Photos by © Paul Crosby

Beyond Cubicular

Progressive workspaces focus on flexibility and fun instead of private offices and cubicles.

By Kevyn Burger

If a sports fan has a 100-inch flat screen, a comfortable couch and a fridge stocked with brewskis, why does he need to go to a stadium to watch his favorite team?

A cinephile with the same great room layout plus a Netflix account could pose the same question about a movie theater.

What about knowledge workers with marketable skills, a fast Internet connection and a laptop — do they really have to go to an office? Now that they can access their own health insurance, do these in-demand free agents even need a regular job?

“The challenge is to build space where people want to be because that’s where they are their most productive and have the most rewarding face-to-face relationships with teammates they value,” says Gary Miciunas, principal of advisory services for NELSON, a global design, architecture and consulting services firm with a full-service office in Minneapolis.

“You have to understand behavior patterns before you build the space,” he explains.

In order to construct enticing offices that will appeal to an increasingly untethered workforce, Miciunas and Bob Bangham of RipBang Studios developed the ‘Destination Workplace’ concept. It’s a roadmap for companies building offices — and office culture. The concept prizes flexibility above all else for today’s workers, where the man in the gray flannel suit is being usurped by the dude in the hoodie.

A design team from NELSON worked with JAMF Software to imagine and engineer JAMF’s new headquarters and workspace. In February, the Minneapolis-based developer, which makes applications for businesses using Apple devices, moved its 200 local employees from offices in the Grain Exchange building to light-drenched space in downtown’s Washington Square.

The move gives the software company twice as much square footage, but offers more than expanded space. The reconfigured NELSON-executed layout removes obstacles between the sales, marketing, engineering and executive departments.

Much of their work is now performed in collaborative space that is loosely divided into what JAMF VP of operations Steve Hanson calls ‘neighborhoods.’

“The space emphasizes the importance of adjacencies, with teams being near the ones they work closely with. That encourages the free flow of ideas. Getting people into more shared space has bolstered problem solving and camaraderie,” he says. “Being side-by-side increases those serendipitous collisions that don’t happen when departments are siloed.”

NELSON takes a page from the sporting world’s playbook in its design approach. RipBang Studios, a NELSON division based in California, designs irresistible spaces in commercial entertainment venues — arenas, theme parks and theaters.

“We work with places where people go for fun,” says Creative Director Bob Bangham. “We can use what we know from these projects to choreograph the environment where people go for work.”

Bangham points to a flashy, large-scale project under construction at U.S. Bank Stadium as an example of the principle. RipBang is creating the eye-grabbing Vikings ship that will stand at the front of the new U.S. Bank Stadium; it features a massive video board as the ship’s 55-foot-high sail.

“That’s a feature that makes the stadium a more exciting place to participate in a communal activity; you can’t experience that at home with the flat screen,” he says. “The workplace also has to give teams a place to experience positive human interactions with coworkers and the company’s culture. Otherwise, why would they want to come in?”

Countertop Collaboration

At their weekly meeting, the team of 55 that works at the Minneapolis office of digital ad agency Mirum gather in a bar.

It doesn’t have a liquor license, though. Mirum’s common space in Butler Square features countertops, booths and a fridge stocked with Fulton, echoing the feel of a friendly pub where everybody knows your name.

“What we sell is our talent. This is a team sport, and you’re more productive if you know, like and respect the people you work with,” says Julie Koepsell, senior vice president and director of client services. “Meetings organically blur into happy hour. What we do requires that our clients be part of the process; we want space that’s inviting to them, too.”

The Minneapolis office features open rooms with teams working on the same project grouped at tables. There are individual rooms where they can peel off to do work requiring concentration, and collaborative offices where they can break into small groups — and bring in Mirum niche experts from offices around the world to jump in on a project via videoconference.

“Creating the right environment creates a return on investment,” says Dan Khabie, CEO of Mirum, a J. Walter Thompson agency. “We have to be quick, nimble. We help clients reinvent their businesses. You have to be bold in how you look at the world to do that, in a place that fosters that way of thinking.”

Based at Mirum headquarters in San Diego, Khabie, a St. Louis Park native, oversees the international agency’s 2,200 workers in 20 countries.

“In today’s digital economy it takes about two dozen interconnected people to launch something — a mobile app, a website. With so many pieces of the puzzle, we have to break down the walls.”

Khabie is convinced that workspace builds culture, and a company’s culture is its best selling point in attracting and keeping top talent, what he calls people who are “sticky.” 

It takes more than an office ping pong table and free healthy snacks to appeal to these players. They want less rigidity in scheduling, more satisfaction from work and to be empowered from above.

Senior strategist Yoshi Suzuki-Lambrecht sought out Mirum, in part, for its style.

“I’m not someone who would excel in a top-down environment with a lot of office politics and little transparency,” says Suzuki-Lambrecht, 29, who came to Mirum a year ago.

“I’m not here to carry out orders. I like the way the team is structured, with horizontal collaboration. It’s been easy to get to know the people I work with and the clients.”

Office Supplies

Today, NELSON design strategist Gary Miciunas is dismantling the architecture of offices that he had a hand in creating three decades ago, as he began his career. 

In the previous incarnation of the American workplace, private offices ringed a floor’s perimeter, surrounding rows of cubicles. That old school configuration used about 70% of the space, with the rest devoted to common areas — lobbies and the like — and conference rooms.

“New offices aren’t constructed with the built-in hierarchy that says some people deserve the status of a private office,” Miciunas says. “Everyone should have access to enclosure, but it’s not a given that people want or need space with their name on the door. Workers are out of the office with clients and telecommuting for part of the week. It takes a lot of capital to keep those underutilized assets in place.”

The new model flips the old ratio — far fewer individual offices, with walls torn down to open more shared space.

“We’re shifting into collaborative areas, you see it in the floor plans we are designing,” Miciunas notes. “With this model, we can squeeze the footprint by 20% to 25%, and that’s cost-efficient, too.”

Office style, like fashion itself, is ever shifting. In a decade or so, will today’s pub-like common spaces and collaborative corners be the office equivalent of yoga pants as a defining trend of 2016?

The expense of the investment to remake architectural space makes it far more complicated and time-consuming to redesign and rebuild an office than it is to switch up technology or change a management approach.

“Work styles adapt first. The turnover time for spaces is always going to lag five years or so behind what’s going on in the environment,” says Creative Director Bob Bangham. “A company needs to keep looking at how its culture is evolving and asking how it is adapting the environment to it.”