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Sunday, 09 June 2013 22:00

Changing work dynamics helping shape urban work environments

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The Factory founder Aaron Schaap says interactions that happen in coworking spaces like his, which is located at 38 West Fulton Street in downtown Grand Rapids, serve as a microcosm of the activity that happens in urban environments. “Having these types of places creates a culture that just feeds on itself,” he said. The Factory founder Aaron Schaap says interactions that happen in coworking spaces like his, which is located at 38 West Fulton Street in downtown Grand Rapids, serve as a microcosm of the activity that happens in urban environments. “Having these types of places creates a culture that just feeds on itself,” he said. MIBIZ FILE PHOTO

Editor’s Note: This edition continues the six-part series on the subject of urbanism using examples from across the region to highlight concepts on the minds of local professionals. Practitioners say city building — or placemaking, as it’s often called — is all about people. The way we work, live and play continues to change and the infrastructure around us is always playing catch-up. This series aims to open the discussion about how professionals in West Michigan think the region must adapt to thrive in the new economy.

A seemingly contradictory mix of greater independence and increased collaboration is helping reshape the traditional models of workspace and development in urban areas.

The adoption of new technologies in the workplace means workers’ requirements for space have changed, and their shifting attitudes have developers thinking differently about how modern offices need to function.

In effect, that change has translated into the development of more coworking spaces and non-traditional offices throughout urban areas in West Michigan.

“Between the economy and increased mobility there are a lot more freelance individuals or sole proprietors, most of which are not interested in the overhead expenses involved with a traditional office space,” said Brain Swem, an architect with Grand Rapids-based Lott3Metz Architecture LLC. “A coworking environment creates a social atmosphere where individuals can interact with each other, which they do not have an opportunity to do so as sole proprietors.

“Coworking spaces have the opportunity to foster collaboration across companies bringing expertise to projects that might not have existed in a traditional work environment.”

Thanks to advances in technology, workers can better stay connected to one another and to their work, said John Malnor, director of growth initiatives for Steelcase Inc. That means public transportation can suddenly turn into a place for work, for example.

Steelcase researchers have also studied the idea of “collaborative consumption,” which deals with how people share and use elements in a space. In this concept, desks and similar objects aren’t individual spaces, but shared assets. Work environments must have a “palette of space,” a term Malnor uses to refer to a workplace having the right tools for the job at hand.

A number of high-level trends are contributing to the shift in workplace infrastructure. For one, an approaching demographic shift has the millennial generation comprising 46 percent of the workforce by 2020, according to a study from the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Additionally, the demand for a greater work-life balance, upstream integration of technology, a more entrepreneurial climate and the embrace of more collaborative day-to-day practices have all translated into new physical requirements in the workplace.

Professionals in West Michigan are taking note of the transformation and the region is starting to explore how urban development is adapting to employer and employee needs in the future, sources said.

“The space between our work and the way we live is changing, and that is shaping how we work,” Malnor said. “Creating organizational environments is an exciting area to be in right now. A lot of what’s happening is driven by technology, but there is a cultural shift that is letting go of some workers’ fixed space. Of course, there is an adoption curve with any change, but it starts with work you’re doing.”

The rise of coworking

Some West Michigan developers have already seen the changes coming and began putting together so-called coworking spaces, essentially open environments that encourage collaboration and are designed around plug-and-go workers.

GRid70, 654 Work Cottage and The Factory in Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo’s The Bureau are all coworking spaces that involve different levels of collaboration between businesses and between individuals.

Other sources pointed to Workantile in Ann Arbor as a coworking space that’s creating a greater community network because of its street-level location in a busy part of the city’s downtown.

The coworking model, in general, is meant to create activity and help build networks of people and companies with varying skills. The outputs of individuals in these types of spaces can range from spinning out new businesses and developing new products to just creating a vibrant hub of productivity, sources said.

Aaron Schaap, founder of The Factory and of web development firm Elevator Up, said his coworking space at 38 West Fulton Street in Grand Rapids has more than 50 members, and roughly 500 to 600 people move through the space in a given month.

With The Factory, Schaap said he wants to create a village of freelancers, mobile workers and entrepreneurs. Members of The Factory have worked on an array of projects ranging from health care and education to helping launch satellites into orbit.

“People want to choose when and where they work and who they work with,” Schaap said. “This kind of space, in the simplest terms, is about connections.”

GRid70 offers a different spin on the coworking model. Instead of serving as a haven for individual entrepreneurs, the GRid70 concept offers company-to-company coworking space. The Grand Rapids facility houses the test kitchens of Meijer, Steelcase’s growth initiatives group, footwear designers from Wolverine World Wide Inc. and business developers from Amway.

While employees from the various companies aren’t mixed into to one collaborative stew, each company operates in its own space in the four-story building. The companies keep an open concept floor plan with a number of lounges and conference rooms that invite interaction between those working there.

