A visit to Cornell University, Ithaca, USA: Notes on the International Workplace Studies Program IWSP

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In October 2004 I had the opportunity to visit Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. The purpose of my visit was to learn more about the International Workplace Studies Program (IWSP) that was launched in 1989 by Franklin Becker and William (Bill) Sims. Frank is the present chair (Bill the former) of the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis (DEA) of the College of Human Ecology. The mission statement of IWSP is to generate research-based information related to the planning, design, and management of facilities that can contribute to the development of more competitive and effective organizations. The focus is on new ways of working and new integrated workplace strategies. A considerable number of case studies haven been executed on the effects of non-territorial offices and teleworking - at home, with the client, in a hotel, in a telework center – on communication, social cohesion, collaboration, attraction and retaining staff, turnover, productivity, and facility costs. Most studies include an extensive review of literature, a user survey with web-enabled questionnaires, interviews with focus groups, observations and analysis of documents.

Two overall conclusions are coming up. First of all the need for an integral approach of “The Total Workplace”. This concept refers to: 1) the idea of integrating decisions often considered in isolation by different departments (HRM, IT, design and construction, and buildings operations and management); 2) the idea that the workplace is more than one’s own personal office or workstation, it is the entire workplace (site, amenities, common areas, project rooms, support areas), a “series of loosely coupled settings”; 3) the idea that the processes used for planning, designing, and managing the workplace are as much a part of the building’s quality as are its physical characteristics. A second conclusion is the great value of face-to-face contacts to tacit learning, building trust and social cohesion, and young employees’ learning on the job by becoming an “insider”.

The IWSP-research improves our understanding of what is really going on in the offices of our times. The empirical data can be used as a mirror for managers to take well-informed decisions. But the data don’t give us a blueprint how a well performing office should be. Contextual differences with reference to organizational characteristics, working processes, the cultural and economic context, and differences with regard to demographics (age, gender, ethnics) and jobs require more or less a tailor made approach. But taking into account all key findings and lessons learned, decision makers can reduce the risk of “wrong” decisions and improve the probability of positive outcomes. An interesting tool to support complex decisions in accommodating change is the so-called Cornell Balanced Real Estate Assessment Model (COBRA©), a prototype tool, including investment and operational costs, exit costs, key human resource factors, and measures of uncertainty. The COBRA tool may be used to quantify the implications of different assumptions and decisions. For instance the % of productivity increase that is needed to compensate for the high cost of collocating a faculty, or the reduce in turnover to compensate the cost of employee services. It is in particular the combination of soft and hard data and “dollar-metrics” that makes the tool very helpful.

This report summarizes the main findings of four weeks of talking, reading, and reflecting. Apart from the discussions with Franklin Becker and William Sims, I had also the opportunity to talk with their colleagues Alan hedge, Lorraine Maxwell and Nancy Wells, with Stephani Robson of the Hotel School, with Robert Abrams of the two-year master’s degree program Real Estate, and, be it briefly, with Mohsen Mostafavi, the brand new Dean of the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherFaculty of Architecture, TU Delft
Number of pages59
Publication statusPublished - 15 Dec 2004

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