DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Nothing captures the banal horror of corporate America quite like the cubicle farm, the row upon row of monochromatic, boxy structures that so many office workers, in Downtown Los Angeles and across the globe, call home. 

Ironically, the cubicle was created as an improvement over the early-20th century office design of choice: the regimented bullpen, a large, open floor plan in which rows of desks were neatly aligned with no privacy for anyone. 

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In the 1960s, inventor Robert Propst envisioned a radical solution: Why not use flexible, easily manipulated walls and furniture to create semi-private spaces in open floor plans?

His Action Office II system, created for office furniture company Herman Miller, debuted in 1968 and was a smash success. Yet despite his dreams of dynamic, easily adaptable offices for all, Propst’s invention merely gave birth to the cubicle sea — and 45 years later it’s the modern office design fallback of choice. 

Cubicle grids may have been easy, but they weren’t necessarily efficient or inspiring. That was on the mind of the brass at CBRE 18 months ago when the real estate services firm was running out of room in its Downtown office, and the West L.A. corporate headquarters wanted to come Downtown as well. While planning for the future, they began studying where inefficiencies and problems lay. 

“We found that 51% of the time, people aren’t in their seats,” said CBRE Executive Managing Director Lewis Horne last week during a discussion at the new office organized by Downtown’s Town Hall-Los Angeles. “We were also out of space because everyone owned their own bit of real estate in the office.” 

CBRE’s research also found that technology was not being harnessed to its full potential and that less than 20% of the office was dedicated to collaborative space, despite more than a third of normal tasks being collaborative in nature. 

Horne hired architecture giant Gensler to create a solution that would boost efficiency while creating flexibility and choice for employees. The redesigned space at 400 S. Hope St. debuted only about a month ago, but Horne said the result has been “transformative.”

CBRE’s new office isn’t the carnival of hipster fun found at, say, Google or Facebook. There’s nobody lounging in a beanbag, and workers don’t take breaks to play ping-pong. However, on a recent visit employees did chat happily around a large bar that holds coffee and healthy snacks, an area Horne identified as a key place for workers to congregate. 

In another part of the office, a group of employees examined a document at a workstation fitted with dual monitors. The open workstations fill the space between several small, glass-encased rooms in which people can make phone calls, hold one-on-one meetings or work alone. Everything looks bright, ergonomic and modern. There’s even a massive wall-mounted media screen that features Twitter updates and more, while a sweeping, techno-abstract mural from local street artist Augustine Kofie splashes out across the second-floor wall.

Gensler’s redesign is intended to give CBRE employees choices in terms of where and how they want to work — factors that impact productivity and morale, said Robert Jernigan, the architecture firm’s managing principal.

“Too often, you’re going to have an open space in which people want to both focus and collaborate. That’s the problem — openness can compromise your ability to focus,” Jernigan said. “Choice means that if an environment is noisy or just not to your liking, you can move somewhere else.” 

Paperless Approach

The new CBRE office exemplifies that dedication to choice. Employees can work on a sleek leather couch, chatting with neighbors and sipping on a coffee, or can retreat to those aforementioned glass enclaves, which are of varying sizes and feature acoustic dampening. The single constant is that nobody has a permanent space. Instead, like a modern college classroom, everyone carries laptops and sits wherever they want. 

What is termed a “free address” system is possible because CBRE is going paperless. Previously, each employee’s paperwork and documents lived with their owner at an assigned office space, often in huge file cabinets. Now that those pages have been digitized and most of the file cabinets removed, they can be accessed anywhere. That goes for office appliances as well: The in-house “follow me” technology means that an employee can take his or her calls on any phone or get a document off any printer with the swipe of a card. 

Not all of the adjustments have been smooth. Some employees griped about not having a personal space to decorate with family photos and awards. Horne’s response for the latter has been to hand out special cufflinks and necklaces instead of plaques or trophies. Other touches include a wall of employee portraits with QR codes that, upon scanning, bring up bios and other facts. 

The changes to workplace design also highlight a shift in the way many employees think about their jobs, Jernigan said. Work isn’t just where you put your nose to the grindstone. It’s now a place to find enrichment and enjoyment, and cubicle farms aren’t conducive to either.

“We don’t think [telecommuting] is the future. Humans want to socialize, they want to collaborate,” Horne said. “But when you look at the cube farms and you ask someone whether they want to be in a cubicle all day or go home, they’re going to go home.”

The paradigm shift applies to traditional office hierarchies and the attitudes they fostered. The era of prestigious corner offices, with assistants shoved to interior spaces under harsh fluorescent lights and bosses dictating tasks without room for discussion, is fading away in some fields, replaced by an environment in which everyone works toward a fuller potential. 

“It used to be commanding: ‘Sit down and do your job,’” Jernigan said with a big laugh. “Now, employees want to be empowered. They want coaching, they want mentorship. They want dialogue.” 

It’s not just the worker bees that seem pleased. Horne’s excitement was evident as he gave a tour of the office during the Town Hall event. He smiled wide as he fiddled with a fancy Google Earth display array and proudly described the artistic process behind Kofie’s mural. 

Best of all, said Horne, the office’s newfound openness doesn’t end with the interior design. He said CBRE staffers are thinking differently, too. 

“I’ve seen it. It’s only been a month but people have already come up with new presentation ideas, different new concepts,” he said. “The creative environment brings material changes.” 

eddie@downtownnews.com

Twitter: @eddiekimx

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2013