Laying the Foundation
Before moving, HR at Be The
Match piloted open-space designs with
the IT and patient and health-services
teams on different floors and solicited
their feedback. Was there enough
space? Did their electronic devices
work as they moved around the space?
Was it too noisy?
“They became our champions
and told us what we missed, what
was working and what wasn’t so we
could keep those things in mind as we
continued to do this throughout the
whole organization,” Topiwala says.
“[Employees in the pilot groups] told
us it was very comfortable and loved
the ability to write on walls when they
They also appreciated sitting next to
co-workers from different departments
who were involved in the same project,
she adds. That led to employees talking
more to each other versus sending
emails and built camaraderie.
The building’s first floor now
features an auditorium, interview
suite and memory walls that display
messages or quotes from donors,
recipients, family members and
volunteers. The remaining six floors
support resident and mobile work
stations, café-style areas, huddle
rooms for meetings, living rooms that
resemble open lounges, employee
lockers, phone rooms for privacy or
meetings and standard conference
rooms. Since each space is dedicated
to a specific function, employees can
also post personal photos on area
walls—which are thicker than those in
the pilot space to reduce noise, which
the pilot groups recommended.
Likewise, HR partnered with IT
to add more bandwidth to better
accommodate electronic devices and
built electronic-storage capability.
Multiple communication channels—
from emails and webinars to open
houses—were also used to address the
upcoming office changes.
“We slowly started working with
every department,” Topiwala says. “We
did a lot of training with leaders on
how to manage remote employees and
made sure our employees knew what
our expectations were.”
Looking back, Topiwala says she
has only one regret: HR should have
delivered more training for directors
and managers so they could be “one
step ahead of their change curve than
their employees.” Early on, some
workers struggled, she says, as they
tried to figure out how to do their job
without a definitive office.
But within several months, their
fears disappeared. Just as important,
she says, the new workspace created a
different level of trust.
“It’s an amazing feeling you get
when your employees realize that you
trust them to do the work where they
need to work,” she says.
Topiwala partially credits
open spaces for decreasing her
BY CAROL PATTON
design options, she says, HR leaders
learned about open workspaces
and unassigned desks, which allow
employees to work anywhere in the
office. The idea appealed to HR and,
after conducting research, department
leaders presented the concept to
the organization’s executives, who
agreed and hired Minneapolis-based
Perkins+Will architects to design and
build an open workspace.
The concept of open spaces and
unassigned desks in workplaces has
traveled from Europe to the U.S.
over the past decade, as employers
who moved or were in the process
of converting their offices believed
it would be difficult to persuade
workers to return to a traditional
layout with assigned cubicles, offices
or desks. Who can blame them? While
employers generally save big bucks on
their real-estate footprint, employees
can pick where they want to work,
whether it’s at a treadmill desk, in a
lounge or in an outdoor café. These
mixed-use spaces not only lead to
higher employee engagement and
retention, but also better business
outcomes—though none of this can
In 2015, Be The Match, a global nonprofit that manages a donor egistry for marrow and cord- blood transplantation, moved its main office from suburban Minneapolis to a new seven- story building downtown. Of the organization’s 1,000 employees, 95 percent worked at the office and would now have to commute
to and from downtown.
“We were moving and had to come
up with a way to define our space, make
the employee experience different
and manageable, not completely
over whelming,” says Nisha Topiwala,
the organization’s senior HR manager.
HR wanted its on-site, remote
and mobile employees to have more
flexibility regarding when, where and
how they worked. While exploring
With teamwork and flexibility center stage
in workplaces of the future, employers are
creating open workspaces with unassigned
desks—and seeing a return on employee
productivity and engagement.
An open-space meeting area at GlaxoSmithKline's Philadelphia Navy Yard office