Activity-based working (ABW) has been around as an idea since the 1990s, though successful implementations of it have not been deployed until this century, when digital technology reached a point that it could enable the office concept. In short, ABW does away with cubicles and assigned seating of all forms in favor of a more fluid office environment with a variety of spaces tuned to different activities. Workers, equipped with laptops and mobile phones, can pick and choose an environment that best suits the job at hand, whether it is a private phone call, some quiet research, or collaborative brainstorming. The notion is that getting workers out of their silos and moving around the office will increase productivity by fostering the exchange of information, increasing cohesion among teams, and generally making people happier about coming to work.
The new Gerson Lehrman Group (GLG) office in downtown Austin, designed by Clive Wilkinson Architects (CWa), is the first rollout of ABW in Texas. Completed this summer, it is an evolution of a design that CWa completed for GLG’s New York City headquarters a few years ago.
CWa, which is based in Los Angeles, has been a proponent of ABW on these shores (the concept originated in California but has thus far been adopted mostly in the Netherlands and other northern European countries). In addition to the GLG projects, CWa completed an ABW office for investment banking firm Macquarie Group in Sydney, Australia, in 2009, and for advertising behemoth Publicis North America in New York City earlier this year. “We have found that ABW is an incredibly successful tool for collaborative businesses needing to support knowledge sharing,” says Caroline Morris, CWa project manager on the GLG project.
GLG, which was founded in New York City in 1998, is a professional learning platform that connects senior business executives to experts who can advise them on strategic or operational issues. “It’s short-term, on-demand business education,” says Richard Socarides, GLG head of public affairs and a former staffer in Bill Clinton’s White House. “Some people call us Match.com for business.” The company has 1,200 employees in 22 offices around the globe, the largest of which are in New York and Austin.
In both offices, CWa created distinct neighborhoods that serve GLG’s different departments (the company has two primary types of employees: software developers and client reps). Each neighborhood contains an “anchor point” with lockers, printing facilities, and central filing — of which there is very little, as the business is mostly digital. Around these nodes are arrayed the different types of work spaces: communal tables with monitors; breakout tables for small groups; cubbies for quiet research; telephone booths for private phone calls; and conference rooms, some of which are enclosed in colorful glass boxes. (In the Austin office, which is flooded with daylight, subtly different tones of the same color were used in the glass walls for no other reason than the visual delight created by this variation.) In addition to these spaces, there is a central lounge area with residential style furniture, a group pantry with booth seating, and a barista bar.
“We thought there were two components important to positioning GLG in Austin,” says CWa founder Clive Wilkinson. “One was to acknowledge and adopt the brand values from the New York office, and the other was to respond to the local context in a direct way.”
In Texas, CWa replicated basic layout ideas and furniture systems from New York while referencing, in Wilkinson’s words, “the Austin small cottage porch idea.” A large, raised post oak deck, built by a local carpenter, greets visitors when they enter the office. Other suppliers and craftspeople from Austin were also employed: The guardrails on the stair that rises from the deck to connect the lower floor to the upper — CWa removed two column bays in the office tower to connect GLG’s two stories — are made from expanded metal mesh done by a local fabricator. The LED fixtures that light the double-height space are from Ketra, which is based in Austin, and can be adjusted to any color, an ideal setup for the company, which hosts clients and throws parties in the space.
Another difference between the New York and Austin offices can be found at the barista bar: In Austin, it’s much more in demand. “There was a discussion about why is it that there are no lines in New York, but there are in Austin,” Wilkinson says. “I think Austin people feel comfortable standing around chatting, whereas New Yorkers don’t. It’s a great social mixer having a barista. The workers place orders and stand around and talk to people. It breaks the ice much more than a self-serve pantry would. Plus, it’s really good coffee.”
Aaron Seward is editor of Texas Architect.