Looking for Ideas in Shared Workspaces. Established Companies Hope Interaction With Others Will Spark Collaboration
The Wall Street Journal- Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Taking a page from start-ups, some established companies are opting to share their workspaces.
In downtown Grand Rapids, Mich., workers from five large employers, including furniture maker Steelcase Inc., SCS +0.22% shoe company Wolverine Worldwide Inc. and food retailer Meijer Inc., share an open, lofty space in a recently developed building.
[COWORK] The Grand Rapids Press/Associated Press
Businesses, such as Amway and Pennant Health Alliance, are opting to share space in the Grand Rapids, Mich., Grid70 building, shown here.
Employees are urged to wander from floor to floor, bounce ideas off one another and test out new products in the hope that such informal interactions will help spark collaboration, solve problems and generate new ideas.
In some cases, companies are renting desks in co-working spaces, with an idea that workers from different companies, and with different skill sets, can complement one another. Some companies are also turning to shared workspaces as a way to save money on pricey leases or to house employees in areas where they don't have other corporate offices.
While some companies say these co-working initiatives are too young to point to new products created from intercompany mingling, managers add the practice can help inject older firms with a start-up mentality and bring in new talent.
Teams from consumer-products and sales firm Amway Corp. and health-care provider Pennant Health Alliance also work out of the Grand Rapids building, called GRid70. About 30% of the building is shared space, such as meeting rooms and lounge areas. A "skunkworks room" to develop new projects is shared among the five employers, and workers are welcome to pop into meetings.
"One of the core design elements [of the building] is this idea of happy accidents, where people do not only collaborate with their core team, but they bump into somebody from somewhere else and it triggers some idea that they wouldn't have come up with before," says John Malnor, vice president of growth initiatives at Steelcase, who works out of the building.
Initially popular among start-ups and freelance workers, co-working spaces are gaining traction among bigger employers who want their staff to cross-pollinate, or interact with employees from other firms. Some 9% of U.S. co-working users in 2011 came from companies with more than 100 people, according to an analysis of some 1,200 co-workers from Emergent Research and co-working site Deskmag.com. Facilitating those companies are matchmaking services such as Loosecubes.com and LiquidSpace.com, which connect desk-seeking employees with unused space.
"What's appealing to the big businesses is they want to be near the places where the start-ups are," says Steve King, a partner at Emergent Research, which researches workplace issues.
Plantronics Inc., PLT -0.05% as part of a pilot program, recently bought a membership for about 40 of its 500 employees at NextSpace, a co-working facility with workspaces in San Jose, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Santa Cruz. The company hoped the move would be attractive to the 26% of its employees who lived in Silicon Valley, says Pat Wadors, Plantronics' senior vice president of human resources and facilities.
Having the company's employees in proximity to workers from smaller, newer firms comes with other benefits: "I like the passion of a start-up right next to a Plantronics that is 50 years old. It rejuvenates," says Ms. Wadors. Plus, she adds, "I can hire talent from them."
Shantanu Sarkar, vice president of software development at Plantronics, often works from NextSpace in San Jose. He says that he and other software engineers have benefited from being surrounded by potential customers of Plantronics' headsets.
For example, the company says workers have found that the new—and noisier—shared workspace means that it is harder to block out ambient office hubbub, an observation that may lead to improvements in the next generation of headsets.
To encourage "serendipitous interactions," employees at online retailer Zappos.com Inc.'s Henderson, Nev., headquarters only use one entrance and exit to encourage workers to literally run into each other in the building's lobby, saysZach Ware, Zappos' head of campus development.Tony Hsieh, Zappos' chief executive, is also developing a large co-working space in downtown Las Vegas, and Zappos employees are encouraged to work out of co-working facilities, the company says.
When workers are stuck on a tough problem, working outside of the office can help, Mr. Ware says. "Sometimes that change of scenery encourages you to think differently and that's what we want."
Software company Atlassian, for the past two years, has let data-management start-up WibiData work out of its San Francisco office space free of charge. In exchange, WibiData shares its expertise analyzing large data sets. "That has been very valuable—to have our guys go over and ask them questions," says Jay Simons, Atlassian's president.
WibiData has recently outgrown its space at Atlassian and is moving to another location. But that office is too large for its 12 employees, so it plans to "pay it forward" and share the remaining space with other firms, says WibiData CEO Christophe Bisciglia.
New customs tend to emerge wherever employees gather, and the openness of the GRid70 offices has led workers there to create an office-wide code of etiquette, says Steelcase's Mr. Malnor.
When someone has both headphones in, it means they don't want to be bothered. One headphone means they are trying to concentrate but are open for minimal interruptions. No headphones mean anyone is welcome to chat.