Delaware’s biggest firms are reinventing the office space

JP Morgan Chase’s new offices substitute walls and cubicles for open desks and easy interaction.

By Roger Morris
Special to Delaware Business Times

Throughout February and March, a series of nor’easters ripped across the East Coast and disrupted workplace commutes from Maine to Virginia. Delaware got the brunt of several storms, but employees of CSC, the Delaware-based provider of business, legal, tax and digital brand services, were prepared for whatever the weather threw at them.

CSC operates 40 offices in 14 countries, but the 1,100 employees housed in its corporate headquarters outside Wilmington are central to meeting worldwide customer demand.

“We’re equipped so that about 90 percent of our Wilmington employees can work from home in bad weather, which can be safer for them and yet doesn’t disrupt customer service,” said Jackie Smetana, CSC’s EVP of Global Services.

Working from home is just one example of how Delaware companies are adapting to changing needs and opportunities in the workplace. In search of greater efficiency, productivity and meaningful customer interactions, large and small companies are taking a fresh approach to where and how people work.

Well-worn business phrases such as “the corner office” and “dress casual Friday” may take on a new meaning in a world where managers work from home and strict dress codes are a thing of the past.

Down with cubicles

Kristyn Ramsey, vice president of project execution in JP Morgan Chase’s home lending department, said satisfied and well-informed employees are particularly important in the technology field. Workers are expected to not only employ digital tools but even invent new ones. It requires a mix of creativity and organization that makes innovative workplace practices essential.

At Chase’s Delaware Technology Center north of Wilmington, workers use a team-based process called “Scrum,” which is a subset of an approach called “Excite.”

“In 2001, a group of people got together and created the Excite Manifesto,” Ramsey said, “and in recent years we’ve more formalized how our teams use that manifesto.” Essentially, the Excite credo has three major elements that challenged conventional business wisdom:

• Working software is valued over comprehensive documentation.

• Customer collaboration means more than contract negotiation. Responding to change is more important than following a plan.

In the Chase workplace, Ramsey said, “the cubicle walls are down, and teams are grouped together.” Chase encourages inter-team collaboration, especially between business and technology units, as the bank carves a leadership role in digital customer technology, including mortgage application and services.

“Our teams need to be sure that processes in place are constantly being evaluated,” Ramsey said. “We constantly revisit why we are doing something.”

Managing lives

Andrea Simon, author of the book “On the Brink” and management consultant to a number of Delaware companies, said employers are thinking more comprehensively about their workers.

“We are moving away from managing ‘hands’ at work to managing ‘lives,’” Simon said. “People are trained not to wait to be told to do something, but to instead assemble a team and do it.”

In addition, the idea of employees toiling alone at their desks is fading. “No one needs to be solo,” Simon said, “so companies are being encouraged to have people work in pairs, because no one has every answer, and everyone needs a backup.”

Employers may have to change up pairs from time to time, Simon said, to stimulate creativity and keep relationships from going stale.

Making these kinds off changes, however, can be difficult for companies without dedicated human resources departments.

Warren Cook, co-founder of Delaware-based SymbianceHR and a member of the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), pointed out that many companies lack the resources to meet the needs of employees in-house.

“Perhaps 90 percent of local companies do not have a dedicated human resources executive, so people like me and other SHRM members help them work through the HR process to get better worker output. Companies that have high employee turnover don’t always realize they are part of the problem.”

Jackie Smetana, CSC’s EVP of Global Services talks with a coworker. CSC designed its new headquarters from the ground up giving it the opportunity to build more collaborative workspaces.

The total package

Older managers, Cook noted, may not always understand how the younger generation thinks.

“Millennials expect collaboration because that’s the way they’ve been trained,” he said. “They are the first generation that just sees individual people, not as a member of some societal grouping. They value people for their knowledge, plus they are also less interested in hierarchy.

Millennials also value environment and experience, various experts said, whether they are part of a large
firm with hundreds of employees or self-employed as part of the “gig economy.” (See sidebar.)

When CSC was planning its new headquarters, Smetana said, “It was a super-exciting project because it allowed us to design an innovative workplace with collaborative workspaces.”

“Each of us has a sit/stand desk,” she continued, “which creates a totally different vibe. All I have to
do is push a button if I want to change positions.”

The new headquarters provides amenities such as facility-wide Wi-Fi for those who like to roam while they work, a café with fresh entrees and salads, and a 24-hour fitness center with showers. “We want people to look forward to coming to work,” Smetana said.

At the same time, telecommuting provides a sensible alternative for those who work outside Delaware.

“In fact, about 800 of our 2,600 employees work in locations different from their team leaders,” Smetana said.

Chris Burkhard, founder of the Newark-based CBI Group and head of its Placers recruitment service, noted that more than one in 10 new jobs are categorized as “temporary,” and few on either side of the equation expect lifetime employment at one firm.

“I should note, however,” Burkard said, “that the idea of alternate work arrangements is sometimes better in theory than in actuality.”

Depending on the situation, 24-hour availability can be a blessing if managed intelligently or a curse if abused.

“In today’s business, both employers and employees no longer see a rigid work environment with an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. mentality,” CBI’s Burkhard explained. “Today, everyone is results-oriented.”

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