Boeing Delivers the Future of Work Now

Nov. 2, 2006
As two-thirds of its workers prepare to retire in 10 years, Boeing is exploring ways to use its facilities as an employee-retention and -attraction tool

Corporate America is about to undergo a shift in its workforce. This year, the oldest Baby Boomers will turn 60, and, as of July 2005, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that 78.2 million Americans are among the Baby Boomer generation. If they haven’t already, they will soon be planning for retirement. If you think this isn’t a real property concern, you’re wrong. Just ask Boeing.

As the world’s largest aerospace company and an employer of more than 150,000, the Chicago-based company is preparing for about two-thirds of its workers to retire in the next 10 years. Boeing isn’t standing idly by, though - it’s serious about maintaining its position on top (and ready to stand out in a market that is competing for the future generations’ best and brightest). The company is looking at how it can use its facilities as an employee-retention and -attraction tool. And, it’s paying close attention to current work processes while creating workspaces to meet the expectations of future employees.

It’s called Future of Work, a project that started with an idea and has become a full-blown, 10-year vision for the progressive management of company real estate. To say it’s only about property is a misnomer. The project is really about people and their productivity, and long-term facility planning is just one way that the company is hoping to get the most out of both.

When fully implemented, the Future of Work project will result in increased employee loyalty and more successful employee recruitment; reduced workspace costs; elevated productivity and collaboration; stronger connections between the company, community, and employees; and working environments that foster greater convenience and quality of life for current and future workers.

Building an Integrated Team
The project has forced team members to ask tough questions like: “What is the future of work going to look like in 2016, and how can Boeing prepare today?” Once a consensus was reached, the answer became more apparent. “The people, the space, and the practices - where all [of those] connect in the middle - is really the solution we’re trying to find,” explains Dick Stewart, manager, Future of Work, Boeing, Renton, WA. As the team’s project leader (with 20 years of facilities, project-management, and strategic-planning experience), Stewart helped turn big-picture thinking into realizable directives. However, he wasn’t the only subject-matter expert championing the project. At times, as many as a dozen people were spending between 10 and 20 hours per week on Future of Work.

The core team members consisted of professionals from the facilities, human resources, information technology, and communications departments, all of which are part of Boeing’s shared services group. While some organizations struggle to open the interdepartmental lines of communication, the Future of Work team was no stranger to synergy. “We work together a lot. What was exciting about this was that, rather than working together like we might have in the past to design a specific building, [we were] creating a model that can be duplicated in different places around the company,” says Marilee Noble, manager, business continuity, Boeing, Renton, WA.

Noble offered input and expertise on infrastructure and technology, and helped make informed decisions about the tools that enable employees to work anywhere and any time. “From experience, we knew that we needed to bring IT in up front. The connectivity inside a building is now just as important as the electricity, the air-conditioning, or the plumbing that runs through it,” says Jeffrey Hobbs, manager, strategic planning, Boeing, Renton, WA.

Representation from human resources provided insight into how new facility standards and changes in work processes could be beneficial for employee recruitment and retention over the next decade. Six professionals from the HR team were tapped for their expertise.

Involvement from Stephen Davis (of Boeing’s communications department) ensured that the Future of Work project would integrate branding into the real property strategy. Promoting the company’s accomplishments creates pride in the current workforce while generating interest from future workers; communicating and displaying consistent messages were important elements of the Future of Work project and had a bigger impact on interior and exterior design of company facilities than imagined.

And, with help from Andrea Vanecko, principal-in-charge of corporate office interior design at Seattle-based Callison, the Future of Work project team was complete. Her philosophy of “space as a business tool” and her work on Callison’s Future@Work™ exhibit made Vanecko a natural choice when the team decided to hire a consultant.

Laying the Foundation
Developing the workplace of tomorrow would not have been possible if Boeing had not taken an inventory of its facilities and developed an integrated real property strategy. The company grew tremendously in the late ‘90s due to acquisition. While the company became stronger and more competitive, the growth that resulted called for a space-management strategy and database of assets. Individuals from Boeing’s shared services group collected data and, in the past few years, have worked with business-unit leaders to better match the company’s real estate with the needs of workers. “We now understand the importance of integration, or the matching, of assets to business needs and how that can help us,” explains Davis.

