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Cubicle walls are as outdated as teller’s cages on some floors of the Toronto-Dominion Bank’s south tower in downtown Toronto. Workers can choose from any desk while they’re in the office. (Chris Young For The Globe and Mail)
Cubicle walls are as outdated as teller’s cages on some floors of the Toronto-Dominion Bank’s south tower in downtown Toronto. Workers can choose from any desk while they’re in the office. (Chris Young For The Globe and Mail)

THE FUTURE OF WORK

Even in hidebound offices, cubicle walls are falling Add to ...

When Curtis Sands arrives in the office each morning, it’s his choice where he’ll be working.

Like most of the 100 employees on the 19th floor of Toronto-Dominion Bank’s south tower in Toronto, the communications officer in the enterprise real estate division is a “floater,” with no assigned desk.

Where a receptionist once sat at the office entrance, there’s a computer screen he logs into and where he books available work spaces and conference areas at times he’ll need them through the day. He carries his wireless laptop with him and can even set up shop in the cafeteria.

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Thousands of other TD employees will be working in unassigned workstations in the future, too, as the bank joins a growing number of employers who are deciding that the traditional office – with a desk for every employee and an expectation that everyone will be in their place throughout the work day – is as outdated as teller’s cages and dusty ledger books.

And it’s a sweeping rethink of work spaces at TD, which reflected the epitome of corporate establishment thinking when the iconic TD Centre was designed in the 1960s by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe with architects John B. Parkin and Associates and Bregman+Hamann.

The bank is replacing 20 floors of old offices that stationed employees in identical rows of high-walled cubicles that resembled bank vaults. Their doors and lack of windows blocked natural light from reaching inner corridors in the building.

In their place after the renovation will be floors with a range of work areas, from tables to couches and banquettes with swing out work tops. There are phone booths and small enclosures for private conversations, a variety of conference rooms with video conferencing screens and a lunch room with several sizes of tables.

Free-form work spaces like these have been installed at high-tech and design companies for some time but they’ve only recently been winning favour with traditional office-based companies, says John Peets, vice-president of leasing for Oxford Properties Group, the real-estate arm of pension fund Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS).

“I find it remarkable that legal, accounting and banking and financial service firms that have been very traditional in their offices in the past are now leading the trend to what we call hoteling,” he says.

Cost saving is a big factor in the decision. Office ergonomics studies consistently found that, even in the most desk-bound professions, as many as half the work spaces are unoccupied at any given time in the work day. By sharing spaces, an office needs fewer desks and this can mean significant savings on the amount of office space required.

But a demographic shift may be just as significant, Mr. Peets suggests. Companies competing for young talent need to offer an inviting work environment to attract workers who these days often live in tiny condominium units. “They appreciate an office that feels like an extension of their homes, with lots of spaces to socialize with people, and a wireless environment that will let them work wherever they are.

“The traditional office was designed to house people doing their own tasks. The future is doing knowledge work in collaboration on devices that don’t need to be plugged in at a desk.”

That may not be an easy adjustment for older workers who have become attached to working in a space they can call their own, cautions David Zweig, associate professor of organizational behaviour in the department of management at the University of Toronto, Scarborough.

“Most people do like to have a space they can call their home base and often go to great lengths to protect this space. Without a permanent space, people can experience less of a connection to the organization or to the people they work with. This could result in less co-operation amongst employees, less commitment to their organizations, and potentially, lower intentions to stay with the organization, he says.

Hoteling might work well for a mobile sales force or for consultants who do a lot of travelling, but in team-based office work, it might lead to difficulties, Prof. Zweig suggests. It could also potentially make it harder for supervisors to monitor and manage the performance of employees who are not permanently located. “These issues need to be considered when organizations are considering the approach.”

He recommends that management and staff get employee input on concerns and provide training and assessment to make sure that they are ready.

“One of the mistakes you can make in this is to force it. There are folks who are never going to get it and never will agree with it and if they’re forced to go with it, there will be problem,” adds Roger Johnson, TD’s senior vice-president of enterprise real estate.

Employees who feel they’ll be uncomfortable adapting are allowed to continue to work from assigned desks, he says. And some jobs are also not as adaptable to free-range work, he adds. A number of the company’s financial jobs are too difficult to do off-premises or without a set desk.

But in general, most managers and employees are enthusiastic about the new approach once they adjust to it, Mr. Johnson says.

“I can’t with any statistics prove employees who have made the change are more productive, but with surveys we ask employees before and after they go into the new spaces, they feel more productive and that they collaborate more,” he says.

“We had managers who complained: ‘How do I know employees are working if they aren’t at their desk?’ My reply is: ‘How do you know they’re working when they are at their desks?’ It’s a matter of measuring outputs rather than time spent in the office.”

He’s found that within six months, “the managers say they get it.”

Employee engagement scores on the floors that have been reconfigured have also gone up in the past year. “I can’t yet say there is a direct correlation, but we’re studying it closely,” he says.

And in surveys of the employees who have moved into the new floors, almost all say they wouldn’t want to go back to their old office layouts. An overwhelming 90 per cent of the comments from employees are positive, Mr. Johnson says. The 10 per cent of negative comments are about noise and work behaviours that become distractions, and the bank is doing training and distributing tip sheets about having consideration for others.

Mr. Sands did notice that his new shared office floor was a little more noisy at first because of more people talking with one another and fewer sound-absorbing dividers. But people have adjusted by modulating their voices and going into enclosed rooms for speaker-phone or conference calls, he says. The bank is also installing more sound absorbing materials in walls and floors and noise cancelling, white-noise generators in shared spaces.

Meanwhile, everyone agrees they like the view of the financial district a lot more than the look of the walls of their old cubicles, he’s found. The corners of the floor that were formerly the coveted closed offices of senior executives are now collaborative spaces and executives share desk spaces or have interior offices so employees can enjoy natural light, Mr. Sands says.

“When you’re in a cubicle, you can’t see that there is a city out there.”

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