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Space: the final frontier

Recognizing the lure of telecommuting, companies are coming up with creative ways to keep their workers comfortable–and on site.

“These lights–I can feel them sucking the life right out of my eyeballs. Suck, suck, suck! They give me a headache. If they don’t give you a headache, you must be dead.”

–Joe Banks

In this scene from the movie “Joe Versus the Volcano,” Joe Banks quits his job in the Panascope factory, ranting about his wretched office where fluorescent lights gasp and sputter above his head like bug zappers; where the coat rack breaks on contact and the coffee tastes like arsenic; where everyone can hear Dede typing and the boss loudly arguing into the phone on endless repeat. As soon as he quits, Joe immediately feels great for the first time in years.

We’ve all been (or maybe still are) in our own version of Joe’s office hell. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s an office-design revolution in full swing: Now more than ever, companies–especially growing ones–are dramatically overhauling their offices, and are finding it easier to create beautiful as well as more functional spaces. New cube designs shun Sheetrock, giving way to modular plastics, metals, and fabrics. Kitchens boast breakfast bars wired for laptops. Whiteboards sprout wheels. Fluorescent lights dim in favor of lamps and natural light. And public meeting areas, not private executive offices, hug windows. Color, creativity, and inclusiveness are in; drab, dull, hierarchical office charts are out.

You can guess some of the reasons behind this trend. Creating a better face naturally attracts employees and clients, and the more amenities you provide, the more hours your employees may want to put in. Managers also find that designing a one-size-fits-all modular space saves them money in wiring and remodeling costs. But all over the country, everyone has been surprised at one fringe benefit of a workspace redesign: the dramatic cultural facelift that happens along with it. It’s so simple, yet so powerful. Pay careful attention to your space, and your employees’ productivity, health, and happiness can skyrocket.

RJ Studios, for example, is a Bristol, Penn.-based shop that makes action figures for movies like “A Bug’s Life.” The shop’s designers, model makers and sculptors used to work independently, until they determined that they needed to get products to market faster. So they knocked down the walls between departments and moved people around to create interactive teams. Within a year, the company saw a 20 percent increase in its lead time to market, a 10 to 15 percent increase in employee productivity, a 10 to 15 percent sales spurt and cost savings of $200,000.

Take a tour of a few companies with a new look, and learn how their experiences could help you achieve a similar office revolution.

A home away from home

Born, a national e-business consulting company based near Minneapolis, has a reputation as a great place to work. Last summer it garnered national headlines when it threw a two-day party featuring ex-Eagle Glenn Frey, fireworks, and free rein at Mall of America. So you expect its new flagship National Business & Technology Center (NBTC) to be big and bold. What you get is a great big hug: Born looks like the cushy den/kitchen/home office you always wanted.

Comfortable, art deco-style furniture decorates the lobby, hallway nooks, five different types of meeting areas, and state-of-the-art training rooms. In the open, sunny work areas, overhead fluorescent lights are diffused. Offices and slick-looking cubicles sit in the center of the room and on inside walls; first-come, first-served meeting pavilions occupy corner windows. Born repeats this emphasis on equal viewing access in the kitchen and formal conference room, where spectacular Palladian windows overlook a serene river and walking trails. Every room and anteroom is wired, encouraging employees to take their laptops anywhere for a change of scenery. Born also balances a desire for greater collaboration with the need for some privacy by incorporating private rooms and phone booths into its layout.

Walk through Born’s 100,000 square feet and you might be intimidated by all the high-end stuff you can’t afford. But one tip Born provides is free for the taking: a philosophy proudly displayed on its walls. In the hallways hang 12 huge billboards that juxtapose mission and value statements with pictures of employees. In the lobby, a company announcement screen flashes this message from CEO Rick Born: “We believe that if we take care of our people and our clients, the rest will take care of itself.”

Planning the company’s move into the NBTC provoked some anxiety among those who were losing a private office. Once in, however, everybody appreciated the emphases on openness and on space designed according to function rather than one’s place in the company hierarchy. “The space has been phenomenal for people’s enthusiasm, creativity, and excitement,” says Tracy Redepenning, director of facilities and administration. “They bring in their families to show it off.”

You can take it with you

Many rapidly growing companies are not just redesigning to fit current needs–they’re projecting where they’ll be a year to five years down the road, and demanding office decor that will travel.

