The Minneapolis office of global architecture firm Perkins and Will measures the success of its 2016 move to a free-address studio environment

By Christopher Hudson
In January 2016, Perkins and Will’s Minneapolis studio made two big moves in one: from the historic Essex Building to the modern IDS Center, and from assigned workstations to a mobile workplace for all 72 of its employees. While no relocation is easy, the shift to free address was the more seismic change. Perkins and Will was the first—and is still the only—large architecture studio in Minnesota to make that leap. And it hasn’t looked back.

“Our old studio didn’t fit with how we work as architects and designers,” says Tony Layne, AIA, managing director of the Minneapolis studio. “We work on multiple teams, with multiple people. We needed a space that supports that.”

“There was also a sense of wanting to have more understanding of what our clients are experiencing in these environments,” adds Lisa Pool, the studio’s director of planning and strategies. “We knew it would give us more awareness and understanding of how mobility can be done well.”

David Dimond, FAIA, design director of the Minneapolis office, sees the studio’s embrace of unassigned workspace in a larger cultural context. “In almost everything we do, whether it’s higher education or healthcare or workplace, we’re designing flexibility and choices into our projects,” he explains. “The aim is for each and every employee to feel empowered in their work—to be able to deliver to their highest potential.”

Layne, Pool, and Dimond sat down with Architecture MN to look back on the studio’s first three years in a fully free-address environment—and to share the results of a comprehensive workplace survey that measured employees’ experience in a wide array of areas.

Adaptability was paramount in Perkins and Will’s shift to a mobile studio, so the firm designed its 9,800-square-foot space to have relatively few fixed elements. Four freestanding, glass-box meeting rooms, a kitchenette backed by four conversation booths, and a large conference room are the only immovable objects. Everything else can be picked up or rolled on casters to a new location. The conference room, too, is highly adaptable: A glass-paneled garage door allows it to open onto an airy café for events and office-wide meetings.

“We worked hard to engage our entire team in the process,” says Layne. “We held a daylong workshop over here [before the move], committed to regular communication on what was happening, and provided ample opportunities for staff to give feedback, even on the design. I think everybody felt like we were building a new home together.

“The other key to our success was, we went all-in on the change to free address,” Layne continues. “We said, ‘We’re doing this together, and we’re going to succeed or fail together.’”

“We had to trust ourselves to have the skill set to solve any problems that might arise,” adds Dimond. “Not everything can be figured out ahead of time, no matter how hard you try. That’s what’s been the most fun for us—recognizing that the space may not be perfect, but it will be the best and closest to perfect in helping us operate. And then we’ll live in the space and continue to learn.”

Figuring out a pleasing arrangement of workstations, meeting rooms, lounge seating, and social spaces is fun. Less enjoyable is budgeting for the technology that free-address spaces require. Perkins and Will made several key investments, including in universal docks and monitors on arms throughout the office; a laptop, headset, and mouse for every employee; and fast WiFi.

“Mobility doesn’t work without the right technology,” says Pool. “When a client says they want to consider this, we always meet with their heads of HR and IT, to understand if they’re willing to make the people investment and the technology investment to support it.

“One of the challenges we’re facing in our office, for example, is the fact that we just equipped all our designers with higher-powered laptops that can handle the increasing graphic requirements of design software,” she continues. “They’re basically gaming laptops, which are bigger and heavier, and have a very heavy power cord. Grabbing your [no longer lightweight] laptop and heading to a meeting is different now, so we’re buying extra power cords to have everywhere, to lighten the load for people.”

“Giving teams the ability to self-organize according to the needs of the project on any given day is one of the biggest benefits for us,” says Pool. Project teams expand and contract, and they assemble for different durations. An adaptive environment is designed to accommodate any number of fluctuations. But it also poses a few challenges, especially for new employees.

“For new hires, there’s less of a structure or a framework in the architecture to help them connect with one or two other people,” says Layne. “They might be sitting next to somebody new every day. On the one hand, that’s great—they get to meet lots of people. On the other, they don’t always build the deeper, stronger relationships as quickly. So we’ve worked to implement things like assigning new people a buddy for the first few weeks. It helps to purposely connect people rather than wait for it to happen naturally.”

To keep things tidy in a studio with so much movement, employees tuck personal items in lockers and clean up their desks at the end of each day. And when product and material samples and printed sets of drawings start to pile up on tables and floors, an office-wide,  pizza-powered cleanup session is scheduled.

Still, storage and housekeeping measures have yet to be perfected. “I wish we had a better system for storing physical materials and making them more mobile, possibly with carts,” says Pool. “A lot of stuff ends up on the floor for stretches—or, worse, on radiators.”

So what do Perkins and Will’s Minneapolis employees think about their mobile experience?  In summer 2018, the studio engaged Leesman, a global workplace-effectiveness benchmarking firm, to conduct a survey of all staff members and measure the results against those for thousands of other workplaces around the world. The survey quantified the importance that employees attach to a range of workplace features and activities, as well as employee satisfaction in those areas (see sidebar).

Workplaces that meet strict response-rate criteria and achieve an overall score of 72 or higher receive Leesman+ certification. Perkins and Will’s Minneapolis studio tallied an 83.6—the highest Leesman+ score in North America in 2018.

“There will always be something we’re striving to do better,” says Dimond. “So we were struck by the profound positivity in the survey results. We never had scores that high in past workplace surveys. I’d like to think the positivity stems from everyone feeling like they have more control over their environment, more control over how well they can do their job. It isn’t the real estate that gives you that power; it’s the work itself and the dynamic of interacting and exchanging ideas with others.

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The Leesman survey assesses how well workplaces support employees in six areas:

1.    Indoor environmental quality: temperature controls, noise levels, and natural and office lighting
2.    Conversations: confidential business discussions, telephone calls, and private conversations
3.    Physical features: desk, chair, and personal and shared storage
4.    Individual work activities: focused work, routine tasks, personalization, and dividers
5.    Technology: WiFi connectivity, computing equipment, guest network access, and printing/copying/scanning equipment
6.    Culture and image: pride in workplace, enjoyment, productivity, and environmental sustainability