Drab to Fab

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Office Makeover: Change of Space

With a little help from the experts, this business owner stepped up to the challenge of overhauling his company's shoddy off ice-space design.

It's 9:30 a.m., and you need another cup of coffee. On your way to the break room, you stumble over computer cables and weave around employees who are conversing in the hallways. Fifteen minutes have passed by the time you get back to your office. By midafternoon, you have a headache and one heck of a backache. For most of us, it's all in a day's work.

When it comes down to it, the modern office setup is a pain. Today's office environments aren't keeping up with the nature of work today, where employees go from working solo to working on collaborative projects. "The idea that we can define one space for an individual that will accommodate all those different types of work is somewhat flawed," says John Michael, president and COO of Ivan Allen Workspace LLC, an Atlanta furniture and design firm that works with companies large and small. "We need a range of settings for people."

In a 2001 study, the American Society of Interior Designers found that 57 percent of the 382 office employees it surveyed were dissatisfied with the layout of their offices, saying it negatively impacts communication, access, comfort and efficiency. The layout of an office should aid employees instead of hindering them, says Rita Carson Guest, founder of Atlanta-based interior design firm Carson Guest Inc.: "People spend so much time at work, you want to make them as comfortable as possible."

Seeing the Light

Mark Metz is co-founder and CEO of Optimus Solutions LLC, a 6-year-old technology solutions provider in Norcross, Georgia, with nearly 200 employees. The company has grown to occupy two buildings totaling 27,000 square feet. Now for the twist: The two buildings are located a quarter-mile apart in a suburban Atlanta office park. The five-minute walk between buildings has become a drag on productivity. "Our current space is not laid out well for our business," says Metz, 41. "It's certainly not easy to knock on somebody's office or step into their cubicle." Other aspects of the company's current office setup bug him, too. There isn't enough natural light. The guest reception area isn't very welcoming. Managers' offices are too far away from employees, tucked away against the wall.

Recently, Metz decided to sink $1 million into a three-month project that will bring all the company's employees together under the same roof in a nearby 40,000- square-foot building. The goal is to have a space where employees are more happy and productive, Metz says.

The new building will have wraparound windows so every employee gets natural light and a beautiful view of the woods outside. And instead of traditional fluorescent ceiling fixtures, employees will find ambient lighting, where light is bounced up against the ceiling and back down around the workstation, reducing glare and reflections on computer screens and making it easier to work longer without eyestrain and headaches. With ambient lighting, "you never see directly into any light source. They're all being bounced to you," says Frank Farrington, principal of the Atlanta-based Farrington Design Group, which was brought in as part of Optimus Solution's design-build team. "It's soft and comfortable."

Managers' offices will be in the middle of the office, surrounded by employee workstations. Everyone will be just feet away from each other-an important design element to Metz. "Our company is very much a teamwork type of environment where salespeople, consultants and technical people need to work together to handle a customer's problem," he says. "We want to help facilitate that. Having a face-to-face conversation is much more valuable."

New workstations will be installed to increase teamwork and communication. Smaller, efficient workstations and ergonomic chairs provided by Ivan Allen Workspace will create more efficient use of space and storage. Cubicle walls in the new office will be reduced to a maximum height of 54 inches, tall enough to offer a bit of privacy and cut down on peripheral distractions, but short enough that workers don't feel isolated. Lowering the cubicle height will also improve air circulation. Cubicles will be arranged in "neighborhoods" of six workstations. Says Farrington, "The goal is that they'll be operating much more efficiently."

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Making an Impression

Metz wants a design that's more open, flexible and user-friendly. Small lounges where employees can stop for a chat will run the course of the building. Understated tones-creams, taupes, light greens and golds-will provide a calming backdrop. "We'll allow the [employees] to provide the color and the action in the space," Farrington says. Other innovative elements include carpet laid in small squares, so torn or stained pieces can be replaced easily, and wireless networking that will cut the number of cables running along the floor.

Metz is excited about the plan for a bigger reception area with plasma-TV displays and miniworkstations so visitors can work while they wait. Conference rooms will be located near the reception area for vendor and client meetings. Having the conference rooms near the reception area means visitors won't have to walk through the middle of the office, disturbing busy employees. "We'd like to have an area that customers and vendors are more impressed with because the office looks better," Metz says. "And it's more efficient."

In the end, Metz hopes the new space will lead to better communication and teamwork, and provide a boost to recruiting and retention. "I think it's going to be great," he says. "It's going to foster more teamwork. Our employees are going to be happier, because it's going to be an area where they can get their job done [more easily]."

Update: Looking Good!
Optimus Solutions LLC, an IT solutions provider in Norcross, Georgia, moved into its new digs at the end of January. "We're very happy with the outcome," says CEO Mark Metz. "We feel we accomplished our goals with the redesign."

His favorite elements are the open floor plan and the ambient lighting. "There's not a cubicle in the building where you can't stand up and see a panoramic view through the windows," he says. "And all the [ambient] lighting will be easier on the eyes." The final design also allows the office to be reconfigured for everything from training to additional cubicles or whatever else the company has in mind. "This adds tons of flexibility for us," Metz says. "There's room to grow."

But trading spaces didn't happen without a few headaches. Metz learned that having too many minds involved in the decision-making process was a quick ticket to a quagmire. Optimus eventually designated the company's IT director to be the point person for the project, and things finally got moving. "Put one person in charge," Metz advises.

Another temptation for entrepreneurs is to create their own version of Trump Tower. Aim for functionality over flair so you get efficiency out of the space for years to come, says Metz, who bought used $200 desks that he found at a corporate liquidation sale for his company's managers, including himself. "[Some desks] still had tags on them. They hadn't been used," he says. "I got them for a fraction of the cost."

It's still too early to measure the impact on productivity, but the vibe around the office is, well, optimal. "Everyone has been thrilled. Morale is way up," Metz says. "Hopefully, [employees] will be happier and more productive."

Chris Penttila is Entrepreneur's "Staff Smarts" columnist.

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This article was originally published in the April 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Drab to Fab.

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