Not even the CEO has an office at firm’s new quarters
When the staff of the Milwaukee engineering firm of Graef, Anhalt, Schloemer & Associates was planning the firm’s new office space last year, they knew they wanted to project a professional, high-tech image.
But whether that image would be projected through an open-concept office, or through a facility with individual offices would become a central issue for the discussions.
“We discussed it at length,” says Rich Bub, CEO and a principal of the firm. The sticky situation that kept cropping up in those discussions was, if there were going to be offices in the new facility, who would get one and who wouldn’t?
That was not only seen as an immediate dilemma, but one that could continually crop up. If the company had decided to build offices for employees above a certain level, what would happen if a cubicled employee were promoted to an officed level position?
What followed those thoughts was the concern of how the non-officed group would react to being left out.
“It came down to a situation of, if this group has offices, why not that group, too?,” says Bub, a proponent of the open concept.
Thus the push for the open concept, in which no one would get an office. “That became our biggest seller,” he says of the some-or-none scenario. “It would have been a harder sell if I were to get an office while others didn’t.”
Further, it was determined that an open-plan concept would offer far more flexibility for staff changes.
The firm’s board was very sensitive to getting the entire staff to accept the open-plan idea, noted Cynthia Gall and Jane Dederling of Engberg Anderson Design Partnership, the architectural and design firm which handled the office design.
The principals and staff bought into the egalitarian approach, and the firm moved into its new open-concept offices in the Honey Creek Corporate Center development March 7.
The 22.5-acre Honey Creek Corporate Center, just off 84th Street adjacent to I-94 in Milwaukee, is a project of Opus North Corp.
Graef, Anhalt Schloemer & Associates anchors the first of three similar buildings planned for the site. G.A.S. has 36,000 square feet on the third and fourth floors, with an option to lease additional space in the 118,000-square-foot building. Superior Services, a West Allis-based nationwide waste services company, recently announced that it would move to the development, leasing 16,000 square feet.
In selecting an open concept, Graef, Anhalt, Schloemer & Associates is following a trend, according to the International Facility Management Association (IFMA). More managers at US and Canadian offices are now working in open-plan workspaces than three years ago, according to IFMA’s new research report, Benchmarks III.
The open concept is seen as more conducive to camaraderie while the office set-up can reinforce hierarchical patterns.
“It gives the feeling that everyone is in this together, the CAD technician to the owners,” Bub says. “There’s a real teamwork mentality promoted.”
There is, however, some respect for hierarchy and for work needs. Bub, for example, has a larger work station than other persons at the firm. But basically, there are two sizes of “cubicles.”
The IFMA report indicates that while open-plan workspaces are more common among corporate professionals, senior clerical, and general clerical employees, the use of open spaces has increased the most among middle management.
The current mix of office type revealed by the study is 58% open plan (spaces divided by movable partitions), 36% private (offices enclosed by floor-to-ceiling walls), and 6% bullpen (open areas without partitions).
A recent study by office furniture manufacturer Steelcase showed that only 17% of workers desire a corner office – once deemed the most coveted office space. And office furniture maker Haworth has seen a marked increase in its sales of systems developed for open-plan offices. Other firms have seen similar increases in sales of open-plan office products.
“Call it what you want: open-plan, systems furniture, or cubicle, it’s a great answer to a business’s need to promote better communications and collaboration among their workers,” says Sheri Cuccarese, Haworth’s director of product marketing and development.
Dederling, of Engberg Anderson, notes that in the Milwaukee area, there’s still a demand for private offices for upper management. But those spaces are not only smaller, but they are more often incorporating both exterior and interior windows, allowing management to see the staff and the staff to see management.
Besides the change in corporate culture, another factor driving firms toward open offices is money, Dederling says, with owners seeing cost savings in open-plan concepts.
The new Graef, Anhalt, Schloemer & Associates facility isn’t without enclosed spaces. In fact, there are 15 conference rooms in the site. When privacy is needed, or when a large group of employees gather on an issue, the rooms are available. But even those conference rooms share in the open-ambiance, with floor-to-ceiling windows facing the main office space rather than solid walls. “The glass walls add to the open feeling,” said Engberg Anderson’s Gall.
A lunchroom can double as a meeting space when needed.
Otherwise, the site is planned to promote people being together rather than being off by themselves, Bub says.
Bub sees two main attributes of the open-plan concept. First is visibility; everyone, not just partners with offices, gets to look out a window. “It allows a view of the outside world without having to look through a manager’s office,” he says. No cubicles are stationed along the main length of the offices; rather, the space is reserved for an aisle, allowing everyone to share in the view of what is planned to be a pond-centered prairie-style courtyard. That window-side aisle also allows more natural lighting to flow into the entire office area, Dederling notes. Everyone at G.A.S. also has access to a deck off the fourth floor.
The open concept is additionally intended to promote greater and quicker communications among the staff, Bub says.
There was a significant concern about noise levels in the open office, concerns that were addressed by the design of the office and materials selection. Work centers that were seen as noise producers – such as the mail room and paper copiers – were consolidated. Hard walls rather than partitions were used in some locations to hold back noise. Ceiling tiles and panel fabrics were selected with noise abatement in mind. A “white noise” system was installed. And along aisles, higher cubicle panels were used.
Within cubicles, employees are discouraged from tacking too many items to the panels. Pictures, papers and other items on panel walls thwarts their noise-reduction capabilities, Gall says.
Aside from those measures, Bub says he’s noticed a difference in the voice levels used among the staff. “They end up talking softer,” he says.
During a reporter’s visit, despite considerable activity the office atmosphere was one of peace and tranquillity rather than noise and commotion.
The acoustically-friendly facility stands in contrast to the firm’s former offices at the Milwaukee Engineering Center – the old St. Therese Catholic grade school about a mile west of the new site. The original use of that facility has been restored by the Milwaukee Montesorri School.
May 1998 Small Business Times, Milwaukee
Not even the CEO has an office at firm’s new quarters