CBRE’s Georgia Collins on Current and Future Workplace Design Trends

Architizer Editors Architizer Editors

How do you become the world’s largest provider of real estate services? Not by merely brokering transactions, according to Georgia Collins. “At our best, we’re like city planners,” the CBRE senior managing director says of her work heading the western US division of CBRE’s Workplace Strategy practice. “Our focus is on helping clients make better decisions about how to allocate and occupy space, and how they can improve the experience of going to work generally.”

Because producing a better work environment is the ultimate goal of Collins’s process, design weaves into her dialogue with clients. She makes companies aware of design’s impact on the office experience, and helps them incorporate design into their portfolio planning.

This advocacy role makes Collins a keen observer of leading-edge workplaces. Earlier this year, Architizer and Allsteel invited Collins to compare notes with other design eyes as part of the partner companies’ “Designing for the Pace of Change” discussion series. Collins spoke at the San Francisco panel, which kicked off the four-city project. Intrigued by her insights, Architizer recently asked her to share more detail about workplace design’s state of the art.

Among your clients, what office exemplifies contemporary workplace design?

It is completely self-serving to say this, but I’d say ours! CBRE is in the midst of a tremendous initiative to rethink our own work environments. Through a program we call Workplace360, we’ve incorporated many of the elements we consider critical to a contemporary work environment: a variety of space types; user-friendly technology; an aesthetic that is true to our brand; service elements that make it easier for our people to do good work; and a focus on employee well-being in the office. These things add up to the fact that we trust our people to make good decisions about when, where, and how to get their best work done. In response, 95 percent of employees agreed that the company made a reinvestment in its people — while also decreasing necessary space across our portfolio.

Have you had clients who see an Autodesk or Google space and go, “Me, too!”?

Frequently, but I’ve also had as many clients say, “We’re not that.”

What drives these impulses?

I actually think that leaders of other organizations don’t want their workspace to look like a tech company so much as they want their organizations to act more like one: they see talented people doing innovative work to drive business value; what’s not to like about that? And because the most tangible thing they see is physical design different from their own space, they default to wanting the space.

On the other hand, people react only to the aesthetic of a tech space, and not the strategy or functionality underlying it. I hear a lot of variations of, “We’re a more professional organization. We don’t want or need beanbag chairs or bright colors.”

How should any client navigate between these two reactions?

I wouldn’t advocate that anyone fully copy an environment they really like. The key is not to replicate, but to understand what led to a decision — whether about overall office size or functionality, placement of a workplace element, or allocation of space. I have seen plenty of workplace solutions fall short of expectation because they were trying to replicate something without asking if it was appropriate to this organization’s culture, management style, geography, etc.

I believe an approach works when it is wholly aligned with how an organization believes it should function. Start by asking yourself what kind of organization you are and what kind of organization you want to be. The answers might yield a different kind of work environment, but it is much more likely to be successful.

Do you help a client figure out this path?

We ask a lot of questions, listen to the answers, and then play them back to our clients in such a way that forces them to truly prioritize their objectives. When you ask, “What are your goals?” you very likely to get a laundry list back: better collaboration, space for focus, increased efficiency, access to public transportation, better brand awareness, and so forth. But in the context of making tradeoffs, it becomes obvious very quickly what things are truly important and what are nice-to-haves.

What role should architects or interior designers play in the introspection process?

A number of people will probably hate me for saying this, but I think it is important to remember that not everything needs to have an immediate design solution. Asking thoughtful and thought-provoking questions is the most critical part of revealing problems that need to be solved. That said, the ability of designers to communicate visually at critical project milestones is hugely important. Helping people visualize a solution helps sell it.

What design features of the contemporary workplace are applicable to almost any kind of tenant?

Honestly, most of them are relevant. But if I had to choose, one is variety. There is much talk about how different job functions have different needs — but less conversation about different work preferences. By offering people a variety of places and spaces from which to work (and the technology to enable them to move between them effectively), we can prepare for a lot of differences in work patterns and preferences alike.

Admittedly, this isn’t a design solution, but managers also need to trust that their people will make the right decisions about where and when they work. A third and final feature is service: the office still needs to be better than all of the other places where people work; organizations that want their people to show up have to create environments you want to spend time in.

Do you have some change-management tips for executives overseeing a move into a new workspace?

Lead and listen are two. There is nothing more powerful than the statement, “I won’t ask you to do anything I am not willing to do myself.” Going all-in on a solution makes it easier for everybody to adopt it. As for listening, your people probably have really good ideas about space usage, etiquette, amenities, and other ways to make a move to a new environment work best within the culture of an organization.

Then there’s being honest. Don’t tell your people that a change in environment is all about improving business process if it is really only about driving greater efficiencies. They will see right through it. Hopefully your workplace change is aligned with a business objective, and the space illustrates the connection. But if reducing real estate expense is the goal, then be clear about that fact and how it will benefit the organization.

What workplace-design trends do you see on the horizon?

More accessories and more flexibility in lieu of more systems and rigid solutions: we expect to see spaces that are more adaptable to the immediate demands of the individuals and teams who use them. The idea that any expert (including us) can predict exactly what someone needs, when they need it, is an antiquated notion. Instead, a much more suitable solution is to provide highly flexible spaces that give this control to the users.

The increasing integration of technology into both furniture and elements like glass, lighting, and carpet. Not only will this shift make the information and tools we work with more readily accessible, but it also will provide a robust data set about people’s work patterns and how space is used. This data, in turn, will be used to tailor services to individuals and teams, in order to improve the work experience. (Between your Facebook account and your Amazon buying patterns, the world already knows everything about you already. Why not the office lighting system, too?)

Traditional boundaries will start to blur, as sharing increasingly becomes a core business strategy. This will lead to the creation of new “privileged spaces” that are neither public, nor entirely private. They will belong to a community — the tenants of a given building, perhaps — and include co-working spaces, networking lounges, preferred retail, and other amenities.

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