Tearing Down the Walls
As Joe Hickson welcomed BusinessWest to Aegis Energy Services in Holyoke, he didn’t want to be the only one talking. So he called eight other team members to a large, oval table to pick their brains on the topic of modern office design.
“It’s how we do things here,” said Hickson, the company’s vice president of marketing and sales — a collaborative gesture that reflected the very topics he wanted to talk about. Take, for example, the office’s layout, with workstations bunched closely together in an open, high-ceilinged room in Open Square, the converted mill complex along Holyoke’s canals. What’s missing? Cubicles, walled-off desks, and private offices.
“I come from an era when everything was cubed and you shut your doors. I thought that was the way you do business,” Hickson said. “I don’t believe that way anymore. I believe an open office situation builds the team, and it builds an understanding of the people you’re working for and working with — as individuals and people, instead of just producers. We bounce a lot of things off each other. It’s a very informal office.”
It’s a setup that other Aegis employees respond to positively.
“I like this better,” said Michele Cummings, marketing and sales coordinator. “I’d worked in an office where the cubicles were eight feet tall, and when we had issues within our department that needed to be resolved, we were shouting over the cubicles. The president of the company came over to our department and said, ‘stop.’ He wanted silence; that’s why we had eight-foot cubicles. It was not a very friendly environment. I prefer this a thousand times over.”
Kaley Curtis, business development representative, agreed, noting that a workplace staffed by workers from both older and younger generations is an opportunity to learn from each other — with Gen-Xers and Boomers offering experience, and Millennials offering enthusiasm and a fresh way at looking at problems — and to pick each other up on a stressful day. An old-fashioned layout, she said, can hinder that.
Ross Giombetti, president of Giombetti Associates in Hampden, is a veteran of workplace change, consulting with businesses of all kinds on issues of leadership and culture. He says companies that are serious about attracting and retaining top young talent need to understand and even embrace the generational shifts in what workers want — from schedule flexibility to more interaction. Increasingly, they’re doing so.
“Collaborative workspaces are extremely important today, with an open, flowing floor plan with shared space. It’s very important for a lot of organizations to move in that direction,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s just coming from the younger generation. It’s coming from organizations that understand the benefits of working with each other and finding synergies. It’s being driven not only by young professionals who want to feel involved and have input in everything, but also by the business dynamic.”
Collaborative workspaces are extremely important today, with an open, flowing floor plan with shared space. It’s very important for a lot of organizations to move in that direction.”
These shifts are nothing new in the work world; in a recent article detailing the top eight trends in office design, Fast Company listed multi-purpose workspaces, designated lounge areas, and community tables — all speaking to the need for collaboration — as three of them. Business owners, both nationally and locally, are paying attention.
Seeking a Vibe
When Paragus Strategic IT outgrew its former headquarters in Hadley a few years ago, CEO Delcie Bean saw a move as an opportunity to craft a workspace that reflected his vision for the company — the ‘Paragus vibe,’ as he’s often put it. So as he sought a new location — eventually building on a plot a mile east on Route 9 — he approached the challenge of office design with a few philosophies in mind.
For example, “we started looking at what the barriers can be to collaboration and communication, and one of them is, simply, walls and offices and hallways and doors. So we got rid of those.”
The idea was for employees to work within “high-fiving distance,” where it’s easy — encouraged, even — to jump into a conversation by simply rolling a chair over. “Our customers might think they’re working with one person on the phone, but in most cases it’s two or even three people. IT is such a wide field, and there’s so much to know, that no employee can know everything. If we want to provide efficient service to customers, we have to increase collaboration.”
Bean said Millennials value the idea of working together to achieve results, but Paragus throws in an element of equality as well. “We want everyone to feel like an important piece and that no one plays a more important role than anyone else. So everyone’s desk is the same size, and nobody has a private office. We’re all playing a valuable role in the company.”
