Office parity

While job hunting last summer, marketing professional Laura Byrne encountered some workplace environments that were less than inspiring.

"I'd see offices where everyone had the same cubicle, the same desk; where everything was the same, even down to the kind of pen you used," she says.

So when she walked into iCommunicate, an Internet firm in Alexandria, Va., and saw the vivid blue wall leading into a soaring space, Ms. Byrne felt a little like Dorothy in Oz.

"It was funky and open, like an art gallery. I could tell there was a lot of opportunity to be creative. I would have the freedom to contribute, to be different, and throw ideas out there."

Cutting-edge office spaces have become standard in the New Economy as young entrepreneurs offer professional digs that reflect the creativity of their employees - and recognize that exercise and even naps are legitimate workplace activities.

But now organizations in all sectors of the economy are looking to create better spaces. The issue of design has become increasingly important, experts say, as companies strive to draw talent and keep pace with new workplace attitudes. Even amid a slowdown in job growth, new entrants to the workplace put a high value on the settings in which they work.

"[Workers are] demanding a better environment, because they have so many options," says corporate interior designer Gary Wheeler, managing director at Perkins & Will Inc., a design firm in Chicago. "We have to design spaces that respect those employee and help retain them, and give them the opportunity to produce and grow - not just do a job."

Experts allow that settings are just part of the smart-workplace equation.

"Our definition of what makes a great place to work is when employees and managers have a high level of trust," says Ann Nadeau, who works at the Great Place to Work Institute in San Francisco and manages the "100 Best Places To Work" project for Fortune magazine.

"In order to trust your manager, you have to make sure they are extremely approachable; the desire for approachability goes beyond walls," she says.

Mr. Wheeler notes the growing recognition of this reality is one of today's greatest influences on office design.

As employees at all levels increasingly are valued as full partners in the business, corporate hierarchies and distinctions of rank have weakened.

"We don't do executive suites anymore, they're just not there," says Wheeler, who has designed offices for Fortune 500 companies. "Generally the executives are interspersed with the employees. They still get the offices, but more and more those offices are in the inside."

Changes haven't been confined to the private sector. Many upper-level US Education Department employees lost their private offices in 1998 when 1,300 members of the agency completed their move to a fully renovated office building near the National Mall in Washington.

"It was a cultural change, no question about that," says William Gilmore, director of office management for the federal agency. "There had always been this notion that as you move up the ladder, you will ultimately get that corner office. That is something that people strive for."

But after working in the new space for the past several years, employees came to realize that private offices are not the ultimate perk, he says. The new office design now scores high in employee surveys.

"What is more important is having offices that need to be in communication with one another, and office designs that facilitate movement among staff, and the ability to have close coordination among issues," Mr. Gilmore says.

The agency's design eliminates walls and creates wide-open spaces. Each floor is filled with cubicles positioned along pedestrian walkways with side corridors.

Colorful round signs with numbers hang from the ceiling at regular intervals, and hundreds of framed student paintings and mural-sized photographs of children decorate the walls. The floor-to-ceiling windows let in natural light.

"We were very much concerned about making sure our technical staff and support staff, not just the top-level offices, could enjoy the views," Gilmore says.

David DeSoto, an Education Department employee who works on issues of migrant populations, agrees the new space is better than some older federal office buildings.

Although he finds his workspace efficient, Mr. DeSoto wishes it were a bit larger. "I think it was designed for someone to function, rather than to function and live," he says, pointing out the limited space for storage.

Officewide, DeSoto says, a sense of hierarchy endures as employees are assigned to cubicles of different size and quality. And DeSoto says he and his nearby colleagues sometime have to endure "loud telephone calls or office talk." Areas where employees gather for this kind of socializing are "basically conference rooms," he says.

Common spaces ranging from Starbucks-like coffee bars to Ping-Pong lounges are now regular features in many offices, notes Donald Albrecht, co-curator of the exhibition "On the Job: Design and the American Office," now at the National Building Museum in Washington.

"It's the idea of the old water cooler," Mr. Albrecht says, but "today it's not looked upon as a waste of time." The common spaces bring people together from across a company to share ideas that may spark innovations. "These chance meetings are considered important interactions in the company," Albrecht notes.

This type of meeting area is one of three distinct workspaces that define today's more flexible office environment, says Wheeler. The first is the employee's regular workstation, where he or she will spend 50 to 60 percent of the time. The second is the common area, where teams can come and go as needed. And the third is a "quiet, heads-down space," where employees can work without distractions of the open office. Advances in portable technology and a trend toward more teamwork have had a "huge impact" on the movement to create multiple workspaces, he adds.

Such multiple workstations are an increasingly common sight. But some other, more unconventional design trends may have already run their course. This includes the short-lived trend to eliminate personal workstations in favor of a first-come-first-server approach. Made famous by the Chiat/Day advertising agency, employees would choose a different place to work each morning based on the task for the day.

"People hated it," Albrecht said. "People wanted to have some place where they could leave a picture, where they could have some privacy."

While most employees today have some kind of workstations to call their own, the trend in open environments has created the need for "new rules of office etiquette," Albrecht notes.

But that doesn't mean employees would rather be shut behind doors. An open-office environment assists in the flow of communication, says Andrea Engleson, iCommunicate's marketing director. With low-slung workstations, employees can focus on their tasks, yet still engage in "intuitive communication," Ms. Engleson says, "the kind when you can tell if someone is worried, or concentrating ... that allows you the chance to act on a flash of inspiration."

iCommunicate's office is designed to accommodate the unique tasks of each division - not with walls, but with light. Working in perpetual dusk to avoid glare on their computer screens, the half-dozen programmers sit in workstations at the front of the office writing computer code that will be turned into online customer-service applications for businesses.

Further back in the office, the company's sales-and-marketing force sit in well-lit cubicles near a conference room where they rendezvous frequently to hash out strategy. Behind them is a staircase leading to a loft, where the two executive offices are located.

It's not all about aesthetics, notes Marc Epstein, a professor at Rice University's Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Management in Houston. "People have seen that you can be in a garage and still make $100 million dollars," Professor Epstein says. Even investment bankers may occupy spaces that are nothing to crow about: "They have very small cubicles for people who are making very large salaries," he notes.

Old-line firms have not been immune to change. Take the Bank of America building in Washington. Located a half block from the White House, the 1929 marble-and-limestone structure recently underwent a complete interior renovation. While most of the bankers in the 10-story building still work in cubicles, albeit ones with mahogany trim, the bank's top two executive floors are spectacular.

The elegantly designed space for offices and meeting rooms offer stunning views of the Washington Monument.

"It's a privilege to work here," says Sandy Dunleavy, an executive who recently moved into a top-floor office. But she stresses that the dining areas and conference room, graced by a domed ceiling with indirect lighting, are open to all bank associates who conduct business with clients, not just the top-level executives: "When we bring clients into our office, the historic setting adds a lot to the whole experience."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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