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The new workplace

Before the Petaluma-based telecommunications network equipment and software developer went public with its stock two years ago, Cyan, Inc., took its open-floorplan central office partly private, and it’s newly outfitted expansion further demonstrates a number of modern office-design trends that are starting to appear in the North Bay.

While phone booths have been disappearing from streets and building lobbies since the cellphone revolution, they are making a comeback in the workplace, as quiet oases amid the bustle - whether energizing or frustrating - of floorplan configurations with fewer private offices and cubicles.

Roughly four years ago, Cyan expanded on the third floor of the 1383 N. McDowell Blvd. office building in the Redwood Business Center development. And shortly after that time, the company installed four one-person “phone booths” into a wall on the interior of the space. In February, Cyan expanded into the whole third floor of a newly completed adjoining building, and that space has 16 two-person glass-walled booths, mostly arranged along the outside of the space.

“No one here has an office,” said Rick Johnston, Cyan vice president of business operations and customer service. “The CEO has the same 5 feet (square) of space as everybody else.”

From its beginnings nearly a decade ago with a handful of employees working on laptops atop folding tables in the same central Petaluma office room to the its new cutting-edge open-floorplan office, Cyan has been evolving its workspace as the workforce and needs to monitor customers’ networks has increased. In addition to the booths, the company has created five-person meeting spaces with a large wirelessly networked flat-panel screen on the wall, calling the CyNOCs (Cyan network operating centers) and naming them after blue hues. The Petaluma office has 20 CyNOCs with the expansion space, and the breakroom in the first building is being converted to another CyNOC with the cafeteria-style break room set up in the new space.

Among the reasons why Cyan and other companies move to open spaces is efficiency and collaboration, yet these small meeting spaces help strike a balance.

“Here at Glassdoor, we have an open floor plan supplemented with quiet spaces for those (who) work better in a more enclosed environment or need to make a phone call,” said MaryJo Fitzgerald, a spokeswoman for the Mill Valley-based employment-information startup.

Improving communication

Giant global company Siemens has evolved its New Way of Working, or NewWoW, corporate policy over the past few years and now implemented it at about 80 sites - the closest to the North Bay are Mountain View and, soon, Sacramento - in roughly two dozen countries, according to Michael Kruklinski, head of Siemens Real Estate for the Americas.

“We were able to reduce the footprint at the spaces we were using,” he said.

By using phone booths, touchdown spots such as bench-style high desks and ad hoc lounge-style meeting places, Siemens’ desk-sharing ratio increased from 1 to 1.3 up to 1 to 1.5 afterward, saving about 30 percent on space needs. That ratio changes based on the employee task and the need for them to move around, with engineers needing special equipment at the workstation being less likely to move than administrative or legal teams.

“Mainly, what we found was that people were talking to each other,” Kruklinski said.

In a consolidation of multiple Argentina offices into one under the new design, interoffice email volume decreased by more than one-quarter, he said.

The transition to shared workstations takes planning, he said. Siemens starts months in advance by setting up voice-over-IP phones so phone numbers follow the worker, no matter where the person is, and imposing a clean-desk policy, under which workers must remove all personal items from the desk and store them in a locker at the end of the day.

Cyan employees tend to move to different “pods” in the office only a couple of times a year, as projects dictate, Johnston said.

“We’re very mobile,” Johnston said. “It’s about how fast they can move around as a team.”

Employees each have a laptop, headset, keyboard and an cushion-topped file cabinet “pedestal” on wheels. With a VOIP or cellphone for an office phone, employees can move to a new pod quickly, he said.

Part of the deal Cyan made with property owner Basin Street Properties for the expansion space involved an elevated pedestrian walkway between the spaces on the third floor of each building. That configuration gave the company a number of benefits, including the appearance of scale with the company name on two buildings but most importantly better intraoffice communication.

Similar to Siemens, Cyan found that having employees in different locations - even scattered between floors - affected company culture. When the company expanded four years ago, it occupied all of the third floor and half the second.

“One area had lots of action, and another area was quiet,” Johnston said. “A lot of people were sending email to each other in the office vs. taking the stairs. Being able to go across the bridge to someone else in the office has made a lot of difference.”

Converts see the light

A challenge for property owners is that one office configuration that works for one tenant may not work for another, and the cost of opening up a space with private offices or enclosing it with traditional quarters of quietude can be considerable, according to Joan Woodard, president and CEO of Simons & Woodard, which manages about 600,000 square feet of office space in Santa Rosa.

For example, when the company built a 129,000-square-foot two-story office building in southwest Santa Rosa a decade and a half ago for Nokia, the Finnish telecom company had it laid out with an open floorplan. When the company left shortly thereafter, subsequent tenants wanted private offices on the periphery.

Over the years, the real estate company has offered a hybrid design.

“We have a traditional foorplan with (private) offices, but what we’ve done for years is offer door-window packages, which provides a flow-through of light,” Woodard said.

Those “door-windows” are glass-walled private offices around the perimeter of a space, so workers on the inside can see daylight.

“That’s how we maintain quality of light in a space while still giving people privacy,” she said.

A common need for shared workspaces in Santa Rosa is for a law firm that uses a former private office for a “war room” for a few on a case team to collaborate, but there are still private offices, Woodard said.

High-tech meets high finance

Santa Rosa-based American AgCredit approached the modern energetic workplace and need for “heads-down” space to crunch numbers by specifying movable sound-insulated partitions for its 120,000-square-foot headquarters under construction near Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport. American AgCredit decided to use a demountable wall system, because its workgroups change a lot, said Suzanne Nagorka, director of interior design for Santa Rosa-based TLCD Architecture, which designed the project.

“What works for that environment [Silicon Valley for high-tech companies] will not necessarily work for a financial institution,” she said.

To avoid the “fishbowl” feel of having see-through glass offices, the walls are clear on top and bottom but have graduated frosting in the middle to obscure who’s inside. Such walls can cost 10 percent to 30 percent more than hard walls, depending on the type of construction, but the cost can be recouped over time after walls are reconfigured for multiple times, she said.

The agricultural lender’s new building has areas for employees to get together to collaborate but also parts of the building they can go for quiet, such as the second-story bridge overlooking the landscaped courtyard. In somewhat of a nod to Silicon Valley, the new building will have “fun rooms.”

“Fun rooms are a way to get away and make a phone call or have a private conversation,” Nagorka said.

‘It’s like being here’

One of the challenges of having employees in distant offices is that the highly interactive buzz of open offices gets dampened in the text of an email, the silence between comments via a speakerphone or the logistics of video conferencing.

Some remote Cyan employees were concerned about being forgotten during conference calls because they weren’t visible in the room, Johnston said. An employee in the Australia office got an idea from seeing a telepresence robot on the television show Big Bang Theory. The company now has two BeamPro video-conferencing robots by Palo Alto-based Suitable Technologies, one in Vancouver and is working on a lower-cost version of the $16,000 device for the San Francisco office.

“It’s like being here,” Johnston said.

The 160-degree vision of the bot’s main camera and the ability to steer it remotely from place to place has allowed Cyan to use it for group meetings and even interview applicants from a smartphone in a stadium parking lot.

With higher densities of workers in North Bay offices on the near horizon, some in real estate are wondering about what that will do to availability of parking.

“There is certainly an increase in density,” said Scott Stranzl, vice president of Basin Street Properties, Cyan’s landlord. Additional spaces were added to the development when the second office building was built. “But at the same time, there is a higher consciousness in ride-sharing for commuting.”

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