Cisco CEO is rebranding the office as a ‘collaboration center’ and slashing private workspaces to coax employees back

Chuck Robbins, chief executive officer of Cisco Technologies
Employers have to earn their workers' commute, Cisco's CEO says.
David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Employers and their workers are at loggerheads over returning to the office.

On the one hand, many businesses are still paying to lease a large office space and understandably want their workers to use the money pit. 

Plus, many CEOs Fortune has spoken to feel that staff work harder in the office where they can be seen—even if research consistently shows that staff can be just as productive from home. 

But employees simply don’t see the point of wasting money and spending hours commuting to do the very same tasks that they’ve been proving for the last three years they can do efficiently from home.

Cisco’s CEO Chuck Robbins gets that.

“You’re going to tell somebody to go to the office and get on video and talk to people in another office all day long?” he said in an interview with Forbes. “They could do that from home.”

That’s why the tech giant is giving the traditional office an overhaul and building workspaces fit for the future of hybrid working—called “collaboration centers”—with just 10% of the space reserved for working alone. 

Just last month Cisco unveiled its latest hub in Atlanta, exactly a year after opening its similarly smart New York space (which Robbins unveiled to Fortune at the time) with further plans to refurbish some of its other offices and relocate several of its underutilized offices to areas where they’ll get more employee foot traffic.

The office is 90% for communal gathering

In the year since opening its 58,000-square-foot space in Manhattan, Robbins learned that workers don’t want to go into the office to then work on their own. 

“When employees were showing up, they weren’t going in private rooms. They were just sitting at tables,” he said. “They wanted to spend time [with coworkers] and they wanted those interactions.”

So Cisco decreased the amount of space for individual work from 30% in its New York office to 10% in its new Atlanta space. The majority of the hub’s square footage is dedicated for meetings, communal gatherings, and team-based work.

Plus, as Cisco’s own research found that up to 98% of all meetings will include at least one participant attending remotely, hybrid collaboration hasn’t been forgotten. 

For example, the meeting rooms in its new Atlanta office have been decked out with the latest video conference system that follows each speaker’s voice and points the camera to whoever is talking. 

Meanwhile, even the furniture is aimed to help workers collaborate, whether they are in-person or dialing in remotely, with slightly curved conference room tables to maximize each person’s visibility on screen. 

You have to earn your workers commute

After having splashed out the cash on such a lavish space, you’d assume that Cisco is now mandating workers make full use of it.

But actually, employees are “not going to come five days a week,” Robbins told Forbes, while adding that even pre-pandemic some 15% of Cisco employees already worked remotely full-time. 

Instead, the company is hoping it will get its return on investment just simply by making the office worthy of its workers’ commute.

“We’re trying to create a series of events in offices” to get people on-site, he adds, including all-hands meetings and a leadership summit for Black employees. 

It all comes down to “What’s your return on commute?,” according to Robbins—and that’s a worthy question for employers trying to entice their workers back into the office.

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