The offices of St Louis-based architectural firm Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum Inc. (HOK) formerly were divided among three floors – six, nine and 22 – in one building. When Roger McFarland, director of interiors, got on the elevator with someone from the company, he wouldn’t know they were colleagues.
So when the company decided several years ago to set up new office space, one crucial step was to make it easier for people, especially employees, to connect. That was just for starters. HOK wanted space with a purpose, as well as an identity that presented a distinct image.
McFarland and HOK aren’t alone in wanting office space to do more than provide a work area. From advertising agencies to hospitals, businesses are re-evaluating workspace. Functional doesn’t cut it anymore. Space must enhance employee recruitment and satisfaction. It also must help attract new clients. Retailers long ago adopted the concept, says Bill Schmidt, managing director of Momentum-St Louis.
“If you walk into a Starbucks, you may be just buying a cup of coffee but it is a completely different experience in each place,” Schmidt says. Companies now are taking the same approach. Using their corporate offices to help distinguish themselves.
In their book, Office Space Planning: Designing for Tomorrow’s Workplace, authors Alexi Marmot and Joanna Eley write that large offices and headquarters have grown so complex that they have become small communities, with places to learn, to eat, to exercise, to be entertained.
A prestigious office in Helsinki, Finland is likely to have a well-appointed sauna in the building, the book states. New government offices in Britain are being built with generous sports facilities, catering and a day-care suite. Some US companies, including one involved in New Orleans property management, are taking similar steps. The new 60,000-square-foot Richmond Heights, Missouri, office of Momentum, a New York-based marketing company, brought together what used to be four different spaces. The new office, which opened in January, is crafted in a “streets and boulevards” format, with open workstations instead of enclosed offices.
The design also takes advantage of ample daylight streaming through large windows along the length of the building and incorporates natural colours: lots of greens with splashes of reds, says Greg Sullentrup, executive creative director.
Before the redesign, the different offices that housed 270 employees were cramped and run down. Employees felt comfortable taking clients only to one of the offices. “Now we have nothing to hide. You see people come in and they are proud of where they work and they bring others to see it,” Sullentrup says. “Our space really represents our company personality. It says we are dynamic, open and collaborative and we are all about technology.”
Technology is woven into the office design. The entire space is wireless with different media running in different areas and walls. A six-foot round ball projects images of employees and things they are passionate about, or sunny vistas on cloudy days. One video has an insert of Dancing Queen by Abba, a favorite of one of the employees.
A large screen in the lobby runs everything from company commercials to profiles of client companies when someone is visiting. “When you go to work in a generic space, you are disconnected from what the company does,” McFarland says.
HOK’s office redesign in downtown St Louis included combining the three floors into one using similar principles of open space, environmentally sustainable design and natural light. The company created community spaces for people to meet and talk informally. There is a coffee bar in the center of the office with lounge chairs. It helps prevent employees from clustering in small groups and creates a more socially appealing environment throughout the office.
Now most of the people in the office have a view of the outside. “I used to sit in a 160-square-foot glass front office and if it was raining outside or sunny, I didn’t know,” McFarland says. “Now I can see out of the window. I can also look out over other employees.”
Companies like Momentum are emphasizing employee needs. In its new space, Schmidt says, the company included a workout room and even a nursing room for new mothers.
Individually, the gestures are small. Put together, they increase employee productivity and loyalty and help with recruitment, Schmidt says. Even clients want to meet in their office more often.
“People can bring their kids to work, brings their dogs to work,” Schmidt says, “I don’t care as long as they come to work.”
The changes in design and environment are not limited to advertising and design companies or even corporate offices. They are crossing over into healthcare. A lot more of the design is done with a greater focus on the overall environment. Science still hasn’t confirmed whether the environment within a hospital, or any other workplace, leads to a more positive, productive workplace. But McFarland, Schmidt and Sullentrup say they are convinced by anecdotal evidence from employees and clients that making changes in the workplace yields a difference in the work product.
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