“The cubicle will be totally obsolete.”

At Dell, a new facilities plan acknowledging the work habits of the 21st century is not only reducing costs and increasing efficiencies but also attracting and retaining global talent in a competitive market sector

As vice president of global real estate and facilities, Dane Parker helped Dell conceive a new development program that embraces flexibility and sustainability. (Photo: Careese Vieregge)

What makes an employee a happy employee? The global computer company Dell believes it has boiled the answer down to two main factors for its 108,000 employees worldwide: technology and flexibility.

The cafeteria in Dell's Bangalore, India, office doubles as an auditorium. Spatial efficiency is the new norm for the company.
The cafeteria in Dell’s Bangalore, India, office doubles as an auditorium. Spatial efficiency is the new norm for the company.

In 2010, CEO Michael Dell instructed Dell’s HR leaders to target young and emerging tech professionals who have grown up with technology and who embrace devices in all aspects of life. These are the millennials who have come of age working in a world that defines work differently. They break out of the office, eschewing cubicles for the coffee shop, the metro, home, or some combination of those and other spaces. New-century workforces are evolving at the pace of technological change, altering the workplace as they go. 

As vice president of global real estate and facilities, Dane Parker is responsible for managing all aspects of a building portfolio that spans 20 million square feet in more than 300 buildings and 67 countries. He’s found that changes in technology and employee behavior are driving his decisions in new ways. “How we use buildings and what we need in a facility is different today because our workers are different and the tools they use change all the time,” he says. Historically, Dell has always maintained a young workforce, but in recent years, since Michael Dell’s directive, the company has intentionally increased its percentage of employees coming straight from academia.

The Bangalore office is slated for LEED Platinum certification, with substantial northern windowing for daylighting.
The Bangalore office is slated for LEED Platinum certification, with substantial northern windowing for daylighting.

Additionally, Dell’s workforce has become increasingly global; the Texas-based company has facilities across the United States and abroad in APJ (Asia-Pacific Japan), EMEA (Europe, the Middle East, and Africa), India, and Central and South America. Parker is keenly aware that all facilities must help colleagues collaborate and interact effortlessly so that innovation can continue to move Dell forward. “The technology in our buildings is the enabler for this,” he says. “We have to have the right tools that empower employees to get work done whenever and wherever they need to. If we don’t have the right tools, the building and office design will fail. If we want this to work, we have to untether our workers from their desktops.”

That means implementing all possible solutions. Today, Dell leverages a combination of standard and emerging technologies such as Wi-Fi, IP phones, mobile devices, virtual desktops, VPN software, cloud applications, and video conferencing. These tools don’t just increase collaboration; they also reduce facilities costs.

Such changes all started in 2010, when Parker and his peers started noticing just how underused their existing space was. During boom times, Dell needed space fast, so Parker helped find and build as much square footage as possible. Then, in other cycles, space became a liability, causing leaders to more seriously consider factors such as square footage per employee and other matters of efficiency.

WORKFORCE-STUDY STATS

53%
of Dell’s offices now use open floor plans

39%
of employees feel that the floor plans increase their productivity

35%
of global employees report working in public spaces at least two hours per week

46%
of employees who work at home say they feel less stress

As the company navigated various cycles, decision makers also noticed a shift in the very definition of an office. “We saw schedules and habits were transforming to something new,” Parker says. “Our work was becoming more global and less confined to certain hours or spaces.” These factors contributed to an inefficient use of Dell space.

In response, Parker and other Dell leaders started gathering information from internal data, informal conversations, employee surveys, and outside sources. They pored over sign-in and access logs, which measure use and activity, and collaborated with Intel and other parties on an “Evolving Workforce” study. This work eventually spawned a new internal program called Connected Workplace, anchored by a flexible and creative use of space that embraces technology.

Parker says that under its new set of principles, Dell is building the work spaces of the future. Before, most company employees worked in a cubicle-based environment. And, though the organization switched to totally open and shared floor plans, problems remained. “The all-open plan is as much of a one-size-fits-all error as the cubicle plan was,” Parker says. In the workplace of the future, the fundamental tenet—one that drives efficiency and productivity—is collaboration. Dell’s research shows that dedicated space is rarely more than 40 percent used. Modern employees are in meetings, traveling, or working remotely. Thus, shared space is critical for efficiency.

In open, shared spaces, though, workers often feel interrupted. On average, 20 percent of employees use earbuds in the office, but that number nearly doubles in an open floor plan. What Parker wants, in contrast, is a work environment that reflects the kind of work people need to accomplish.

The office's open, social spaces are offset by stand-alone private rooms where workers who need quiet can go to concentrate.
The office’s open, social spaces are offset by stand-alone private rooms where workers who need quiet can go to concentrate.

His answer? Sizeable shared spaces peppered with private areas, ad-hoc collaborative spaces built with white boards, and more-permanent or more-formal collaborative zones. He’s also incorporating the outdoors by adding rooftop decks, terraces, and reimagined public cafés.

To implement his vision, Dell turned to locations based on cost and opportunity. Then, it built a team comprising members from facilities, HR, and IT. Together, those individuals surveyed employees, designed solutions, and followed up to solicit feedback at individual locations. Just a few years after the company began using this approach, it’s now second nature and guides every new project around the globe.

New buildings meet LEED Gold or Platinum standards and come equipped with green walls, green roofs, LED lighting, recycled materials, rainwater-reuse systems, solar panels, renewable energy sources, and other sustainable features. These measures have reduced consumption by more than 20 percent and represent an annual savings of roughly $14 million. And, though the program was once focused primarily on efficiency and cost reductions, it’s now a key element of workforce engagement as well. Instead of reporting to the CFO, Parker now reports to Dell’s CHRO (chief human resources officer). “What we’re doing in facilities is an advantage in hiring and retention,” he says. “Flexibility, technology, and choice are big attractors.”

Dell's new development program embraces a variety of collaborative spaces, including smaller break-out areas and walled rooms with whiteboards.
Dell’s new development program embraces a variety of collaborative spaces, including smaller break-out areas and walled rooms with whiteboards.

The Dell philosophy is currently coming into focus in Bangalore, India, where the company is building its first top-down facility that will incorporate all its workplace-of-the-future standards. The LEED Platinum building, opening later this year, will accommodate 2,800 employees and cover 300,000 square feet. The bright and colorful interior will be light-optimized through expansive windowing on the north side that will pull in light without capturing much heat. Myriad outdoor areas on roofs and terraces will serve as de facto meeting spaces, and a multilevel cafeteria will double as an auditorium. Once complete, the building will be Dell’s regional hub for service teams and app development.

When describing the project, Parker compares it to a university campus. As work spaces continue to evolve, he expects the shift toward flexibility and collaboration to continue. “The days of the coveted corner office will one day be long gone,” he says. “The cubicle will be totally obsolete in just a few years.” 

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