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Sitting in the client’s seat: Lessons from our move

Savills Studley’s Denver office moved into 1125 17th St. earlier this year. Courtesy Hines

Brendan Fisher
Corporate managing director, Savills Studley, Denver

Does this scenario sound familiar? A business experiences a growth spurt, and suddenly finds its offices bursting at the seams. Leadership calls their broker to help decide whether to expand its current lease, open a satellite office or search for new space. As a tenant-focused commercial real estate brokerage, we naturally counsel our clients to consider multiple scenarios, analyze and engage their workforce, and plan ahead for big moves, allowing at least 12 to 18 months. Too often growth can outpace initial planning.

We found ourselves in this exact predicament earlier this year, when our Denver team more than tripled to 21 people within six months. After 16 years in the same space, at 1050 17th St., we put ourselves in the client’s seat and relied on our team of in-house experts in workplace strategy and project management to work through the process as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Rick Schuham, our central region lead, anticipated our growth spurt and already had assembled a short list of viable strategies. At the forefront was creating an environment that projected transparency, collaboration and community. Our lease was coming up for renewal, so renegotiating with our landlord to expand our existing space was certainly an option. However, given the entire re-staffing of the office, a change to solidify the new culture was required. Taking into account input from our entire Denver roster, the leadership team moved forward in securing new space to facilitate our growing staff and continue to build a corporate culture of exceptional camaraderie, client service and community involvement. Our search reviewed multiple locations in our desired submarket downtown, but ended at 1125 17th St., across from our then-current location. The visibility and Front Range views offered with this floor plan presented the workplace most reflective of our corporate culture and goals for this relocation.

While we assist our clients with these types of decisions every day, our team was still reminded of valuable lessons and learned renewed perspective through this process, including:

1. An office move is a good time for a culture reboot. We encourage our clients to review their workspace needs and goals as leases come up for renewal or as market conditions change. Sometimes, as in our case, change is driven by both rapid expansion and the desire to promote morale, egalitarianism and enhanced collaboration among staff. Office considerations should value employee productivity, occupancy costs and market dynamics, as well as employee preferences and community presence. For our move, it was important to be in proximity to the wide range of technology, advertising, media and information companies in Lower Downtown, large white-collar corporations downtown and many of the city’s premier cultural institutions and public-sector attractions. Our location is somewhere our employees want to be for business development and recreation, as well as at a cross section of the many different industries and submarkets that influence our work.

2. Assess your staff needs for the transition as early and often as possible. If your office staff size is relatively small, you can survey people by simply walking around or discuss real estate objectives and strategy in all-staff meetings. If your organization is larger, consider using focus groups and online survey tools to solicit your employees’ views on key factors such as location, office layout, dedicated or flexible workspaces, telecommuting, amenities, workflow and adjacencies, and formal and informal meeting space needs. Also, interview department heads and heads of your corporate services departments, such as human resources, information technology, finance and facilities.

3. Make the best of the interim situation, as long as it’s temporary. It’s often necessary to rent temporary space while you weigh your options. Fortunately, we had some vacant space adjacent to our offices and a good relationship with our landlord. We were able to remove a wall and connect to the vacant space, into which we brought temporary workstations.

The modest temporary space produced close collaboration and a startup company feel, which was motivational for the team, forging a new camaraderie. Working in the unfinished space also freed us up to think more creatively about our needs for the new office. We discovered we really didn’t need a formal reception area, and instead added more informal collaboration space that also can be used for client events and other entertaining opportunities.

4. Consider additional transition service needs before committing to a relocation. We always recommend incorporating workplace design and project management advisers from the beginning of the process and following input from employees and independent advisers. These are important services with time and cost considerations that should be factored in before signing a lease. We gave ourselves a little over 90 days for a pretty aggressive build out timeline. It can easily take 120 days or more, and we often advise clients to plan for delays due to furniture or contractor lead times and to work closely with a project management team if able. In addition, in the Denver metro area permitting is becoming an extremely lengthy process. In some submarkets it is taking as long as 16 weeks to secure a permit.

Chances are, your workspace and technology needs have changed since the last time you moved, so it’s valuable to bring in workplace strategy experts to help you assess your operations and workforce needs. It’s important to solicit design bids from a wide range of architects, rather than settling on the recommendation of the landlord.

While evaluating and engaging transition services, communication with your employees will maintain positivity surrounding the move and produce valuable feedback. Build consensus among employees from the beginning around the shared goals of the move, along with expected transition challenges. Communicate the overall benefits and progress of the move at regular intervals to keep everyone in a positive frame of mind. Weekly conversations on the move with our employees not only kept up excitement about the transition, but also influenced our build-out and moving timeline.

5. Keep purpose in focus during the design process. In our new Denver office, we eliminated the formal reception area and repurposed that area and others into “collision” spaces where employees can spontaneously meet to collaborate throughout the day. The new space incorporates elements from the hospitality sector, with comfortable sofas and high-top tables in a flexible meeting area, and smaller huddle spaces and phone rooms, where people can talk without disturbing others. We standardized dedicated offices at a size that can function as conference rooms if necessary. Based on our office’s operational needs and client services, we opted to keep the overall atmosphere more professional, avoiding beer taps, baristas, game rooms and other lifestyle amenities that are becoming more and more popular.

It’s tempting to incorporate the latest amenity trends or office design and culture of companies that inspire you. For many businesses, these amenities enhance employee productivity and morale. However, we recommend that clients implement an office design influenced by workforce analysis and brand identity. An office design that supports retention and recruitment of the best talent is one that puts employees in the best position to succeed. To identify that position you must primarily analyze and solicit feedback from your workforce, rather than imitating others.

Change can be disruptive, but it also can be energizing. As tenant advisers, we have a close pulse on the emotions and effect of major office relocations on tenants, but the experience from the client viewpoint always offers new insight. In every situation, decision makers will benefit most by being sensitive to the employees’ need to be prepared for the relocation.

Study your workforce needs, relocation costs, business goals and market availability with equal value. Once a transaction is complete, keep employees’ attention focused on future benefits rather than short-term inconvenience with frequent communication. Build positive anticipation by sharing photographs of progress in construction and site visits when possible. Some clients need to be more discreet about a move, but it’s important to let employees know their input was heard, even if they don’t all get everything they want.

Featured in the December issue of Office Properties Quarterly.

Edited by the Colorado Real Estate Journal staff.