By LAWRENCE W. CHEEK
MARTHA CHOE’S ideal working space is not her private office, nice though it is, but rather a long, narrow table in the vast atrium of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation headquarters here.
The table, situated in a 33-foot-high open mezzanine, enjoys great swaths of daylight through the atrium’s quarter-acre of glass, and has a stunning view of the Space Needle three blocks away. It’s not private, or quiet, but Ms. Choe has everything she needs stuffed into her laptop, and she finds the space inspirational.
She points out one further attraction: “That’s Nelson Mandela’s shirt on the wall behind the table.”
Ms. Choe, a former member of the City Council here, is the foundation’s chief administrative officer, and she had considerable input in the building’s design. One objective from the start was to give the 1,000 employees a variety of spaces to accommodate different kinds of work. “There’s a recognition that we work in different modes, and we’ve designed spaces to accommodate them,” she says. “I think one of the lessons is to understand your business, and understand what your people need to do their best work.”
The building was designed by NBBJ, a 700-employee architecture firm whose largest operation is in Seattle. The structure is a culmination of ideas about the 21st-century workplace that NBBJ has been exploring in corporate office designs worldwide, including its own offices here.
These are the main concepts: Buzz — conversational noise and commotion — is good. Private offices and expressions of hierarchy are of debatable value. Less space per worker may be inevitable for cost-effectiveness, but it can enhance the working environment, not degrade it. Daylight, lots of it, is indispensable. Chance encounters yield creative energy. And mobility is essential.
This isn’t a suddenly exploding trend. NBBJ’s research has found that two-thirds of American office space is now configured in some sort of open arrangement. But even as these designs save employers space and money, they can make office workers feel like so many cattle. So how to humanize the setting?
SEATTLE serves as a test tube because of several converging factors: There’s a lot of money here to experiment with projects. The work force is relatively young and open to innovation. And the local culture places a high value on informality, autonomy and egalitarianism. People will put in long hours under high pressure if they feel respected, but they won’t tolerate being treated like Dilberts.
Most office workers in Seattle and elsewhere labor in environments much less inspiring than Ms. Choe’s. And most employers have much less to spend to make things pleasant. (Bill and Melinda Gates personally contributed $350 million of the campus’s $500 million cost.) But staying competitive requires coming up with the best ideas, and the office environment can be the incubator for them.
NBBJ occupies two 38,000-square-foot floors of a midrise office building it designed in 2006. The architects often walk clients through it to show how an open environment works. There’s not a private office or cubicle anywhere, and there’s constant low-level hubbub: people in motion, and gathering into small groups. The tour makes some clients nervous; they wonder how their own workers would concentrate in such an environment.
People adapt, the architects tell them.
“You have spaces where you go and seek refuge,” says Eric LeVine, an NBBJ architect. “Or you hunker down at your desk, maybe you put your headphones on, and people will know to leave you alone.”
Brent Rogers, another architect at the company, adds: “If someone’s wanting privacy, they’re sending out signals that tell you. You become more sensitive to body language in an open office environment.”
Not far away in the city, the buzz level is even higher at Russell Investments, the asset management firm that moved its 1,000 employees into new, NBBJ-designed quarters in October 2010.
The firm’s former home was traditional: 16 floors of a skinny high-rise with perimeter offices for the brass, cubicle farms for the masses. Now, they’re folded into just five floors There are no private offices; the chief executive occupies an ordinary desk along a row of other ordinary desks. A glowing blue acrylic sign, rising from the floor, playfully reads “Office of CEO.”
The new home saves the company money. Jennifer Tice, a Russell spokeswoman, says the leased square feet per employee is 30 percent less than in the former office building.
What Russell employees talk more about, though, are the different ways their new environment feels and functions. “Ninety percent of it is positive,” says Ron Bundy, chief executive of the Russell Index Group. “It really helps a lot on these gray Seattle days to have all this natural light coming in. Because of all the buzz, people feel more like they’re part of the broad success of the organization, rather than just their own team.”
“Where it can be a challenge,” he acknowledges, “is if I’ve got a client conversation coming in 10 minutes and I really need to prep for it.”
As one of the company’s top executives, he enjoys a corner, if not an office. Generous windows on two sides provide views of Elliott Bay and part of the downtown skyline. There are a pair of stylish B&B Italia chairs for impromptu meetings. But there are no file cabinets or bookcases.
Some employees don’t even claim permanent workspaces; they call themselves free-deskers, and they simply take whatever is available each day — with a preference, naturally, for good views and proximity to their teams. Some of them are on the road more than they roost in the home office, so the company saves by not having to maintain empty space in their absence.
