CBRE’s global headquarters in Downtown Los Angeles are equipped with modernities that signify a progressive approach to workplace strategy. Sit-stand desks encourage movement, and “free address” (rather than company-assigned) seating allows for migration to different areas of the office. It’s what you won’t find in the office, however, that is just as remarkable. CBRE, the largest commercial real estate firm in the world, has gone paperless. No physical memoranda, no manilla folders teeming with paper trails, no file cabinets filled with ephemera.
Lewis C. Horne, president of CBRE’s Greater Los Angeles–Orange County Region, a veteran of more than 30 years with the firm, is the chief driver of this change. “Frankly, my journey started with [the realization that] we’ve got to do this, but everybody’s got to want to do this,” says Horne. “Reinventing a paper-based organization that is relationship-driven and not very technical – that was a tall order.”
Horne visited the firm’s Amsterdam offices, which operate in a culture that does not shy away from forward-thinking ideas. After touring approximately 25 different offices – 15 in the U.S. and 10 in Amsterdam – Horne concluded that Los Angeles was ready to embrace an evolved workplace.
In addition to rethinking traditional office furniture, seating arrangements, and physical printing needs, CBRE added a layer of cork in the flooring (better for posture), brought in more than 1,100 plants, and installed a carbon filter that brings outside air into the office environment.
“We went through a massive change management process, organized six big committees, [and] out of the 190 people we moved, we had probably 80 to 85 of those on committees studying everything from art and furniture to health and wellness,” he notes of CBRE’s Downtown LA makeover, completed September 2013. “I get a lot of the credit, but frankly the credit goes to the people who were part of those committees that actually made it happen. Since then, we’ve … built 20 of these globally, [and] we now have another 16 under construction.”
This workplace metamorphosis has irrevocably changed the way CBRE occupies space, but beyond that, Horne believes it has influenced space usage across industries. “It’s this merging of technology and the real estate, and utilizing all the technical tools available to us” that is reverberating in business, says Horne.
“When we went through this paperless change, it was really funny,” he recalls. “I recognized how many other habits I had that involved sitting in the same place or even the way I get my news.” One night during the time CBRE was transforming its office space, Horne came home for dinner and sat down at a completely different spot at the table and was amused by the reaction he got from his wife and kids. “When you start messing with [routine], people realize how much of what they do is [out of] habit.”
Horne recently visited China with a contingent of local leaders headed by LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, and he was thoroughly impressed with the rate of development and real estate activity that is surging forward in China. Horne also considers Garcetti a top-notch ambassador for the city. “When we’ve got a large developer who’s interested in investing in Los Angeles, the mayor is quick to meet with that group and describe not only what he believes the current advantages are, but what he believes the future direction will be.” In terms of seeing the climate of rampant development in China as well as attending to local interests, Horne termed the visit “incredibly successful on both accounts.”
Pointing to the spate of development the downtown area has experienced in the past two years, Horne cites local investors as well as those in New York, San Francisco, Korea, Canada, and China as testament to the city’s global reach. “It’s also fun to see a whole transformation going on in the areas that have not been touched in the past 50 years,” he says. “Young professionals move to downtown, they want to live, work, and recreate. Downtown Los Angeles is a very cool place to be right now.”