How do you attract and keep talent with cool office space in Portland?

[Editor: Culture is always a key component of attracting and retaining talent. And one of the physical representations of a company’s culture can often be the space it inhabits. Here are some ideas from Ajay Malhotra on how to think about using workspace more effectively.]

I recently had the privilege of participating in a panel discussion covering how to leverage the office environment for recruitment and performance. Since numerous surveys of local tech execs have indicated that talent recruitment and retention in Portland remains a key concern, The Technology Association of Oregon’s Human Resources Forum assembled a cross-section of experts to discuss the role the office environment can play in that discussion.

The idea was to hear from the actual users themselves (the office occupiers) and then get a perspective from real estate, architecture and furnishings professionals. Pam Armstrong, COO of Environments Northwest moderated the panel where I was joined by Mike O’Farrell, Director, Global Real Estate and Services at Jive Software; Mary Carvour, VP Global Human Resources at Viewpoint; Michael Stueve, Principal at SRM Architecture, and Tracy Wymer, VP Workplace Strategy at Knoll.

Having a conversation that brought together our breadth of functional expertise made for an interesting discussion. It is clear that an increasing number of employers are realizing that their work environment can have a dramatic influence on recruiting, retention and productivity. One panelist even suggested that for a tech company, having a cool space at the outset simply essential in a very tight labor market – implying that if the space is not inviting, you may be out of contention.

Some of my own takeaways:

1) Brand and culture

One area of consensus was that tech companies must focus on brand and culture very early on when contemplating workplace design—whether incrementally evolving existing space or when moving to a brand new environment. Simply saying that “we want to have an environment like Google does” over-simplifies the challenge. It does not adequately take into account your own unique business, geography, demographics—or trying to figure out how your workplace reflects and incorporates your brand and complements your own unique work culture.

Companies should consider evaluating the holistic impact of their surroundings on employees and clients alike. Flexibility and adaptability are key: offering a broad variety of dynamically reconfigurable work spaces permits employees to make the best space selection based on their needs (or mood) at any given time—with varying ranges of acoustical privacy and small vs. large team work, collaborative or group assembly spaces.

2) Creative Space vs. Workplace Strategy

The expression “creative space” is used frequently in discussions involving teamwork and collaboration, but creative space ≠ workplace strategy. One way to parse the discussion is to distinguish between physical design elements alone vs. a focus on improving teamwork, serendipitous interactions and idea generation within and across functional lines and organizational hierarchy. Said differently, simply moving to an open floor layout in a converted warehouse with exposed beams and ducting does not in any way ensure that employees will actually be more productive or work more effectively across teams.

A true workplace strategy aligns the physical workplace to business objectives, and comprehends the company’s core business, culture, functional roles and demographics. The strategy should include all improvement opportunities in the workplace across people, space and policies. This would entail taking a broad view early on considering how design, architecture and furniture can embody and reflect the company’s business strategy and culture.

3) Collaboration & Change Management

Sometimes, we can be quick to stereotype work styles across age demographics—for example, implying that the “younger” workforce seeks more mobile and collaborative environments at the exclusion of more tenured workers. Not only is this risky, but generalizing across work functions may lead to stress and unintended outcomes.

There are certainly at least “three generations” in the workplace—with vastly different expectations and needs. For some, the once coveted private corner office with a big mahogany desk and space for the brass lamp and family pictures along with expansive wall space to hang accomplishment awards and service plaques has no allure whatsoever. Some employees may place greater value on transparency and the ability to see others at work. Meanwhile those that worked extremely hard and feel that they have “earned” the right to occupy such spaces may cherish them and be reluctant to forsake them in the name of openness and collaboration. Yet, with diligent employee involvement, perhaps with committees across areas like collaboration, furniture, recognition, technology, health etc., this can be one component of a broader change management process.

This should be designed to enroll all employee demographics and functions in the process early and shape the outcome—with a higher likelihood of ultimate acceptance and success.

