Technology Aids Choices For Offices

July 10, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — On Ionia Avenue, just above the HopCat bar, is an office space that is shared by a variety of companies, including interior designers, a writer and Web site developers. One of those companies is a digital creative service company named Mighty.

“It was really a cost type of thing at the beginning because we didn’t need to drop a couple of grand a month in a lease and have to worry about all the tax implications and utilities, and we have all these great features of a normal office,” said Cliff Wegner, founder of Mighty, which does work in Web sites, motion graphics, advertising and more.

“The shared space really afforded us an opportunity to go in and, for a fixed amount of rent, get a space downtown and not just a little hole-in-the-wall space. We have everything under our one rent fee.”

Not too far away, on the other side of the Van Andel Arena, is the dual home of Clark Communications and Bird Design — another shared space.

“It’s really about the end results,” said Craig Clark, founder of Clark Communications. “We’re finding a lot of clients don’t necessarily care what the format is behind the magical walls of getting the product produced, (whether) we’re operating via a traditional brick-and-mortar environment or a 400,000-square-foot warehouse or we’re all working from home.”

As technology facilitates ease of communication, the type of office space companies require is changing.

Wegner runs the Mighty crew from his office space on Ionia, while his three part-time employees are just as likely to be working from home.

“If I’ve got all of them in here at once, somebody will work here in the office and another one might work out on the couch,” said Wegner. “Otherwise, since everything’s wireless, I can communicate just as easily if those guys are working at home. Everything from text messaging to e-mail — it’s really changed the way people work. I may not see Chris (Chiles, a part-time employee) for a whole week, yet he can get stuff done and done well because we’re able to communicate almost as if we were right next to each other.”

Clark Communication and Bird Design agree, noting that their clients come from all over the country.

“I have a client in Maine,” said Mark Bird, founder of Bird Design. “I’ll go back and forth through the review process with a client, and when it’s all done, I’ll send everything electronically to the printer (in another location), who then generates a digital proof, and then sends that back to me and also to my client. And then the next thing you know, it’s printed and sitting on your doorstep.”

Still, Bird and Clark believe that having that brick-and-mortar space is essential for many reasons.

“I had to weigh the balance of where I spent the majority of my day,” said Clark. “Still having that central base is important. What I realized was the benefits of having someone in the office with you for sharing creative ideas and bouncing ideas off of each other.”

Wegner also noted the benefits of sharing office space.

“It really became a nice little value for us to be collaborative with other people in the space,” said Wegner. “We’re fortunate enough to have space with some really great colleagues and tenants with us. Not necessarily doing the same thing that we do, but still in the same creative atmosphere.”

Having a physical location also lends credibility, said Clark, especially for clients who may have a hard time with the concept of companies not having an actual office space.

“And maybe five years down the road, maybe that won’t be such an obscure concept for people to grasp,” followed Bird. “I think sometimes people need to see that physical location. The whole other part about being in the same space is, I think if we were all truly isolated all the time — it would get lonely.”

Ginny Baxter, senior manager of workplace dynamics at Herman Miller, studies trends in the workplace and how companies are using space differently. Baxter also noted the paradox to Bird’s point.

“Space is being impacted tremendously through technology. What it’s done is enable us to be un-tethered from a specific site — from an equipment standpoint. And I say that sort of deliberately because we are still, at heart, a social species and still enjoy face-to-face communication.”

Baxter pointed to a recent survey of college students about types of communication that showed the majority preferred face-to-face communication. Baxter said that what her company has seen is not so much companies downsizing in their office space, but utilizing it differently.

More companies now support alternative working arrangements, such as working from home or from a satellite office. When people have those options, productivity increases — both individually and in group work, said Baxter.

By supporting alternative working arrangements, companies are relieved of providing individual work spaces, which allows for more group space. Baxter said increased group space increases the “rate of return” for a company by creating opportunities for decisions — “because people run into each other more often and you get a lot of benefits from a serendipitous encounter.”

Paula Edwards, workplace strategist for Herman Miller, referred to a BIFMA survey from 10 years ago that looked at how office space was divided.

“The ratio of space was approximately 73 percent individual workspace, compared to 27 percent group and community space. Now the ratio is a little bit closer to 60/40, so 60 percent individual space and 40 percent group and community space. Some predictions say that those ratios are going to come even closer together.”

Edwards continued, “Most people are at that 60/40 if they have redone their office in the last five years or so. What we’re doing, as Ginny said, is redeploying some of that under-utilized space. Instead of going out and getting more space to give your company the collaborative space they need, they’re taking a look at redeploying some of that underutilized individual space.”

Edwards and Baxter stated that using its office space in different ways allows for a company to serve a larger working population without having to add more square-footage.

Herman Miller has employed this philosophy in its Mobility Program. The program offers a trade of space for technology tools to employees who do not use their individual workstations often. If workers give up their workstations, they receive access to high-performance “hoteling” workstations, personal storage spaces, and various technology tools that may include laptops, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) on the laptops and a BlackBerry.

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