Opening Doors and Closing Deals

By Lindsey Townsend

Whether it’s 500 square feet or 50,000, a glitzy marble high-rise with a view of downtown or a down-to-business warehouse along the DART rail line, a company’s choice and design of office space always conveys a message. The physical space of an office tells the story of the corporate culture and the personalities of the people who work there. Corporate image, technology, and the need for team spaces are all factors that must be considered when expensive decisions are made to build high-performance workspaces.

One of the major trends in office design today is a move away from the old-school hierarchical style of housing employees and towards a group setting approach, where large numbers of employees are grouped into a single open space. “More and more corporate organizations are running on the team concept vs. the idea that it’s one individual’s responsibility to get a particular job done. The open-style offices tend to promote more interaction and a ‘learn by osmosis’ culture,” said Bridgette Spencer, president and CEO of Spencer Design Group.

That’s exactly the goal that Furr’s/Bishop’s Inc., managers of Furr’s Family Dining, had in mind when they relocated last March from Lubbock to Richardson to a new 27,000 square-foot facility. “We wanted to make a fresh start--to knock down the walls figuratively and open up the lines of communication among employees,” said Phil Radner, president and CEO. Towards that end, the company used extensive glass on interior walls and conference areas and added several meeting rooms that are accessible to all employees. A food preparation test kitchen in the front part of the building serves as a “wow” to visiting guests as well as a visible reminder of what the company’s focus is.

An unexpected bonus of the new open space for employees is the accessibility that it offers to senior executives. “Our vice president of marketing, Danny Meisenheimer, doesn’t even have an interior wall or door in his office. When he needs privacy, he just scoots over to one of the conference tables,” said Radner. Radner is pleased with the new design, adding, “There’s a buzz out on the floor now.”

When LeeAnn Harle and Jill Clouston, co-owners and joint managing directors of Renaissance Meetings and Incentives Inc., relocated from a downtown office high-rise to a former retail storefront in Deep Ellum, the impact on their corporate culture was huge. The goal was to create a team-oriented atmosphere for a young company that showcased their inventiveness while providing flexibility for growth. The new space has no individual offices or conference rooms.

Instead, the open, living-room style floor plan features exposed brick walls and custom-built work stations with natural woods. Bright colors were used to stimulate employees to think outside the box, and brainstorming sessions now take place on a red leather couch instead of at a conference table. “The offices at the other space were so private that I don’t think that our employees even knew what we were doing. Now, everyone knows what everyone else is working on. Our industry is not terribly exciting, but we’ve made it exciting,” Harle said.

While firms such as Renaissance emphasize their creativity, others design their environments to reflect their customers’ mindsets. “We wanted to create a space in which our clients, both the retailers we represent and shopping center owners, felt comfortable…one that had style, was forward-thinking, and yet spoke to their sense of merchandising and creative abilities. The offices were designed for art and client displays, focusing on lighting, color and materials. We paid special attention to the lobby and the conference rooms, much like a retail store,” said Mickey Ashmore, president & CEO of United Commercial Realty in the Park Cities Tower at Preston and Lovers. “It’s concise, compact, very businesslike, yet architecturally interesting. It lets people know we have good taste and that we care about detail.”

To maximize space, a special area was created where packaging for properties and retailer site selection tours can be done without cluttering up the conference rooms. Brokers work out individual offices instead of cubicles. “Otherwise, it can be very hard in an open space environment for sales and marketing professionals to be as animated as they might possibly be,” said Ashmore. “My particular office was placed near the lobby entrance and the main conference rooms, because I wanted everyone to feel that my office is open as they bring clients through.”

Somewhat surprisingly, even some companies in staunchly conservative fields have shifted to an open atmosphere. When Locke Liddell & Sapp LLP relocated in 1997 from Texas Chase Tower to the Trammell Crow Center, they viewed the move as a unique opportunity to design and engineer a model law environment of the future. “There is no wasted space, and the open work areas encourage collaboration and communication. The woodwork, art objects, plentiful greenery and colorful reception-area furniture clearly make the statement that this is a young, energetic, entrepreneurial law firm. It was our goal to make our workspace enjoyable, maximizing the energy of our fast-paced practice,” said partner Gina E. Betts. Partner.

The 52,000 square-foot office covers two floors and serves 100+ attorneys and staff members. Instead of the traditional dark paneling and deep carpet usually found in old-school firms, off-white walls and recessed lighting provide a light, bright workplace. All conference rooms are equipped with computer hook-ups, telephones, and video conferencing. Because storage space is important, “secretaries' work stations were specially designed to provide a large amount of available workspace for unwieldy projects, and every hallway in the office is lined with recessed files,” Betts said.

As well as an open atmosphere, many companies today are also looking for versatility in design, a solid communications infrastructure, and a “green” environment. “Flexibility, flexibility, flexibility,” said Spencer. “People are putting a lot of money into their cabling management, networks, and technology, but needs can change very quickly. They want to be able to tear down the workstations, not tear down the walls and rebuild. Ergonomics and lighting are always major issues, and green spaces and views of the outdoors are important to many people.”

Some executives who work in micro offices have found they prefer the easy-in, easy-out convenience that a low-rise building offers over a high-rise. According to Spencer, there is a trend towards one- to three-story buildings and a resurgence of the 1950s to 1970s “classic box” style of office building that offers function, speed, and economy. David Wall, partner and chemical broker for Consolidated Chemical Industries, chose to locate his office in such a space, the two-story Suburban Building in a non-glamorous but fast-growing area of Midtown on Dyer Street.

“There are no parking garages to deal with and no crowded parking lots. I walk right into my office,” he said. “I like this space because I wanted a window, and I didn’t want just a square box. This space is unique because it’s shaped like the state of Oklahoma.There are large office supply stores around the corner, restaurants all up and down Greenville Avenue for lunch appointments, and postal centers nearby. It’s like working in a small town with all of the big city luxuries to go along with it,” he said.

Jeff Grinnan, president of The Mangrin Corporation, which owns and manages the Suburban Building and Audelia Plaza Offices, said that many small businesspeople are migrating from home offices to small office environments. “We have offices ranging from 120 square feet to 250 square feet, all with windows, because windows seem to be really important to people in small offices. Many sales reps for large companies, small contractors, and entrepreneurs are attracted to our offices,” he said.

The story that an office space tells is also important in attracting and retaining the types of employees best suited to the culture. Spencer said that in today’s tight employee market, a well-planned office space can actually serve as an important tool to recruit employees. “The design of an environment is becoming more and more critical because it is so hard to find and keep good employees. Potential employees will evaluate your office space and look for evidence that their efforts will be supported. If Company A has a great space that is attractive and functional and Company C has only a mediocre environment, who do you think will have the edge in hiring?” she said.