Such is the case for New York City-based Fusebox, a boutique Internet services firm that couldn’t afford to move out of its building in the heart of Silicon Alley. Instead, the company hired a designer to help maximize its 12,500 square feet–spread across three floors–and still keep its options open for a future move. “Cost was one of our biggest factors,” says Laura Michaels, chief creative officer. “We were careful to custom-build the furniture, not the infrastructure. We needed cool and cost-effective materials that can be moved–there’s no Sheetrock.”

Fusebox’s work areas are made of lightweight metal, with plastic screens that can slide back and forth for talking or for working alone. A conference room is cordoned off with Thermaclear plastic, and the reception desk, made of metal and glass, hangs from the ceiling. The conference-room table can be disassembled and hung on the wall to make room for other uses, such as yoga classes. Skylights, wood floors, and high ceilings and windows combine with the plastic furniture’s rounded corners and bright colors to convey a retro-futuristic-industrial motif.

Michaels says the $600,000 she spent on the redesign was money well spent. Not only did Fusebox gain more space, privacy, and light than it had before, but it also gained a better business presence. “The space says that we know what we’re doing and that we see the bigger picture,” Michaels says. “When people come in here, they immediately know what kind of people work here and what we’re about, and that’s not easy.”

Make the most of your space

Having a plan to move is a must, but so is leaving room to grow in your current space. With that need in mind, eBenX, a national Minneapolis-based health-benefits management company, pushed its designers to build in some plain old empty space.

“In our old building, we were on two and a half floors and very cramped,” says Megan Klein, communications coordinator for eBenX. “We were on top of each other. Sometimes you had to walk through the hallway sideways to get by! So we wanted to do it right this time.”

EBenX places a premium on openness; clean, practical design; and furniture that is versatile and reconfigurable. Stepping off the elevator on one of its five floors, visitors see an open, informal area with bistro tables and a whiteboard. The oval-shaped area leads one through work areas nicely lit by natural light, thanks to an abundance of windows. Cubicles are easily modified and moved, and a rolling filing cabinet on wheels crowned with a seat cushion does double duty as a “perch” for visitors. Distracters like copy machines, printers, mail rooms, and bathrooms are located in a corridor off the main work areas.

EBenX took a focus-group approach when designing its new space, says Todd Messerli, associate vice president of architecture for the Minneapolis architectural firm HGA, which designed the space. “We used electronic audience-response workshop dials, like they use for the Nielsen ratings,” he says. “We asked questions like, ‘How many hours do you work alone? With someone else? How many computers do you use?'” The survey found that workers primarily needed a number of informal meeting and collaborative work areas with plenty of whiteboards, and some amenities for long hours. HGA also built extra room into the 90,000 square feet of space to accommodate 20 percent projected growth, and came up with what Messerli calls a universal desk solution. “Everyone is in an open workstation,” explains Klein. “We have no offices–even for the CEO.”

A brand new you

Zamba Solutions, a national “customer care” company headquartered in Minneapolis, planned an image overhaul after an acquisition in 1999. Zamba is the name of an Argentinean dance, but nothing about the company’s former space–a maze of cubicles in muted gray tones–conveyed that, says Mari Ann Baden, facilities manager. “We called it the Habitrail,” says Baden. “You had to know which corridor of the maze to go down in order to find someone.” Zamba’s top brass wanted its new digs to emphasize comfort and fun.

Accordingly, the new Minneapolis space takes up a full floor of an office building–26,000 square feet–and incorporates its company palette of reds, yellows, blues, and greens. A spacious, curved lobby overlooks an outdoor patio and a lake. Behind the reception desk, there’s a cozy eating area with bar stools, which opens onto a game room where, on a sunny November day, a mad game of foosball is underway. Two scooters can be commandeered by anyone for zipping through the office, and four community bicycles are on hand for getting out in nice weather.

As you walk in a circle from the lobby, you pass through two work areas with colorful space-age pods made of metal and fabric screens that are completely portable and modifiable (adjust your desk as high or as low as you need). Many have overhead canopies, which provide a sense of one’s own space while filtering overhead lights. The pods can be easily moved around and connected to make informal conference rooms, which are stationed along outer windows. Baden says she and other planners spent a month and a half revising seating assignments, aiming to maximize productivity and minimize dead spaces. “We wanted to make sure that the furniture didn’t create aisles,” Baden says. “We didn’t want people to feel like their office was in the hallway.”

Employees can go virtually anywhere in the building and be plugged in. Baden and Montague say that the new space has brought people to life. “It took a while for people to adjust–to feel like they could go and sit somewhere other than their desk,” Baden says. “Our CEO said he didn’t want people just to sit in their cubes all day. The only reason you come in to work anymore is to see other people, because everyone could work from home. You come in for the community.”

