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Workplace Standards: A Framework for Improving Large Real Estate Portfolios

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As an architect and project manager, I’m privileged to work with talented real estate and facilities professionals who are increasingly taking on more in their roles. On top of the many projects they already manage, they’re being asked to strategize about their company’s growth, figure out work-from-home strategies, and adapt their portfolio of offices for hybrid workers. I spend a lot of time thinking about how, as design professionals, my team and I can alleviate some of their load. How do we help our clients help themselves?

Enter workplace standards – guidelines for designing physical office environments. Workplace standards are a company’s “north star” for program and space requirements, office design features, lighting, equipment, furniture, finishes and technology needs. Tailored to each business, the standards help decision-makers in charge of building out new offices guarantee that their choices align with the company’s expectations. They ensure that a company’s Omaha office offers employees a similar working experience that their San Francisco-based colleagues enjoy while still leaving room for some regional variations.

Lasting benefits

My team and I have helped several recent clients implement workplace standards in their portfolio of offices, and we’ve seen many benefits. Some have a quicker ROI and are easier to quantify. For example, the standards can increase the speed to market when opening a new location, helping brokers quickly create office programs. Design teams can start creating floor plans as soon as the space is secured.

Other benefits are less tangible, at least at first. But these have a significant impact because they affect employees’ daily experiences – including those responsible for implementing the guidelines. We’ve witnessed how workplace standards can improve employee well-being, increase efficiency, and elevate job satisfaction; how they help represent and strengthen a company’s brand and culture; and how they can turn offices into destinations, which is vital for companies who want to encourage more remote employees to return to the office.

Reflecting on our recent design-standards work, three clients come to mind. Each had its own goals and metrics for success, but all three have leveraged the standards we helped them develop as a framework to deliver consistent, exceptional and familiar experiences to their employees.

Starting from scratch

We created new standards for one of our recent clients, taking cues from its marketing guidelines and team. The standards consider the typical range of employees for each office and the typical range of office sizes. They also identify design drivers – such as a consistent feel among locations – and opportunities for introducing unique office amenities like a water feature, fireplace, or artwork.

We helped the client break down a typical office program, specifying the ratio of private offices, workstations, conference rooms, break rooms and other support spaces for each office floor plan based on the anticipated employee headcount. The design standards drill down to room placement (i.e., the main conference room should have the best views, and the café should be tucked away from the public spaces); specify materials and furniture, including placement within a room; and identify specific needs for ancillary spaces like lockable cabinets and a printer drawer.

The company’s standards include case studies of offices that successfully integrate design elements. They demonstrate how one Midwest office implemented a wood soffit, an essential design feature standard at all office locations because it brings warmth and brand consistency. Another case study shows how the company’s Colorado office integrated a fireplace in the client reception area, a recommended feature for mountain locations or offices with cold winter climates.

Encouraging collaboration

We helped another company apply its existing workplace standards to a specific business unit. The revised standards are a starting point for collaborative project development, targeted for the customer operations leadership, customer operations site team, corporate services project team and facility team.

Intended to support consistent project delivery, the standards help these teams create spaces and communicate the company’s brand while delivering an exceptional employee experience. “We manage a vast number of moves, adds, and changes,” said a senior director with the company. “Having the standards allows us to manage these within or between buildings, or in some cases, between states.”

The guidelines acknowledge that every project has unique opportunities and constraints, so it accommodates some flexibility. For example, the standards encourage teams to showcase the company’s connection to the surrounding community through its artwork program that directs each office to curate several pieces from a local artist.

We’ve witnessed how workplace standards can improve employee well-being, increase efficiency, and elevate job satisfaction; how they help represent and strengthen a company’s brand and culture; and how they can turn offices into destinations.

Local teams look to the standards for guidance on environmental graphics intended to express individual office cultures. In conference rooms, for example, teams can choose gradient wallcoverings with dimensional lettering communicating an approved phrase of the team’s choice. Or they might choose a vinyl wallcovering with dimensional lettering and a metal panel for posting employee recognitions and other office notes.

Flexibility in the standards has macro-level advantages, too. “The biggest benefit of the standards has been the flexibility to utilize the rooms, like office, huddle, and others, for what is needed at any given point in time,” said the company’s senior director. Spaces are reliably flexible across the company’s portfolio, even if designed for a specific activity. Standardizing huddle rooms and offices on the same module means either can become the other in a short amount of time. 

The company’s workplace and brand standards allow the facility team to shift furniture and equipment between offices without compatibility concerns. Similar logic applies when employees need to relocate offices – the transition is a smoother process with the standards because team members can walk into their new space and know immediately how to use them.

A consistent approach to regional variety

Another client recognized the value of workplace standards to ensure its real estate reflects regional market factors and celebrates individual locations. The resulting document became a companion to the company’s real estate portfolio strategy, offering guidance for integrating office design elements at an appropriate scale and value to support each local workforce.

Depending on the size of the office, the standards provide different guidelines for the ratio of typical office space to regional variations. For example, small offices should follow the 90/10 rule – 90 percent standard and 10 percent local flavor. Large and extra-large offices may use the 70/30 rule because they are considered “flagship” locations and call for a corresponding experience. The more prominent locations usually engage more with clients and visiting employees, justifying efforts to infuse more local culture and flexibility for site-specific needs.

This client has a different approach to flexibility from the others. Where the flexible spaces at the other two companies might change once every year, here, the standards incorporate casual meeting spaces that can ebb and flow with offices’ daily needs. Intentionally kept simple, these spaces might be a standing - height table, a desk with a few chairs or a couch with seating for six. They accommodate quick, impromptu meetings – no reservation necessary – and can double as workstations for visiting employees. They might be breakout spaces in the morning, transition to hoteling stations for team members attending the afternoon’s all-company meeting, and revert to breakout areas the next day.

Growing Forward

Employees increasingly expect a hassle-free workplace, so I recognize the tall order my clients must fulfill, especially when managing dozens – or even hundreds – of office locations. Workplace standards ease the process of introducing new offices into an existing real estate portfolio or updating ones a company already manages.

They are also good for a company’s bottom line. Standards can generate significant cost savings because they create consistent real estate needs. For most of our clients, this means they save money on leases.

It is important to remember that the standards are living documents. The most successful ones are constantly updated to align with a company’s portfolios, reflecting its evolving needs, brand and culture. Today’s workplaces require consistent and universal planning so that as companies pivot and grow, their spaces keep pace.

Lynsey Grace, AIA
Project Manager : Associate

Lynsey, AIA, is a Project Manager and Associate in EUA's Denver office as a member of the Workplace Studio. When she's not in the office, Lynsey loves spending time with family and doing yoga.

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