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A look at trends that are reshaping the modern office

People spend only about half their professional time at corporate headquarters, new report says

A couple of years ago, Yahoo Chief Executive Marissa Mayer made the controversial announcement that her employees could no longer work from home and would need to return to working in the office.

But lots of companies wrestling with how to get people to show their face at work, in an era during which telecommuting is increasingly popular, are trying to lure them back rather than mandate it. While organizations have long embraced the benefits of "hoteling," in which employees reserve desks for themselves rather than getting a dedicated space to work every day, many are taking that concept even further, adding concierge-like staff and other perks to give workers more reasons to come on site.

That's one of the big takeaways of a report released last week at NeoCon, the annual mega conference attended by major designers of corporate America's offices and cubicles. The report was put together by Knoll, the workplace design company, and UnWired, a British publishing and events business focused on the future of work. It surveyed leaders in charge of the facilities and real estate of 46 global companies.

Here are highlights from the new report that reflect how the modern office is changing:

People spend only about half their professional time at corporate headquarters. The leaders surveyed said their workers spend about 49% of their time in the company's main office, with the rest of their time divided between other offices, client sites, working from home and "third spaces" such as coffee shops or the sidelines of their kids' soccer field.

They also spend a lot of time away from their desks. On a typical day among the companies surveyed, desks are in use only 47% of the time, and meeting rooms are only in use between 50% and 60%. That latter statistic comes from a previous UnWired report, done with Microsoft. It found, in addition, that the average annual cost of providing a desk in London or New York is $18,000. No wonder fewer companies are giving employees dedicated spaces at work.

The "hoteling" concept is expanding. Many companies have been practicing the idea of "hoteling" for a while, in which employees reserve desks when they need them rather than having their own. Some, however, are taking that concept even further now. As the modern workforce increasingly includes collaborative teams of clients, partners, freelancers and contract workers — as well as traveling employees — the office is becoming more of a hospitality hub than a home base.

"These ecosystems have expanded," said Knoll's workplace vice president, Tracy Wymer. "The facility needs to accommodate them. The closest analogy is a hotel lobby experience," he said, where both hotel guests and the people they need to meet with can congregate together.

That's leading to more, and different, perks. Knoll's report states that "the move to concierge service" is changing the nature of the workplace. "At some offices, a host, often created from a combined facilities management and IT support function, provides a one-stop shop for all support needs, from travel to technology and personal shopping, dry cleaning to bicycle repair." Although providing those extra services may be costly, the report says, "it offers employees a recognizable exchange for the loss of their dedicated desks."

In other words, while perks such as gyms and child care are a way to retain and recruit talented workers, they also do double duty as a way to get people on site. "How do you make that base of where people work more inviting?" Wymer said. "As much as everyone can work any time, anywhere, what the office has a role to do is in engineering serendipity." The report cites the rise of offerings like on-site massages, dentist appointments and good quality coffee.

"And the thing we didn't cite in the report is that beer is the new coffee," Wymer added. "It's amazing how many companies have kegerators in the office, and HR doesn't seem to have a problem with it."

New technology could make spending time in the office more attractive. Although some people may think the future of the work means we'll all be working from home in our pajamas, Knoll's report describes a future for corporate real estate that turns the office into yet another part of the "Internet of things" — the tech industry's term for Web-enabled everyday objects. Already, sensors can help companies manage their energy or their supplies based on how many people are in the building. But Knoll's report says much more is coming.

"Real-time real estate," Wymer said, could one day provide workers with information on conveniences (like whether the espresso line is too long on the third floor, or which bank of elevators has the longest wait) as well as opportunities for collaboration. For instance, it could let you know if your team members are eating lunch together in the cafe, or when an expert colleague usually based elsewhere has entered the building.

Such tools could one day help you "know who's around you, who may have worked on something similar to you," Wymer said. "The ultimate goal is to drive a higher degree of innovation."

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post's On Leadership section.

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