. The Seattle City Council approved upzones this year for the University District, downtown Seattle, the Chinatown-International District, South Lake Union and three Central District intersections. Dozens more will be considered next year.

“I think there has been a really responsible view of these upzones so that when they’re coming in line, they are coming with a pretty holistic perspective. Both as a resident, as an office worker, as a retailer, etc., and transit is a big part of that,” Talon Private Capital co-founder Bill Pollard said.

The workplace of the future will likely be dictated by a flexible work culture and increasing density, the panelists agreed. When asked to imagine what the work environment would look like for their grandchildren, panelists envisioned office spaces intermingling with residential and retail cores, allowing workers to walk, bike and work remotely from home. In the future workplace, an individually determined work-life balance will not be a lofty aspiration, but a shared reality.