Of course, sometimes privacy and quiet are important — on certain phone calls or one-on-one client meetings, for instance — which is why Paragus also features a number of small breakout rooms outfitted with a phone, desk, and whiteboard.
Nothing in the Paragus design was easy or obvious, Bean said, adding that it took three years to find a new home, build a structure, and move in, which was frustrating on one level, but on another allowed the company to tweak its ideas.
“We wouldn’t have gotten it right if we’d built the first version of this building. This is, like, version nine. That’s the advantage of taking three years. When we thought, ‘maybe this isn’t the right way to go,’ instead of tearing down walls, we just went through more blueprints.”
Bean said he was inspired by companies like Las Vegas-based Zappos, known for its funky vibe and employee-centric culture, when he added touches like a lounge, with TVs, video games, and four beers on tap; creative light fixtures and colorful carpet tiles; and the universal arming of the workforce with Nerf guns, meaning a pitched battle could break out at any time.
“We have a value here called ‘fostering fun,’” he said. “It helps people enjoy their work and not take themselves too seriously. Our work mandates that we’re careful and professional. Our customers are demanding and expect a lot of us, and we deliver in a professional and timely way. But the more fun they’re having, the better they are at doing their jobs. Zappos proved if you take care of your employees, they’ll take care of your customers.”
Aegis might not break out in volleys of foam bullets, but its open concept is still worlds away from traditional offices. For some, it’s been a slow transition.
“I hated it when I first got here,” said Dan Burke, director of national business development, who came from a workplace where the old cubicle-barrier structure reigned. “I got used to it and learned to appreciate it, but it did take a lot of time. I was used to a cubicle and privacy and making calls and doing my own thing. But this definitely fosters more of a team environment. It seems like there’s a lot fewer inter-office problems.”
Burke and Hickson both said they can step into the hallway to make a private phone call if they need to. But other team members said they value their workplace’s lack of privacy for its opportunities to grow and learn.
“I think the open office allows for top performers to influence people who may not be doing as well,” said Josh Velten, business development representative. “In a closed-off room, everyone keeps to themselves, and there’s probably less of a possibility for improvement.”
Workplace trends, especially those driven by Millennials, certainly don’t stop with a floor plan, Giombetti told BusinessWest. For instance, because they value work-life balance, they’re increasingly asking for, and getting, opportunities to work flexible hours, rather than the traditional, hard-and-fast, 8-to-5 shift. “That doesn’t work anymore, nor should it work. Organizations today should be more concerned with achieving goals than how many hours you’re on the job.”
Millennials are also keenly interested in mapping out a defined career path, with clear goals and milestones to hit along the way, he noted; they’re not satisfied with simply working hard and hoping to be promoted someday. And many have a strong need for recognition by their superiors — with raises and promotions, of course, but with other, less formal pats on the back as well. So, while building a more collaborative office is important in many businesses, it’s only one element in a wave of generational change.
“A lot of businesses embrace that — they know innovative means new, it means change, and if we don’t evolve and change, we die,” Giombetti said. “Some people are comfortable being challenged, and they embrace it, and other people don’t like it — they don’t like their authority being challenged; they don’t want something they’ve been doing for 30 years to be picked apart. But you have to be willing to have it picked apart. There may be a better way to do it.”
That said, not all change is necessarily good, he went on. But employers and employees must be willing to explore the unexplored together, and to communicate their needs. And, often, that process is helped along by a physical office design that fosters easy give and take.
Frank Luvera, a combined heat and power specialist with Aegis, agreed.
“We’re able to learn from each other,” said Luvera, a Millennial himself. “Every day is an opportunity to learn. Being new to it all, there’s a lot to learn, and you’re not able to do that if you’re closed off all day, not knowing what’s going on around you.”
Hickson said year-to-date sales have been up 116% in the new office, and that has to do with quality people, but also the ability to work together in a bright, airy space — it used to be a dance studio — where everyone is encouraged to keep the lines of communication open.
“Everyone here has an equal voice in this business,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s another advantage of an open office if it’s done right.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org