Published in Manufacturing

As office spaces change, design remains top of mind for employers

BY Sunday, June 26, 2016 11:11am

Grand Rapids-based law firm Miller Johnson Snell & Cummiskey PLC recently joined the growing ranks of companies ditching aging, inefficient offices for modern space better suited for collaboration.

After moving in May to the recently-completed Arena Place development in the burgeoning Arena South neighborhood of Grand Rapids, Miller Johnson executives say they hope their new offices become a catalyst for a larger culture shift at the nearly 60-year-old firm.

“I’m an employment lawyer, so I know that businesses everywhere are looking to drive employee engagement and that the working environment can affect mood and culture,” said Nathan Plantinga, a member of the firm and co-chair of Miller Johnson’s recruitment committee.

From a recruitment standpoint, Plantinga said moving the firm’s culture forward will come in many steps, but he concedes that the physical environment at Miller Johnson accounts for a big part of that change.

“The space is hopefully just one contributing factor to what we hope is Miller Johnson’s culture,” Plantinga said. “But space is important. We spend a lot of time here in this physical environment. I think that an abundance of natural light affects mood. The design of space naturally brings people together when they otherwise — because of the business of the day — wouldn’t encounter other people.”

Miller Johnson’s new offices offer a number of amenities like high-tech video conferencing capabilities and a variety of spaces that allow for private office work or communal gatherings. 

Additionally, law firms increasingly need less space as large legal libraries shrink in favor of digital storage and as offices become more uniform in size regardless of the person’s position or tenure. To that end, Miller Johnson reduced its overall physical footprint by approximately 15 percent as a result of the move to Arena Place. 

“All of it is designed to make our work efficient and ultimately to add value to our clients,” Plantinga said.

FOLLOWING FAKE TRENDS?

As more professional service firms opt for modern open office layouts, some architects wonder if companies are being too quick to jump on new design bandwagons rather than relying on workplace data and research.

“I think all too often workplace strategies have been developed not based on any evidence-based research but based on trends,” said Arnold Levin, principal of workplace strategies at Detroit-based SmithGroupJJR Inc., an international architecture firm. “Most of those trends, for better or for worse, have been forced on us by the furniture manufacturers. Not to insult the furniture manufacturers, but I think the reality is there has not been a unique thought in the world of workplace strategy (in several years).”

Speaking on a panel in June at the NeoCon office furniture industry trade show in Chicago, Levin said more companies he works with are designing their spaces with the purpose of attracting and retaining millennial workers in mind.

But for his part, Levin rejects the common storyline that conflict exists between older and younger members of the workforce and that strategies to tailor workspaces to a particular generation have had any impact on how people work. 

Levin concedes the generations in the workforce have their differences, particularly concerning their comfort levels in using technology. But he said generations also share many similarities, noting that the conflict narrative exists “to both sell workplace strategy services and to sell furniture.”

“This whole notion that there’s this conflict is, by and large, erroneous,” Levin said.

Interestingly, some office furniture executives seem inclined to agree. 

Jim Keane, CEO of Grand Rapids-based furniture manufacturer and designer Steelcase Inc., told MiBiz that employers are shortsighted if they create workplace environments specifically for what they believe the younger generation desires.

“We certainly do generational work like everyone else, but we do it with a long view because we know that every generation is different when they’re 25 than they are when they’re 45,” Keane said. 

While real or perceived generational conflicts may create challenges for office developers, it’s also difficult to renovate aging buildings into modern spaces that companies want, said Sam Cummings, managing partner of CWD Real Estate Investment Inc.

The Grand Rapids-based property management and development firm is renovating the dated Calder Plaza building in downtown Grand Rapids — which formerly housed Miller Johnson’s offices — and is repurposing it for new tenants. 

According to Cummings, his company’s challenge comes in striking a balance between designing street-level access and common areas for tenants while also having the right kind of individual office spaces for a diverse group of users. 

“For all the talk of innovation in the workplace — which is occurring, but it’s always fluid — there’s still a lot of individuality among user groups,” Cummings said. 

While Cummings believes facility design plays a significant role in the success of a development project, he said many tenants seem drawn to repurposed buildings, in general. 

“The greatest trend for us is just reinvesting in these buildings that haven’t been touched in a while,” he said. 

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