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D.C. area’s Top Workplaces are reimagining the office

(Photo illustration by Madia Brown.)

There’s no shortage of pressure these days to develop an enticing workplace culture. As the economy improves, more workers feel comfortable switching jobs, which can make it harder to retain the most talented workers. Evidence is mounting that there is a correlation between worker engagement and a company’s profitability.

So it’s no surprise that Washington area employers are striving to build the kind of workplace culture that makes top-notch employees want to stick around for the long haul.

Some are turning to Silicon Valley for inspiration, while others are adapting their policies to fit the attitudes of millennial-generation workers. Still others are moving to create a more integrated culture by building out their office space with teamwork and collaboration in mind.

This year, for the first time, The Washington Post has tried to identify the local workplaces that are leading the way. With the help of WorkplaceDynamics, an employee survey company, we canvassed thousands of workers from 244 local organizations to identify top organizations and get their thoughts on where the world of work is headed in the next few years.

A West Coast feel

It’s hard not to notice Silicon Valley’s imprint on perks being offered by companies around the Capital Beltway these days. Tech titans such as Google and Facebook have created all-purpose campuses designed for work, play and even doing errands. These types of benefits have become the hallmark of offices everywhere that are looking to create an un-stuffy vibe.

At Vocus’s Beltsville headquarters, employees can square off on an indoor basketball court, relax in a spa or grab lunch from local food trucks that the company schedules to swing by the office. The office, known to staffers as Vocus Town, was built to mimic a town center-type atmosphere.

“The productivity of our people is entirely related to the experience they have at work,” said Holly Paul, the company’s chief human resources officer.

Applied Predictive Technologies, an Arlington data analytics software company, took cues from a famous Google perk known as “20 percent time,” in which staffers are allowed to spend one-fifth of their time on a project they are passionate about, even if it is outside the scope of their regular job duties. At APT, engineers now get to spend several hours on Mondays working on data projects of their own choosing.

While many workers see these perks as a sign that their employer is investing in their holistic well-being, Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute warns that these models can have downsides.

“A lot of those perks are ways to keep people at work all the time,” Galinsky said.

Banishing the cubicle

Perks aren’t the only way local employers are aiming to convey and cultivate culture. Many times, you can get a powerful understanding of a workplace simply by looking around the office.

That is certainly true at Gensler, the architecture and design firm which renovated its Washington office last year. The K Street NW space is designed to have an open, airy feel, with conference rooms walled off in glass and no dividers between desks.

“There are no opaque boundaries that separate one area from the next, and I think that really fosters collaboration,” said Jordan Goldstein, a principal and managing director.

Indeed, the firms ditched under-utilized large meeting rooms in favor of small huddle rooms and other informal meeting spaces.

Goldstein said the firm is now pitching “hackable” designs, meaning the space can be reconfigured on the fly based on the type of work being done.

Even the location of an office is sometimes chosen with workplace culture in mind.

“When companies are selecting real estate now, they are often very focused on the neighborhood,” Goldstein said. “What is in a couple-block radius that encourages the company culture?”

What will be the next design trend for workplaces? Goldstein predicts it’ll be rooftop terraces. Gensler already has constructed several signature terraces and is looking to adding them at properties such as Tysons Tower, where space is protected by glass windscreens, creating an outdoor room.

The millennial influence

Some elements of workplace culture seem to be fueled by the proclivities of the millennial-generation employees who are poised to comprise 46 percent of the workforce by 2020.

“They definitely are looking for that flexibility because they grew up with that flexibility,” said Bruce Elliott, manager of compensation and benefits at the Society for Human Resource Management.

Many of this year’s Top Workplaces embrace some form of flexible scheduling, from telecommuting to adaptable hours. Some, including Arlington-based Definitive Logic and Fairfax-based Edelman Financial Services, even offer the possibility of doing a sabbatical.

Another benefit trend that seems to be driven by millennials is the move toward offering paid time off for volunteer work. Excella Consulting offers one day off each year for employees to roll up their sleeves for a charitable cause, while the National Restaurant Association grants employees two such days. Accounting firm Aronson offers its staffers a full 40 hours each year of paid time off for volunteering.

Michael Stroik, senior research analyst at the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy, says that companies’ move to offer this perk is in part driven by this young generation’s preference to not just give dollars, but to get actively involved with the causes that are important to them.

Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post's national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economic news.



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