Why companies are crowdsourcing office decisions
Firms are seeing the value in employee feedback as they leverage commercial real estate as an HR strategy
Many U.S. companies, facing fierce competition for skilled workers, have been finding that office amenities that were once all the rage — like free snacks, ping pong and beer taps — don’t always cut it.
Some employers are using a new strategy for rethinking their offices as a recruitment tool — asking current employees what they want. That’s how a Microsoft office in Boston got a top-to-bottom makeover that included team rooms instead of a full-on open office plan — and freestyle soda machines.
“Want to design the perfect office for prospective employees? Ask the current ones,” says Mary Bilbrey, Global Chief Human Resources Officer at JLL. “No one knows what it takes to do the job better than the people already doing it.”
The job market in the U.S. is incredibly tight, with unemployment falling to 3.6 percent in April. That’s the lowest level in nearly 50 years, according to the U.S. Labor Department. “Crowdsourcing” office decisions is being viewed as a new way to compete for talent in a market that is particularly hurting for skilled workers.
Microsoft, for example, used feedback from current employees to design its New England Research and Development Center in Boston — known as NERD — which is home to the company’s engineers. Designing the perfect office meant delivering on the things employees said they needed most for their day to day work, like flexible space for collaborative work and areas for creative brainstorming and problem solving.
The combination of crowdsourced suggestions from the workforce and intelligent design decisions from company leadership meant Microsoft could create the office that would specifically attract more engineers.
A leisure area called The Garage was also added as a way to give engineers a creative outlet to cut loose and work with their hands. The creative space and Makers Lab features specialized facilities and equipment for 3D printing, sewing, laser cutting, wood cutting, and experiencing virtual reality, all of which is open to both employees and the public. While a welding station might not all appeal to a broader demographic of office workers, it was a perk that appealed to exactly the kind of engineer Microsoft hoped to recruit.
When the company field-tested the made-over office to see if it worked to attract talent, a senior manager interviewed two candidates: one got a tour of the new office, the other did not.
“The person they took on the tour accepted the job,” says Dena Quinn of Microsoft, who led the redesign of NERD. “They said, ‘This place is so cool, I totally want to work here.’ That’s all the proof that we need.”
Crowdsourcing basics: how employees use the space
The most basic purpose of crowdsourcing is to understand how employees currently use the space and what would better contribute to their ease and productivity.
At Mazda’s office in Irvine, California, the company found that employees wanted the option to choose workspaces day to day. As a result, versatile spaces for individual or collaborative work allow employees to choose sitting, standing, or communal desks.
At Microsoft’s NERD office, the engineering teams reviewing initial designs said that as a remote office, they needed more dedicated space for phone calls, according to Quinn. The result was huddle rooms where five or six people can gather and take a call undisturbed.
“Employee surveys and interviews allow companies to see what current challenges are and where pain points exist,” Bilbrey says. “It’s much easier then to make decisions about what to invest in.”
It’s the little things
As a result of employee outreach, Mazda employees voted to keep meals and work separate, resulting in dedicated communal spaces for lunch breaks.
Microsoft also delivered on very specific employee requests, small things that vastly improved quality of life — very accessible coffee, freestyle soda machines that allow employees to choose from 100 flavors, and “vacant/occupied” signs on restroom stalls.
“It was the little things they asked for that we were able to deliver to make them feel comfortable in their own workspace,” Quinn said.
Often crowdsourcing adds elements of fun to the office. Symantec’s Mountain View, California office incorporated employees’ request for fitness features. Common areas are now stocked with hula hoops and jump ropes, and there’s a walking track with acoustic insulation to incentivize walking meetings.
“It communicates to prospective and current employees that it’s acceptable to take a walking meeting,” says Jessica Cooper, Chief Commercial Officer at the International WELL Building Institute.
Wellness in general has become a chief concern for employees, especially as millennials flood the workforce. These types of amenities can be crowdsourced, too, sometimes on a daily basis. Many WELL certified offices allow employees to submit feedback on how the light, temperature and sound in the office are suiting them, and they adjust accordingly, Cooper says.
“Delivering on features that suit their specific needs makes employees feel heard,” Bilbrey says. “Beyond the real estate, it creates the kind of compassionate company culture that job-seekers desire.”