When Boeing challenged itself to bring the same Lean Manufacturing thinking that had improved its manufacturing processes into the office environment, the search for how to manage workspace more creatively began. The result was the Virtual Office Program. With more than 11,000 employees registered, the need for (and type of) space in the office environment has changed dramatically. The employees have signed agreements to job share, telecommute, and/or use drop-in hoteling workstations. The tools to conduct business and engage coworkers have changed, too.

The Virtual Office Program (as it relates to the Future of Work project) was beneficial for two reasons: It helped the shared services group gain insight into current work processes and taught Boeing employees new ways to work. “We are learning what work can be done from a distance and what work really needs to be done together,” says Noble. “That informs our decisions as we develop facilities for people to work in and [determine] what kinds of spaces and what tools they need.” Without this information and acceptance from its distributed workforce, Boeing’s implementation of the Future of Work project would have been challenging, if not impossible.

In trying to define what the workplace will be like in 2016, the project team examined employee demographics. With so many Baby Boomers among its workforce, Boeing stands to lose 8,000 employees to retirement each year over the coming decade (the average age of Boeing employees: 46). The pool of Gen-X and Millennium-generation workers will be smaller, resulting in a tight job market and tough competition. “We want the tech-savvy to join us. We need the technical talent, because that’s the future of our company. And, we need to create spaces that get them in the door,” says Davis. Future of Work project team members hope to make it happen.

“How [Baby Boomers] live, how they work, and what their expectations are in terms of their work life and personal life are extremely different from the Millennials,” explains Vanecko. “If you continue to build the kind of environments you have now, it won’t be attractive to Millennials because they just don’t work the same way Baby Boomers do.”

Turning Vision into Direction
Vanecko’s proposal contained dynamic ideas about how the project could be more than just designing futuristic workspaces. To classify Future of Work concepts and ideas, the type of changes Boeing is implementing were categorized into four performance pillars: partnerships, work process, communication, and education.

Not all the ideas were expensive, but they were creative. The objective was to excite employees and entice future workers while keeping in mind Boeing’s desire to save more and spend less. Partnerships will enable the company to provide employees with convenient access to amenities like retail shops and restaurants. “A [coffee shop], a Palomino Restaurant, a dry-cleaner, a daycare, and a theater - all of these facilities [will] be provided by outside companies who know they have a certain percentage of guaranteed income from Boeing employees and even more income from the general public, who also has access,” explains Vanecko. Medical resources, a library, and residential apartments are just a few other opportunities for partnerships.

The corporate campus would mimic a mixed-use development, providing shops and services that increase convenience for employees and make balancing work and personal errands less stressful. These blended environments are appreciated by employees of all generations. A workplace that fosters improved quality of life could persuade Boeing’s Boomer-generation employees to postpone retirement and will be attractive to Millennium-generation employees (who are already accustomed to blending all aspects of their lives).

Individuals that have grown up with cell phones and laptops are used to accessing what they need to know from wherever they go. Their work process is different. Working from home requires less adaptation for Gen-X and Millennium workers accustomed to virtual communication and the tools it requires. “We’re reducing our footprint. A portion of the space that we capture back will be more collaboration spaces,” Hobbs explains. Future workspaces will devote more square footage to team spaces, hoteling, and touch-down workstations. “We’re trying to match the workplace to the work that gets done and the actual worker,” says Stewart. Wireless connectivity, 3-D printers, 24/7 IT support, and electronic whiteboards are only a sampling of the project’s recommendations for how technology can be implemented to facilitate productivity in Boeing’s future offices.

To instill pride and inspire awe, the company will boost branding and communication. The Future of Work project looked at how Boeing facilities could recognize and convey the collective accomplishments of its employees. Building exteriors will be distinctive and interior design elements will tell the story of the company’s success. The same external media used during employee recruitment will be shared internally - recruiting videos will be played on flat-panel displays in building lobbies. Davis adds, “We have large wall spaces [in hallways and lobbies] that have been given over to images of people at Boeing doing work that’s significant to our success.” This branding helps employees place their work within a larger context and feel excited about their roles and responsibilities; hopefully, they will be more apt to spread the word to others.

