workplace transformation

Inside CBRE’s latest workplace transformation

Commercial real estate-transaction and advisory firm opens first of three new GTA offices
Monday, July 11, 2016
By Michelle Ervin

In a palette of white on white, CBRE’s signature block letters stand out with a quiet confidence, backlit in the elevator lobby and recessed into the reception desk. This is the commercial real estate-transaction and advisory firm’s new Toronto West office, but it could almost be any one of its Vancouver, Montreal, London and Halifax offices, whose workplace transformations preceded it in the last 18 months. A wood-clad cutout for lounge seating signals otherwise, with the word “west” engraved in capital letters.

The opening of CBRE’s new Toronto West office marked the firm’s first of three “workplaces of the future” to debut in the GTA, with the its new Downtown Toronto and Toronto North offices slated for move-in before end of year. Ultimately, the program will see 70 per cent of CBRE’s Canadian workplaces transformed. The projects are intended to harmonize the client experience from location to location — with a dose of regional inspiration — as well as serve to display the fruits of the firm’s service lines.

CBRE’s Toronto West office welcomes visitors into the open space with bright, glossy white finishes and immediate views through to the outdoors. Carefully applied acoustic treatments, which include recycled jean material in the ceiling, actively concentrate buzz and energy in the central hub, said Lisa Fulford-Roy, senior vice president of client strategy for HOK.

The office shares logo orientation, back-painted glass and polished concrete flooring with the firm’s other new workplaces, noted Ashley O’Neill, vice president of corporate strategy, CBRE. Black leather furniture, along with sparingly used metal and wood accents, differentiate it as home to a sizable share of the firm’s industrial group.

“There’s this polished, professional look, but it’s contrasted with rougher pieces that are uniquely placed in the space — that they’re almost like art pieces but they still serve a function,” added Fulford-Roy, gesturing to a driftwood-like log as sculpture meets seating.

Reflecting the office culture while maintaining brand continuity drove the design concept, which HOK brought to life working closely with CBRE’s workplace practice group.

Beyond the reception desk, the traditional boardroom — a requisite for the global firm, according to Fulford-Roy — is visible through transparent glass walls. The light-harvesting LED fixtures within automatically adjust their levels to reinforce the circadian rhythm, which regulates sleep, based on the natural daylight levels.

This is one of many clues throughout the office that CBRE is pursuing WELL Building certification for new and existing interiors. The new program sets performance standards for air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind that recognize how the built environment can positively influence human health.

In another WELL Building-inspired decision, the firm moved to 100-per-cent sit-to-stand workstations, which are becoming increasingly popular amid mounting evidence of the detrimental effects of a sedentary lifestyle.

“It’s a huge investment for a company with the amount of moves that we were taking on,” acknowledged O’Neill. “Regardless of whether it’s our youngest folks coming on in training or in research, or our professionals of 20 years, the well-being of the employees and the human capital is really important for CBRE to maintain and encourage across all layers of the platform.”

The custom-designed workstations reflect the input of a workstation committee, whose members weighed in on details such as the height of the glass partitions as well as whether coat hangers and pencil trays were necessary.

Neighbourhoods are organized to ensure that no employee is farther than 25 feet from natural light, as required by Well Building standards. For the same reason, all employees have access to filtered water-bottle-filling stations within 30 feet. Tech-enabled mobility, in the form of headsets and laptops, lets employees move freely through a range of activity-based spaces, as Fulford-Roy described them, including phone rooms ideal for private calls and huddle rooms suited to team meetings.

The new workstations represented a slight decrease in size from the six-by-eight workstations in the firm’s former Toronto West home. However, extra circulation space helped compensate for what employees lost in square feet, Fulford-Roy pointed out. Plus, reducing paper use by roughly 80 per cent expanded the size of the work surface available to employees within their new footprint.

CBRE rolled out a follow-me print solution to support the transition to a paper-reduced environment without sacrificing client confidentiality requirements. As O’Neill detailed, with the simple use of a card, the solution allows employees to click print in one office location and collect their print job in another office location.

Proximity to Pearson Airport was an important factor in the firm’s site selection, she said, which led CBRE to its new 5935 Airport Rd. address. So close is the 17,000-square-foot space to the transportation hub that the logo emblazoned on the exterior of the building is visible from the surrounding highway system.

As a bonus, the building’s amenity package included a shuttle service to and from the airport, which is convenient for traveling employees as well as visiting clients and employees from other locations. The firm’s hospitality-inspired RISE café — a staple of its new locations — provides a comfortable touch-down space, with a view, in which to get work done.

The multi-purpose café can be configured to host events, town halls, training and day-to-day meals. A kitchen prep area is discretely tucked behind the public-facing space, so that it looks pristine when clients come through as well as for formal affairs, Fulford-Roy said.

The office’s simple but sophisticated design belies the intensive workplace strategy behind it. Not only did CBRE enlist brokerage, workplace strategy and design, project and move management practice groups in the project, but, with HOK, it engaged employees through interviews, town halls and other exercises. The process involved committee work on everything from furniture test fits to the naming of meeting rooms.

For Fulford-Roy, the end result speaks to changes that are taking place in all workplaces right now, as companies accommodate a multi-generational workforce with a growing millennial cohort concerned with health benefits and personal values.

“It’s not about opulence, it’s not about high-end finishes; it’s really focused around functionality and how to best support people doing their best work,” she said. “And so some of that investment is going into things that you can’t actually see.”

The HVAC system serves as a case in point: It automatically delivers fresh air from outdoors if carbon dioxide levels are elevated. What’s more, the fresh air goes through a greater degree of particle filtration, which O’Neill likened to an additional layer of cheesecloth, putting the space’s indoor air quality in the top one per cent of offices worldwide.

CBRE has to complete its post-occupancy surveys at its new Toronto West office, but the feedback to date has been positive, she confirmed.

“People are saying their allergies are reduced, whether that’s placebo effect or otherwise; they’re chatting more with one another; they’re happier to come to work; they’re really proud to bring in clients; and they understand the business better than they did before,” said O’Neill.

Michelle Ervin is the editor of Canadian Facility Management & Design.

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