I n the Chinatown offices of District-based daily deal purveyor LivingSocial, employees sit elbow-to-elbow at a row of desks that span the width of the room. When it comes to personal work space, minimal is the company standard.¶ Unless, of course, you want to work in the ball pit. ¶ The firm — known for its crop of young, tech-savvy workers — filled a room with plastic, multicolored balls (think Chuck E. Cheese), oversized bean bag chairs and an Xbox game console. ¶ Internet companies have developed a reputation for their outlandish office space, and LivingSocial is no exception. But interior designers and architects say companies from a broad swath of industries have begun to reimagine the conventional office. ¶
The forces driving their design decisions are both economic and social. Many companies are shelling out fewer dollars on office space and stretching those they do spend further. That may mean fewer square feet per worker, dual-purpose rooms or shared desks.
Meanwhile, the proliferation of wireless technology and influx of Millennials has changed the way we do business. Home computers and portable devices allow employees to work remotely or hunker down with co-workers in communal work areas.
Take that, Cubicle Land.
The financial downturn left few corners of corporate budgets untouched, including real estate costs. Companies that reduce their overall footprint save on both rent and the amount of money paid to build out offices.
“There are going to be some clients that have to move, and they just don’t have a high budget ... and that’s going to be their focus,” said Kim Heartwell, senior vice president at Washington-based RTKL Associates.
“Many clients are saying, ‘I have a certain amount of money to spend, how am I going to get the best value out of this?’” she added.
That question has turned some local firms, including McLean-based contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, to use “hoteling” or “hot seating.” Regardless of the term-du-jour, it means employees work from the office sparingly, and use a shared desk when they do.
The option would not have existed before high-speed Internet became commonplace in urban environments like Washington. Now employers can require less-senior workers to log hours from home instead of from costly office space.
“If they take less square footage overall, they’re reducing their footprint and overall real estate costs, so that means they have to use their entire build-out budget effectively across the entire space,” said Jennifer Klein, principal at DBI Architects, a corporate design firm with offices in the District and Reston.
LivingSocial has dedicated a team to ensure its properties meet the company’s needs as in recent months it has added employees and office space faster than most, if not all, private employers in the region.
Alan Clifford, who heads the company’s culture and facilities teams, said LivingSocial has maintained a startup dynamic as it grows in part by limiting space to between 80 and 110 square feet per employee. Even CEO Tim O’Shaughnessy’s corner office fits just two extra chairs, a coat rack and freezer.
“When folks that have been VPs elsewhere come in to interview here, we make it pretty clear that there’s a good chance you’re not going to have an office and you’re not going to have private space,” Clifford said.
Other employers, however, still cut hefty checks. Software firm Vocus poured $12 million into the Beltsville headquarters it opened in late August. The 93,000-square-foot facility features a gym, intra-office radio station and themed conference rooms that create a “town” within an office.
During a speech to employees at its debut, chief executive Rick Rudman said that during the construction many skeptics had asked whether it was worth spending so much money on what is ultimately an office.
“Good question,” hollered an employee in the crowd. Even some inside the company had doubts, given the sagging economy.
But Rudman said the company sprung for a $10,000 coffee maker, indoor basketball half court and other big-ticket perks because they decided it helps retain employees.
“We didn’t spend our money on marble and expensive furniture,” Rudman said. “We put our money into the common areas and things that will be valuable for our employees. That’s the difference. ”
Chris Molivadas, a managing director in the District office of Jones Lang LaSalle, said that a reduction in spending also has come with a shift in where those dollars are allocated. Personal space is out, communal space is in.
“The place where you want to spend your money is where you have client interaction or meeting places for your own employees,” he said.
Some companies have tricked-out conference rooms with the latest technology. Others have added large kitchens and eateries or lounges lined with comfortable couches to work, read or socialize with coworkers.
Big tech firms pioneered this trend. Companies such as Google and Microsoft have made headlines — and attracted top talent — in part because of the corporate culture their work environments espouse.
“They wanted you to have services that were on a campus that allowed you to build your personal relationships ... with your co-workers,” Molivadas said. “One of the things that keeps people at a firm is their relationships.”
Sometimes the office is a place to blow off steam. Vocus built a dimly lit spa room with a saltwater fish tank where employees can have a quiet moment. LivingSocial offers a kitchen full of snacks, a skee ball machine and other diversions, depending on the location.
“If you are working ridiculously hard and just need that five-minute break, the space should allow you to do that,” Clifford said.
At some of the area’s more traditional employers — law firms, government contractors and the like — the trends have manifested in more subdued ways. Sure enough, there’s no ball pit in Northrop Grumman’s new Falls Church headquarters. But the 14-story building offers informal collaborative spaces on every floor where employees can plug laptops into a large monitor and work together around a small conference table. Its old Los Angeles headquarters had one or two similar spaces, a spokesman said.
Companies don’t need to move across the country to rethink traditional, said Klein at DBI.
“People are making sure they’re doing the right thing and they’re taking the time now to reevaluate what they really need in the future so they don’t just duplicate what they have now.”