chi-jll-aon-center-cafe-booth (3) The new cafes all include comfortable booths so those inclined can hold small meetings or work with an extra bit of privacy.

CHICAGO—When JLL recommitted to keeping its global headquarters at Chicago’s Aon Center, the company leadership still knew that things would have to change. And starting in 2013, they began fulfilling another commitment, that the corporate office would be redesigned according to what all the roughly 1,200 people that work there needed, rather than what the C-suite executives desired.

JLL just completed the first phase of the redesign, which by 2017 will encompass six floors and 200,000 square feet. Company officials gave a tour of the new space and spoke about how its employees helped design an office that simultaneously allows for more personal interaction but preserves privacy when necessary.

JLL officials believe their new offices, and the process they used to garner ideas for its design, can serve as a model for corporate clients looking to bring their own headquarters into the 21st century. A key lesson learned was the need to solicit employees’ opinion in a wide variety of ways. JLL conducted observations, personal interviews, small focus groups, and even company town hall meetings in order to garner as many opinions from as many people as possible.

And what they heard was that people wanted the ability to connect with their co-workers, but with a wide variety of spaces where that could happen. The company’s old space was set up open-office style, with little appearance of hierarchy and lots of natural light. But Ed Nolan, senior vice president, workplace strategy, told that while such openness was once considered cutting-edge, many had come to feel “the pendulum had swung too far in that direction.”    

“It was one size fits all back then,” he added. Employees did appreciate that their workspace was not ringed by private offices, since that meant the spectacular views of Millennium Park and the city’s skyline were close at hand for nearly everyone. But there were few options if someone wanted to make a private call or get together with some colleagues to concentrate on a project.


chi-jll image (2) Everyone in the headquarters now has access to a series of rooms where they can have private conversations.

Today, on a finished floor that is now home to information technology, human resources and others, each section of the building, called studios, has a set of comfortable meeting rooms that can serve just two people, others that seat about four, and larger conference rooms where whole teams can brainstorm ideas while video-conferencing with colleagues or clients from around the world. All available meeting spaces are marked by a soft green display easily seen from anywhere in the office, so everyone knows with a glance which ones are free.   

Just as important, JLL and Gensler, its architectural partner, have restructured the entire space to facilitate more casual meetings. It now features a dramatic two story reception area connected by a staircase, the first office space of its kind in the Aon Center. And now that the two halves of the building are connected by a wide passageway that JLL calls The Alley, employees can quickly reach all sections of the office with a minimum of fuss.

Furthermore, instead of making due with small lunchrooms or coffee rooms, each floor also has a big café, all with a series of alcoves that provide yet another kind of meeting space. “This is the kind of space that causes what we call casual collisions,” said Chuck Kelly, senior director, office services. Many people take their laptops to work in the café, and bump into others passing through. The unplanned meetings often lead to the exchange of ideas and spur-of-the-moment collaborations, the kind of interaction that was rare back when corporate offices resembled a maze.

All of this variety is essential in today’s office environment, where typically four generations, from millennials to boomers, share a workspace, Kelly added. Those of an older generation, for example, frequently prefer the formality of a conference room when hashing out an idea, but younger people may “want to just sit around a lunch table and talk.”      

“What makes this office especially exciting for our employees is the ability to work in a space that is as innovative and customized as the offices we help our clients create,” said Dan Ryan, Midwest market director for JLL. “It’s great to live by our own best practices and see how our workplace helps our employees drive even better outcomes for our clients.”

Next week: A look at how JLL has made each individual workspace at its headquarters more flexible.