The high-level goal for all these types of arrangements is to spark innovation and get companies and individuals to cross-pollinate, solve problems together and create new ventures, sources said.

In a sense, coworking spaces are just microcosms of the activities and interactions that take place in the urban environment, Schaap said.

“Having these types of places creates a culture that just feeds on itself,” he said.

Not your parents’ office

Companies have begun to embrace new work styles in an effort to become more efficient while encouraging employees to be more innovative. They’ve come to realize that they in many cases can go without dedicated office space for every worker and have instead opted for more touchdown space for on-the-go workers when they do stop into the office.

Wireless Internet access and places to interact with colleagues are almost more important than filing cabinets and desks, sources said.

These changes have some architects and property owners thinking the days of suburban offices could be numbered.

“Technology has finally gotten to a point where most people can work from anywhere,” said Swem of Lott3Metz. “This may have been technically possible for a number of years, but only now is it available to and becoming comfortable for the masses. This means that a coffee shop, a park, someone else’s lobby or a bus can be my office.

“The office environment is less a place of work and more a place to collaborate and share.”

As more work is completed on a computer, tablet or smartphone, employees can occupy significantly less space than they once needed, he said.

Today, employers are even starting to track how and when spaces are used, ultimately helping them use their office space more efficiently.

“The state of the economy over the past few years had everyone looking for efficiencies that would help them stay afloat,” Swem said. “People can’t afford to pay for space that they don’t need. Collaborative work environments require that people be available to one another, which means that private offices are no longer a viable option.

“Six private offices take up a lot more space than six workstations.”

Both Schaap from The Factory and Steelcase’s Malnor said that a rise in project-based or contract work is one of the key drivers helping retool traditional workspaces. Employees of companies, while still considered full-time, are set to work on very specific projects with varying timelines. Often when the project is complete, the employee moves on or starts a new initiative. These types of workers do not necessarily need a dedicated office or cubicle, they said. Instead, a coworking facility can offer a touchdown point with all the amenities the worker will need at a fraction of the cost of a traditional office.

With people changing jobs as often as every three to five years and not staying within one industry, coworking spaces just makes sense for how an increasing number of people work, Molnar said. The coworking spaces can also help expand a person’s network, which can be useful when it’s time for the person to move on, he added.

“A lot of young people want to work in urban centers and don’t plan to be with a company for the next 25 years,” he said. “That’s considered somewhat old-fashioned.”

For companies, this could mean that higher turnover is the new normal and a bigger reason to focus on environments that attract talent, he said.

Most university graduates just aren’t programmed to go to work for a big company and stay there until they retire, said Craig Hall, a serial entrepreneur, founder of GR Tech Hub and owner of the Leonard building where The Factory is based.

“There are a lot more independent contractors and freelancers out there,” Hall said. “People realize there are other paths to success along with the power of entrepreneurship. The ability for talented people today to work on a project-by-project basis just wasn’t there before. People are developing more specialized skill sets that can be transferred between companies. This generation is more confident with that.”

A more balanced work-life schedule is also a must for employees today. Early on in his career, Hall said he used to look at work as 12 hours a day, seven days a week. However, work today is of a much more social nature and people are working on their own terms, he said.

All the changes have some developers wondering whether corporate offices could become a relic. In fact, Steelcase’s Malnor said a traditional campus and headquarters is still very necessary for talent attraction and retention and ensuring IP security, as well as for serving as the core of a company’s culture.

Enhancing the urban experience

The shifting workplace needs mean many companies are thinking differently about locating in the core urban areas and downtowns of cities including Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, sources told MiBiz.

“If you think about these developments in the context of urbanism, I actually believe that things like shared workspaces should be planned into the city infrastructure,” Malnor said. “It’s a way to bring life and vibrancy to a downtown that enhances the value of related developments.”

Some cities, including Ann Arbor, are encouraging coworking space for first-floor developments, Malnor said. The Workantile model is a hub for community activity in much the same way Start Garden has attracted creative entrepreneurs to downtown Grand Rapids, he said. Both concepts take advantage of the visibility that comes with the street-level space traditionally reserved for retail developments.

“There is a need to invest in ways that make urban areas more attractive with the amenities people are looking for,” said Arnold Weinfeld, director of strategic initiatives and president of the Michigan Municipal League Foundation. “Coworking spaces, live-work spaces and companies moving into and sharing space in downtowns are big part of that revitalization effort.”

A recent Smart Growth America survey, “Building Better Budgets,” concluded that developing in dense urban areas cuts down on city infrastructure costs by 38 percent. The study also found that city service costs are 10-percent less and property values are 10-times higher in dense urban areas compared to fringe properties.

“A lot is going to depend on local leadership,” Weinfeld said. “What we as an organization are trying to do is educate policymakers and local leaders to understand the realities of how the new economy is emerging.”

Read 5158 times Last modified on Friday, 19 July 2013 12:14

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