Mr. Bundy says he believes the environment has engineered a subtle but significant shift in the firm’s culture, by eliminating the office as a status symbol. “The big benefit is that there’s a whole host of really talented informal leaders in the building, and they have an opportunity to shine and have more of an impact,” he says. “This has really opened up opportunities for people without formal titles.”
NOT all of NBBJ’s corporate clients have boarded the informality-and-buzz bandwagon. When the R.C. Hedreen Company, a real estate development firm based in Seattle, commissioned a renovation of a 10,800-square-foot floor in an old downtown office building five years ago, it specified a perimeter of private offices. Collaborative spaces are provided for creative teamwork, but the traditional offices remain the executives’ home ports.
“Individually, a lot of our workday is taken up with tasks that are better served by working alone in private offices,” says David Thyer, Hedreen’s president.
Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” is skeptical of open-office environments — for introverts and extroverts alike, though she says the first group suffers much more amid noise and bustle.
Introverts are naturally more comfortable toiling alone, she says, so they will cope by negotiating time to work at home, or by isolating themselves with noise-canceling headphones — “which is kind of an insane requirement for an office environment, when you think about it,” she says.
Ms. Cain also says humans have a fundamental need to claim and personalize space. “It’s the room of one’s own,” she says. “Your photographs are on the wall. It’s the same reason we have houses. These are emotional safety zones.”
The campus of the Gates Foundation addresses some of these concerns. Foundation executives started with a model that proposed that 70 percent of all offices be of the closed variety. In collaboration with NBBJ, the model evolved to a mix of 60 percent open and 40 percent closed, with a variety of open and closed “retreat” spaces that enable different personalities to find the work environments they need.
The campus occupies 12 acres of prime real estate next to the site of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. It includes two boomerang-shaped buildings dressed in glass and European limestone, and a vast private courtyard with sculptures and water gardens.
Local online news articles have prompted reader comments that seem equally divided between admiration for the design and criticism that a nonprofit foundation would spend half a billion dollars on itself. But the foundation’s employees “are working on some really tough, overwhelming problems,” says Kelly Griffin, an NBBJ architect, so the objective was a building that made people more interactive and productive.
Steve McConnell, managing partner at NBBJ, says the boomerangs’ transparency is their key quality. Gates employees often travel the world, and research shows that exposure to daylight cycles helps people recover faster from jet lag. People circulate along perimeter halls with glass curtain walls facing the courtyard; the constant movement animates the entire complex.
Stairwells are positioned to land at hubs with coffee stations, copy machines and informal furniture groupings, so that employees from disparate departments can enjoy random meetings. All can move freely around the campus, working wherever they want. Everyone’s laptop is equipped with a Microsoft platform that enables instant-messaging, phone and videoconferencing, and people-finding tools.
In good weather, hundreds of workers migrate outside to varied landscapes in the courtyard — designed by the landscape architects Gustafson Guthrie Nichol of Seattle. Other favorite locales are the noisy atrium and the contrastingly quiet “diving boards” — the ends of hallways that cantilever into space surrounded on three sides by floor-to-ceiling glass and furnished with just a couple of chairs.
A sampling of employee opinion shows that people use and appreciate the options. “Maybe just moving from your usual space into another place that’s really interesting, maybe that has glass all around, changes your perspectives of what’s possible,” says Alan White, deputy director of operations management in the foundation’s United States program.
Siri Oswald, a senior program officer in global development, says the spaces for congregating allow people to eavesdrop productively. “You hear people talking about something and you realize it’s relevant to you,” she says, “and then you just seamlessly integrate into it without having to schedule a meeting.”
Some employees say the building is still too quiet; in fact, there’s now a company ban on whispering.
Last fall, four months after the Gates Foundation’s move-in, NBBJ conducted a post-occupancy evaluation of the campus and found that 90 percent of the surveyed employees rated it as “excellent” or “good” over all. Some 86 percent called it an “inspiring” environment, and 89 percent confirmed that the buildings support informal collaboration. While these are high approval ratings, one wonders why — for a half-billion dollars — they shouldn’t be closer to unanimous.
“I don’t know if I want it to be 100 percent,” Mr. McConnell responds. “We’re trying to challenge people to move out of their comfort zone. So there is an adaptation to a new environment, new relationships, what you might frame as healthy disruption.
“Are we searching for perfection, or searching for a particular way we want to stimulate collaboration?” he asks. “Maybe some are a little out of their comfort zone. I think that’s O.K.”