Tearing Down the Walls: The Evolution of Office Space

by Meghan Behse

As commercial development continues to expand in Markham, it has brought with it another development: an embrace of unique interior design to rethink the traditional office space. And the results are not just superficial. In fact, interior design may be responsible for changing the way we work. “People are trying to change the whole flow,” says Julie Anne Smedley, President of POI Business Interiors. “Businesses are now trying to create more casual workplaces, where accidental meetings can take place rather than formal ones.”

To facilitate this, companies are looking to create more open, welcoming environments, with less dedicated space. This trend, which was largely influenced by the need to attract a millennial workforce that seeks collaboration over privacy, is now taking off in nearly all sectors – office, education, healthcare – and is supported by today’s workforce at large. Key elements include exposure to natural daylight, flexible workspaces, and relaxation areas. Smedley notes that POI clients are requesting a much higher percentage of living-room style furnishings – sofas, rugs, and coffee tables – over traditional office furnishing, like permanent desks and dividers.

These types of work–play environments have long been associated with tech companies and start-up incubators. The Googleplex, Google’s headquarters in California, may be the most famous example, but there are other similar, albeit, smaller versions closer to home, like Innovation York, a York U accelerator for start-ups, and ventureLab, York’s regional innovation centre, both of which are tenants of the Markham Convergence Centre ‒also home to Markham Board of Trade, Markham Small Business Centre, and National Research Council Canada’s IRAP. Clearly these types of work environments are no longer just the domain of tech companies.

This won’t come as a surprise to one of the early adopters. The Centre for Social Innovation began acquiring buildings in Toronto as early as 2004 with the sole mandate of creating places for small businesses to foster social innovation through social space. With their fourth Toronto location soon to open and a steadily growing membership, it’s clear these types of spaces are working for people.

Noting these successful experiments, corporations are jumping on board this trend, and office developers are increasingly moving to architectural designs that feature the open-concept, naturally lit office space now being demanded by companies of all sizes.

One of these companies is KPMG, a tax, audit and advisory firm of nearly 500 employees, that recently relocated both its Bay/Adelaide and York Mills Centre offices to Vaughan. “We’re at ground zero of what will be Vaughan Metro Centre,” says Frank Boutzis, KPMG’s Partner in Charge of the GTA Enterprise. Over the next couple of years, they’ll have a park system running from the west side of their building all the way to Highway 400 and underground access to the new TTC subway station.

With high, exposed industrial ceilings and window-lined walls, the building itself was designed to utilize natural light. The elevators were strategically built to let light into the corridors of each floor. KPMG took advantage of a new building to completely re-think their workplace environment. “What we tried to do is create something that is significantly more open in design and that would provide a lot more daylight,” says Boutzis. “The other important thing was creating an environment that is far more collaborative than a traditional office.”

The result is a five-storey office (floors 9 to 14) consisting of gaming tables; a café; reflection pods for personal time; collaboration booths for impromptu meetings; and an office layout that creates equal accessibility to windows by placing meeting rooms in the centre.

According to Boutzis, the collaboration spaces were immediately a success. With clients who often require multiple services, their Vaughn office allows for more meaningful cross-departmental discussions. “Here, while you’re maybe on different floors, [employees] can meet in a collaboration area, sit down and talk about the client and what matters to the client in a very holistic way.”

“You hear some comments about whether this will stick. But there’s no going back,” he adds. “Especially the way we interact with our people and the nature of the entire space. It’s funky, and it’s very welcoming.”

Photo caption: Every floor of KPMG’s office includes six collaboration booths, each equipped with monitors and wireless connectivity.

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Photo caption:KPMG’s south-facing café, located on the 12th floor, oversees downtown Toronto and the CN Tower. The space includes a lounge area with a fireplace, communal dining tables, and multiple TV monitors.

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