New Space Configuration Beats the 'Brain Drain'

Oct. 30, 2007
Use a new space configuration to facilitate the transfer of knowledge from gradually retiring older workers to the younger workers who will replace them

New York City-based PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) recently offered its findings on how facility and office managers can use a new space configuration to transfer knowledge from gradually retiring older workers to the younger workers who will replace them.

Presented at the CoreNet Global Atlanta Summit, PwC's findings indicate that the "brain drain" of experience and expertise from older workers can be halted by using the new space configuration of "mentor pods."

Donal O'Connor, partner at PwC, answers the below questions with the findings observed in his Dublin, Ireland, office.

Q: What were the symptoms of the apparent "brain drain" brought on by the huge rate of retirements?
A: The brain drain for PwC was not as much about retirements as it was about turnover by younger people. While it is expected that people will move on once qualified, in the past graduates would join and work at PwC for up to 5 years; however, the trend was emerging for these people to stay at PwC for less and less time over the years.

Q. What are "mentor pods" and how do they facilitate knowledge transfer between older and younger people?
A: Our new building is all about communications and teamwork to make it an enjoyable and easy place for our people to work and for our clients to do business. When engaged in workshops to help design their own workplace, PwC people came up with the idea of mentoring spaces.

The challenge for the design team was to develop workplace settings which support knowledge transfer in an easily accessible space with acoustical privacy.

The solution had two components:

1. Senior people now tend to be in modern glass offices spread throughout the open-plan work environment, assuring acoustical privacy while allowing the younger people to see and approach senior workers more readily. This meant that the more experienced people were no longer hidden far away in enclosed, inaccessible offices behind dark wooden doors.

2. Mentor pods or spaces were designed within the various work area "neighborhoods" to provide a readily accessible space for people to go to learn from more experienced colleagues and not disturb others in the area. These spaces reflect a variety of solution settings allowing people to choose spaces which best match their needs. Examples of this are the many informal focus rooms around the building and wide link bridges for informal meetings. In addition, the restaurant and atrium, where the café is located, with their bright open spaces, allow people to meet informally over a cup of coffee.

Q: What can building owners and facility managers do to accommodate shared knowledge between generations? For example, can organizing the space differently really fight "brain drain"?
A: It's all about facilitating easy communication across all levels and creating a supportive environment in which to work, and then using the space to the maximum advantage to achieve this. Space has been shown to empirically support the flow of knowledge within an organization. People do not tend to share information with people they don't trust. Trust can only be established once you know someone in the organization. You can't know someone unless you have met them, and you can't meet them unless you have the opportunity to see them. Open, fluid organizations that encourage and support human social interaction are a catalyst for knowledge transfer.

There is not a magic solution to these issues. The key to success is the implementation of a structured process which incorporates a firm's people (at all levels) in defining needs, developing the solution, and evolving that solution to reflect how work is actually done. Integral to this kind of effort is a change-management program which will help define the cultural and behavioral changes that must occur if the solution is to be successfully implemented.

Q: What are some important things to know about configuring space for different generations?
A: From research, we know that each generation has specific needs related to the work environment. We also know that each generation's need sets are broad and can overlap with the needs of other generations. Additionally, company cultures vary in the amount of change they will willingly accept related to implementing changes driven by generational needs.

It's never a good idea to configure space for one specific generation. The best solution mix will be driven by engaging with a firm's people to clearly define needs for their specific situation and generational mix.

Donal O'Connor is partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

With 7,000 members representing large corporations around the world, CoreNet Global operates in five global regions (Asia, Australia, Europe, Latin America, and North America.

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