At Vanecko’s suggestion, the Future of Work project team began considering how Boeing could partner with area schools to bring education into company facilities. She suggested that if schools and teachers could use the same lecture space Boeing used for training and continuing education, and college students could live in an on-site dormitory, the connection between community and company would be stronger. Research facilities, play labs for kids, and a science camp are just a few of Vanecko’s additional ideas that could change Boeing’s work environments in the future.

Implementation Begins, Interest Rises
Recognizing that implementation of every Future of Work concept across its 85 million-square-foot global real estate portfolio wasn’t practical, levels of implementation were defined. These are organized with names that are fun and reflect a common hierarchy of scale - the largest implementation of Future of Work ideas is called a “universe,” and the smallest implementation is referred to as a “zip code.” Callison defines each level (from smallest to largest in scale) in the following ways:

  • Zip code. The basic building block for the Future of Work, such as a Boeing virtual office hotel or collaborative work area. Zip codes are also the core strategies and basic work processes that will allow employees to have pride in their workspaces as well as flexibility and choice of how and where to work.
  •  Solar system. The addition to a planet of amenity spaces and services that meet employee needs through an entire workday and begin to invite the public into Boeing spaces.
  • Galaxy.Incorporates the surrounding landscape and environment to create usable workspaces such as outdoor meeting areas, a shared community theater, and outdoor cafés to draw in the public.
  • Universe. Creates a truly holistic environment that meets the needs of Boeing employees directly on-site and reaches out to future Boeing partners/employees and the public.

The next step in the process was detailing how the work required for each level of implementation would be completed. “What we needed to do was outline the responsibilities of each [department] based on the solutions we are suggesting in each zip code, planet, solar system, galaxy, and universe,” explains Vanecko. Once completed, teams can be easily formed and projects assigned.

Not every building in the Boeing portfolio will undergo immediate Future of Work improvements. Instead, the company is looking at staging projects over a number of years. This approach doesn’t have as great of an impact on the bottom line as a massive, portfolio-wide project. Funds needed to implement these concepts have already been allocated for near-term move/add/change projects. “As we refurbish an older building, invest in a new facility, or just look at some of our office-upgrade plans in the future, instead of doing it the old way, we’ll go in and implement some of these Lean [Manufacturing] concepts and the Future of Work vision,” says Stewart.

To see how effective these ideas were, the shared services group volunteered to serve as guinea pig. “The good news is that, in our company, [when] we do this work, we try it on ourselves and see how it works,” explains Noble. The relocation of the shared services group to the Triton Towers 3 building in Renton, WA, provided an opportunity to explore some of the Future of Work concepts still under discussion. Furniture on rollers provides maximum flexibility, and a variety of collaborative spaces are available. “We also built in the virtual office-hoteling center, which allows people who are able to work from home or other Boeing locations to drop in when they need to and work,” explains Davis. The company even partnered with Tully’s Coffee, which now runs a high-quality coffee shop in the building.

Another recent consolidation project also implemented Future of Work partnership concepts. The Renton, WA, 4-81 building, where final assembly of the next-generation 737 airplanes occurs, offers engineers and manufacturing employees a place to drop off dry-cleaning, take advantage of banking services, mail packages, rent DVDs, and have photos developed. The Employee Service Center has been hailed as a big success and is especially appreciated by workers with 30-minute lunch breaks.

The amount of interest in Future of Work has been growing. “Because of how well the initial projects have been received, our shared services president has asked us to move forward [more quickly] and start to create what we call a ‘service offering’ internal to Boeing,” explains Stewart. Rather than push Future of Work concepts on all of Boeing’s business units, the project team will be documenting its findings and providing standards in a guidebook. “We’re packaging it in a way that will enable internal facilities planners, IT professionals, and HR folks to take this new toolbox and apply it in our work environments,” he says.

After its successful small-scale implementations, the company is eager to do more. “Our next projects are going to be larger. The next one is in the realm of 120,000 square feet. In 2007, we could do as much as 500,000 square feet,” says Hobbs.

Watch out, Corporate America - Boeing is quickly becoming one of the best places to work, thanks to the vision of a dozen experts and one very savvy consultant. All signs indicate that Boeing is ready for the future and readying its people and workplaces as well.

Jana J. Madsen ([email protected]) is managing editor at Buildings magazine.

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