Planning is everything

Whether your company has 800 employees or eight, those who have been through a workspace design process say you should factor these considerations into your plan:

Your company culture and how space design and materials will reflect it

Professional designers say that wherever possible, incorporate company materials into your design. The screens on Zamba’s work pods, for example, display elements of company messages and logos.

Neovation, an Internet services company based outside of Denver, Colo., custom-built its peace sign-shaped pods, and is incorporating them into its offices around the country. In coming up with the design, Erin Geegan, Neovation founder and chief development officer, says she was striving to incorporate the values of people, culture, spirit, and place.

What your employees do and what tools and resources they need

Designers advise companies to retain some closed offices for employees who have many confidential meetings, or to find another way to accommodate these needs. eBenX, for example, has no closed offices, but its executive conference room is not on the public meeting schedule roster.

Don’t institute the practice of “hoteling”–having no permanent space-for permanent employees. Shawn Rush, a managing director and principal of Seattle-based architectural firm Space, suggests saving temporary space for salespeople or consultants who visit the office infrequently but need a “touchdown” space. Finally, don’t skimp on ergonomics. If your designers, writers, or programmers spend most of their time in a chair in front of a computer screen, invest in the best chair you can afford, say Fusebox and Born executives.

How to balance the need for collaboration, quiet work, and privacy

“Don’t put work areas around public corridors,” Rush advises. “Create private zones for working–you want people to run into each other where it’s not disruptive, and get people to talk more often.” Rush also urges managers to plan enough support space-conference rooms, break rooms, etc.–to accommodate the total number of employees. Erin Geegan of Neovation says she planned for about 200 square feet per person of support space or personal work space.

The cost and quality of designers and materials

Go with the best you can afford. A good designer will give you maximum flexibility and will cut costs on materials, not equipment. Designers for Fusebox and Neovation, for example, used inexpensive materials to cordon off meeting areas.

The parameters of your building contract

Know what you’re getting into and how you can get out of it. “Infrastructure and furniture are two of your biggest outlays up front,” Rush says. “You need space that allows you to build long-term. Building in the ‘out’ clause is just as important as securing the space.”

Take a cue from the companies mentioned in this story and formulate a long-term space plan. “Find the most reputable real estate broker in your community,” Geegan says. “Negotiate hard on the deal-that contract can make or break your business. Most of the deals we sign allow us to stay within that real estate broker’s network of buildings in case we need more space.”

Other factors to consider include: how much annual growth you expect; workflow; ergonomics; aesthetics; and employee input.

Even though every company included in this story involved its employees in some aspect of its redesign, managers still were pleasantly surprised at how much it improved the culture. “I was really surprised at just how key the workplace environment is,” says Geegan. “I didn’t expect some of the employees to step up their effort the way they did.”

Design Help Online

Need to design or overhaul some office space, but don’t know where to begin? Try NextOffice, a furniture company that has gone digital.

NextOffice’s personnel can help you plan a site from scratch or just help you order a desk. Need an on-site consultation? Done. Need furniture for 20 new employees delivered in two days? It can do that, too. But the most exciting thing about NextOffice is the way it uses the Web to transform the design process. For example, you can e-mail NextOffice any CAD files you may have from your architect. NextOffice will post them online and create a 3D rendering, enabling you to virtually walk through the space.

Or, as one company did, you can have NextOffice post room layouts and chair choices on your intranet to have employees vote on them. NextOffice also opens up more choices for companies, letting them look at furniture from about 110 different vendors–a service that Brien Slawik, president of Har-Mar, Inc., a real estate company located in St. Paul, Minn., really appreciated.

“There’s much less pressure doing it this way than walking into a showroom floor, where humans are waiting to attack you,” Slawik says. “Not only are there more choices, but (NextOffice) can recommend things I don’t even know about, as opposed to a dealer that only has one brand or one make.”

Best of all, NextOffice can create a custom extranet for Slawik that keeps all of his files in one place. “The customized extranet contains their drawings, products they ordered, how much they spent, CAD files, etc.,” says Farid Gazor, NextOffice founder and CEO. “That way if there’s turnover, the company doesn’t have to start from scratch again just because nobody can remember where they bought the original furniture. We’ve gotten very good feedback about how we take ownership of and responsibility for the process.”

Sara Aase is Web Managing Editor of ComputerUser.com.

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