No desk of your own: The office plan of the future?

A growing number of Canadian companies believe it’s time to overhaul the old office layout where cubicles, offices and meeting rooms are the only options. The new buzzwords are flexibility and choice.

'People are working differently,' so backpacks are replacing fixed workspaces

Deloitte's new Toronto office building, featuring lime green floating staircases traversing a six-storey atrium, is the biggest investment the company has made in Canada. (CBC)

Imagine coming to work every day and not being sure where to sit. You don't have a desk — instead, you need to figure out what's ahead in your day and what type of space you need, and then find a spot.

That's life at the new Toronto headquarters of consulting firm Deloitte.

"There are about 18 different types of workstations on any given floor," explains Ryan Brain, the Deloitte partner who has overseen the transition to the new space and a new way of working for the firm's 4,500 employees in Toronto.

"We believe we're in an age now where people are working differently, where people are teaming differently, collaborating differently," says Brain.

The space is wildly stylish and modern, with lime green floating staircases traversing a six-storey atrium, a tented waiting area in reception, lots of natural light and designer kitchen areas that feature Starbucks coffee.

One of Deloitte's consultants, Kathy Woods, says the adjustment has been easier than expected. Hard to believe, given that a year ago she had a corner office with a beautiful view, inside another top Toronto firm.

Your office in a backpack

"This is my office now," she laughs, holding up a backpack. Inside are her computer, glasses, chargers, and everything else she needs to get through the day. She also has a locker, as all employees do.
Deloitte consultant Kathy Woods refers to her backpack as her office. (Deloitte)

"I'm enthusiastic for a number of reasons," she says, "the biggest being the opportunity to connect and collaborate in a fabulous way." 

Brain insists, "This is what our people are looking for. They're looking for a new way of work, they're looking for flexibility and they're looking for choice."

Deloitte is just one of a number of Canadian companies that believe it's time to overhaul the old layout where offices, cubicles, and meeting rooms are the only options. "There are many studies that show when we offer flexibility to the team, productivity increases as a result," says Brain.

The tech industry has long boasted high-concept workspaces with exposed brick walls and Ping-Pong tables aimed at appealing to millennials. Now firms in more traditional businesses are recognizing how a company's values can be reflected by its physical presence, and that working conditions can be a tool to attract and keep staff.
Along with a bistro-themed cafeteria and an on-site gym, Deloitte's head office features a meditation lounge. (CBC)

"Everyone wants to be involved in companies that are innovative," explains Annick Mitchell, an office designer who teaches at Ryerson University's School of Interior Design. "The design of the office has a very big role to play in terms of whether people think it's an innovative firm or not."

Meet me in the fun zone

A few blocks away in another tower, commercial real estate firm Colliers International has just moved to a brand new office with a new philosophy behind it. There are assigned desks for everyone, but there's an equal amount of floor space for people to wander free.

"We have a one-to-one ratio, so every seat that's assigned to somebody, we have a collaboration seat for them," says John Arnoldi, the company's executive managing director. He points to a lounge with restaurant-style booths, communal corners with couches that he calls "collision spaces" and a graffiti-filled hallway dubbed the "fun zone."

"You get stale sitting in the same spot doing the same thing all day long," Arnoldi explains.
The 'fun zone' at Colliers International's downtown Toronto office is a work in progress, as the company figures out how employees want to use it. (CBC)

It's a philosophy far removed from bosses' attitudes in the late '60s, when the office cubicle was introduced by Herman Miller, a Michigan-based office furniture company. Companies snapped them up. 

"Firms started to say, 'OK, we can actually save space,'" explains Ryerson's Mitchell. "And as the real estate crunch came and rents went up and up and up, it became more attractive to people."

It wasn't long, though, before critics began to describe cubicles as dehumanizing, and comedians made them the butt of jokes. In his novel Generation X, Canadian author Douglas Coupland called cubicles "veal-fattening pens."

Employees staying in the office longer

Of greater concern to corporations was research that showed cubicle dwellers weren't as productive — noise and distractions take a toll on the ability to focus. In a study done last year by Oxford Economics, participants ranked "the ability to focus and work without interruptions" higher than access to natural light and amenities such as on-site daycare and subsidized food. One of the study's conclusions: "People want to work."
Ryerson University Prof. Annick Mitchell believes people want to work with innovative companies, in innovative offices. (CBC)

Arnoldi of Colliers says he sees a new attitude with his real estate clients, too. More companies recognize that money saved on office space could be a false economy.

"For most businesses real estate only represents about seven or eight per cent of their total spend," he explains. "The rest of it is on people and resources, etc. So if you think about it, to save a couple of bucks a foot on something that's only seven per cent of your total spend doesn't make sense. You should be thinking about, how am I going to help my people be more productive?"

Arnoldi believes it doesn't take a psychologist to know that an employee who is happy and comfortable will perform better than one who isn't. He and Brain of Deloitte make the point that staff are actually spending more time in their modern new offices, which also boosts productivity.
A Deloitte employee sets up shop for the day in what the company calls its 'work with a view seats.' (CBC)

As for the unassigned seating plan, Brain admits the adjustment hasn't been entirely smooth. "It's a big change," he acknowledges, adding that some staffers have tried to claim a regular spot by leaving belongings such as a coat there.

"It's like going to a resort and you see the beach towels on the beach chairs in the morning and you can't find a spot," he laughs. "And that's what we're trying to discourage."


Dianne Buckner has reported on entrepreneurs for two decades. She hosts Dragons' Den on CBC Television and is part of the business news team at CBC News Network.