Imagine coming to the office every day and not having your own desk. There’s no place to call your own, no pictures of your family lining your cubicle, and none of the status that comes with a plush corner office.
That’s what the 250 employees at the New York office of the Gerson Lehrman Group, a consulting firm that connects business executives with relevant experts, experienced in late June when the company moved into its new space at 60 East 42nd Street.
Instead of a desk, workers were given a locker, a laptop, and a license to roam across a variety of office landscapes ranging from conference rooms, to couches, to the company’s own in-house coffee bar.
The two-floor, 64,000-square foot office is the largest U.S. implementation of activity-based working, a Dutch-born theory that posits office workers are happiest and most productive in an environment that allows them to utilize a variety of different spaces based on the task they are performing.
For instance, an employee might hash out plans for a group project with coworkers at a table in the office atrium before moving to a telephone-booth-sized conference room to concentrate on his or her individual portion of the project.
Two weeks ago, I visited the new GLG office to get a sense of what the experience has been like for the company’s employees and to find out what they did with all of the knickknacks they had been keeping on their desks.
GLG decided to build its new office based on the principles of activity-based working about 18 months prior to the move from its old office on Third Avenue, a more traditional work setting with cubicles and offices.
The goal, GLG head of public affairs Richard Socarides said, is to increase collaboration among employees and to have a space better suited for hosting clients.
Because one of the things the company is most proud of is bringing together its clients to share knowledge with one another, Socarides said it didn’t make sense that these meetings were being held at restaurants instead of GLG’s offices.
So far, it seems employees are mostly happy about the shift.
Mike Martin, a systems analyst, spoke glowingly of the new format. He usually likes to spend his mornings seated at the coffee bar, where he keeps a set of spare parts and fixes his coworkers’ laptops while they grab a cappuccino.
Later, he migrates to different parts of the office depending on whom he is working with on a given project and how intensely he needs to focus.
“I definitely find that moving around helps me get work done,” Martin said. “I feel like I’m a dynamic person who can work in a loud environment, but there are definitely days where you want to duck off into a telephone booth and sort of dive into the task at hand.”
Of course, the transition took time for some employees, even though GLG spent a great deal of time preparing them beforehand. Employees had several concerns when they were first told about the company’s plans for the new office, primarily based on all of the things that made the office “theirs.”
At one of several town hall meetings held to discuss the changes, one worker summed things up succinctly by asking, “If I have a plant, where am I going to put it?”
Clive Wilkinson, the architect behind the new office, said the lack of space for personal artifacts was a feature, not a flaw, of activity-based working. To him, the personalization of the cubicle came as a counterweight against ugly, sterile offices that people have hated for years.
If employees are given a bright space to work in with a variety of office environments, he reasons, people will be fine limiting their decorations to a laptop screensaver and digitizing their paper files. As a byproduct, the system reduces office clutter.
Other personal items can be stored in employees’ individual lockers, which are located in clusters around the office based on the department each employee belongs to. The areas around the lockers are known as “neighborhoods.”
“We try to kind of instill the sense that you used to own a desk, but now you own the whole office,” Wilkinson said. “The workplace historically has been basically dreadful, and we want to make a contribution to turning things into a positive experience, rather than a negative one.”
Wilkinson, a South African-born architect who also designed Google’s corporate headquarters in California, is one of the pioneers of activity-based working.
In 2009, he built an activity-based space for the 3,000 employees of Macquarie Bank’s Sydney office, winning himself a bucket full of awards and persuading several other firms with big Australian offices to implement similar layout plans.
According to Wilkinson, 5 million square feet of Australian banking offices is now modeled on ABW, a setup he predicts will soon be the world’s dominant mode of office work, even in the U.S.
“We love it because we honestly think this is the future,” Wilkinson said. “This way of working is how people will work in 20 years time, so why not do it now and get ahead of your competition?”
So far, human resources associate Megan Crouch said the single biggest complaint she has heard about the new office has come from women who don’t know where to put the extra pairs of shoes they change in and out of during the day.
As a fix, the women in her neighborhood have commandeered a nearby closet and are storing their footwear there.
Meanwhile, Wilkinson said his biggest concern when the office opened was that employees would fall into the habit of sitting in the same place every day.
Sure enough, two women I spoke with told me that they and several colleagues swap spots but generally congregate at the same six-person table near their lockers. Unless, of course, a newcomer pushes them out of one of the neighborhood’s precious standing desks and forces them to find a spot elsewhere.
This competition for prime real estate is relatively rare at GLG, where the office fits 350 people, 100 more than the number of GLG employees working in New York — and about 125 more than are typically in the office on any given day.
The open space allows employees extreme flexibility, which GLG vice president Mukesh Chaudhary took advantage of the day before my visit in July. He told me that simply taking his laptop from the bottom floor to the top made his work more productive.
In doing so, he met coworkers he had never spoken to before and was able to look at the project he was working on in a different, more creative way.
“The new space is awesome,” Chaudhary said. “We had to change the way we do things, but I think that overall it has made us more efficient.”