4) Health & Wellness

Despite increasing mobility enabled by technology, we often spend much of our working day within the office. Beyond a focus on providing a highly functional and visually appealing workplace, employers are increasing focus on employee health and wellbeing. A healthy workplace extends the focus of green design principles and LEED building certifications to individual employee health—i.e., environment and employee friendly design alike.

This can take many forms. Improving light and air quality by increasing the amount of natural light, using circadian light technologies and operable windows are increasingly popular. Fitness and wellness offerings which go beyond a stationary bike in the storage space to a properly outfitted, welcoming fitness room, on-site yoga, therapeutic massage and nutrition advisors, and of course more ergonomic furniture options, such as sit-to-stand desks, and customized chair and monitor height fittings are additional areas which are gaining in popularity. This can extend to being thoughtful about acoustical damping technologies, as noise levels may go up in open environments with avant garde flooring materials which may not absorb conversations well. On site bike parking coupled with bike repair (traditionally an offsite endeavor!) and even HVAC modifications to aid the rapid drying of soaking wet biking gear were also mentioned as locally appropriate innovations!

5) Performance and Productivity Metrics

With all of this in mind, how does one determine whether all of the work and investment to improve collaboration and increase productivity yields the desired result? Hard metrics such as attrition, recruitment conversion, and employee satisfaction surveys are some vehicles – but may not always be directly attributable to the changes made. One example of a soft metric was an employee who was quoted as saying “It just doesn’t feel like work!” after beginning to work in a newly transformed space (additional info).

Whatever the metric, ongoing post occupancy analysis is essential. It is wise to explicitly reserve budget to make course corrections when the best laid plans simply need to be changed after experiencing them first hand. Maintaining a culture of openness to candid feedback and adaptability will mean that this is process that is never truly over, but constantly being refined.

If you would like to explore these and related topics further, please reach out to Ajay on Twitter @ajaypdx or LinkedIn. You can read more from Ajay in the Portland Business Journal.

Ajay Malhotra spent the last twenty years globetrotting in the high tech industry, spanning large global brands and startups alike. He’s often described as a “geek who can speak”. Ajay is now taking his tech and business background and applying it to the service of the Portland tech community by helping them with commercial real estate solutions, workplace strategy and datacenters, locally and beyond. Ajay can be reached at ajay.malhotra@cbre.com or @ajaypdx or on LinkedIn.

  1. […] Malhotra, a panelist and veteran of the tech world, put together an interesting post of some of his takeaways from the discussion on Silicon Florist. We've highlighted a couple of […]

  2. Motivation:

    Happiness + health:

    Happiness and productivity:

    I agree with Joe. And I think a lot of good points have been made in this article. A lot of it boils down to Psychology. I read two fascinating books that shed light on the subject. One is called “Quiet” the other is called “The Highly Sensitive Person.”

    In my experience, most engineers lean towards the introverted end of the spectrum. Introverted people by nature are creative, but they are sensitive to external stimulation and aggressive schedules and prone to fatigue and burnout in stressful environments. Mental health is absolutely necessary for creativity and productivity.

    Also, the desire for collaboration is understood. But a certain level of autonomy is necessary for a creative person to thrive and be happy. Happiness is a reflection of mental health plain and simple. And again, a healthy mind is necessary for productivity and creativity.

    This also means that work/life balance is key.

    Some interesting talks on the subject below. I sincerely hope that more software companies will understand and employ these concepts. Those are the ones that do will see higher retention rates among employees.


    Happiness + health:

    Happiness and productivity:

  3. It’s not about productivity, it’s about culture and communication… Or did you not read the article?

  4. Lots of studies showing what many long-timer programmers know: open offices with lots of distractions are a productivity damper and also unhealthy. Business like it because it’s cheap and they wrap it in spin about collaboration, but that’s bogus. A google search will find you the studies, but here’s one to get you going: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/currency/2014/01/the-open-office-trap.html

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