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Work Space as Innovation Driver

Today’s workers are productive in a variety of settings that previous generations could not even imagine. For employers, this means an opportunity to create a stimulating space for non-employees who will happily pay for access and drive innovation for their host.  

“How do we make our spaces more flexible, more efficient and more fun?” asked Louis Hyman, professor of economic history at ILR and director of its Institute for Workplace Studies. “Do we need to have an office? What does it even mean to work together anymore?”

Hyman moderated a May 18 Future of Work panel discussion about reimagining workplace real estate to give employers a competitive advantage.

Technology and the Internet have empowered workers to demand and expect more than the traditional and confining staid office, forcing employers to up their game and their own thinking about workplace design and function.

“Now we are in an era where we really have an opportunity to think about the workplace as something that is optimizing for the knowledge economy, optimizing for the individual human performance, our creative capacity, and … our intellectual capacity,” said Melissa Marsh, founder and executive director of Plastarc and senior managing director of occupant experience at Savills Studley. “And that really puts a completely new demand on those visible work environments.”

Plastarc is a New York-based consulting firm that helps companies rejigger their approach on workplace design. While some companies are tailoring the workspace to serve and appeal to only their employees’ needs, others are creating a co-working environment or shared space that welcomes startups and entrepreneurs.  

One company well positioned to transform its vast real estate into co-working spaces that can also be revenue centers is Verizon. Much of its property was designed to accommodate giant telephone switchboards and other outdated equipment, but that “technology has shrunk over time and it frees up these pockets of space for us to repurpose,” said Nick LiVigne, Hum Ec ’07, who oversees workplace transformation for Verizon global real estate.

Verizon is working on turning its commercial property into co-working centers that foster a collaborative community between its own employees and outsiders, such as startups, that pay to use the space, LiVigne said. This is important as the firm shifts away from its legacy telecom roots and establishes itself a major player in the digital, technology and media sectors.

“The traditional R&D departments were these cloistered Bell Lab environments that are not turning out the innovation that they once were,” LiVigne said. “So looking to the outside and seeing innovation happening in the startup community is really interesting for a company like Verizon.”

The challenge for Verizon is to find out how “we can be purposeful with our design to create an environment that people want to come into and spend their money to reside within our spaces,” for what traditionally has been cost centers, LiVigne said.

Verizon is in the infancy of its co-working push, which includes outfitting a space in Singapore where half the floor will be Verizon employees and half will be for co-working tenants. The floor will share a reception area, break room and conference center, but the co-working community also gets access to a boardroom and a $100,000 video conferencing system that startups are likely not to easily find in other places, LiVigne said.

Marsh, whose company is working with LiVigne and Verizon, said firms need to think of their physical space as recruitment and retention assets for attracting top talent. Whether it is through Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat, word will get out fast about co-working friendly employers.  

“So really, what we are seeing is that companies are playing more and more with how they use space … and [that it is] no longer just space to accommodate people, or equipment,” she said. “That physical visibility through social media about the work place is really putting a new level of onus on the occupant organization, on the employer to think about that work environment.”

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