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by Bob Brooke

High Tech Office, Philadelphia, PAEmployees are spending more time in the office, not less. Companies need to have a carrot or two to attract top workers. And one of those carrots is a better office environment.

According to Jeffrey N. Morgan, a principal with Interspace, Inc., a Philadelphia corporate interior design firm, office designs have begun to show a lot more flexibility and user control. "Technology has changed the way America conducts business," he said. Add to this new concepts of management and the result is corporate America's search for alternative office environments that cut costs, as well as attract new staff, increase productivity, and communicate the company's message, which, today, leans towards one of interaction and flexibility.

"Unfortunately, few companies have jumped at these alternatives. "We program, design and build over a million square feet a year,'' said Eric Rymshaw, president of Diversified Interiors, Philadelphia-based corporate interior designers. "Companies like Bristol-Myers Squibb are beginning to look seriously at office design alternatives, but most firms are still status quo.''

But embracing these new concepts is becoming a competitive necessity. According to Rymshaw, one reason has been the need to attract and keep highly trained staff. "Good employees are hard to find and keep happy,'' he added. "They want to be comfortable while they work, so the trend is to make the office an appealing environment to work in."

A Pleasant Environment Makes a Happy Worker
Business executives love statistics. And surprisingly, there's a lot of them that prove a pleasant environment makes a happy worker--and a happy worker is a productive worker.

Some companies, like Bristol Meyers Squibb, for whom Rymshaw's firm has done a lot of work, have not only done over office space but added amenities to keep workers happy. For instance, they now have what they call a Main Street--a small village shopping center, featuring all the food services, a shop where they can buy baked goods to take home, a credit union, a shoeshine, a hair dresser, and a company store. The health club and cafeteria act as anchor store to this company mall. "This Main Street features all the daily services workers need to keep them on site," said Rymshaw. "Normally people would drive off the site to do their daily errands. Here, they can do them right there in the company. It's a clever way of keeping workers there, but at the same time, it makes it easier for workers to accomplish their daily work. A lot of companies have always had a lot of these things but not in one place."

"We believe and our client, Bristol Meyers Squibb, believes that this reconfiguration will be a significant benefit in hiring employees because the company is providing a technologically advanced office environment," he added. "It's what a lot of young people coming out of school are looking for. It provides employees with an environment where they have control over their own space and that makes them more productive."

But Rymshaw believes that more significant than the benefit to hiring is the benefit redesign has to retention. "Employees' jobs are easier because their tools are easier and they're happier, thus they're more satisfied, more productive and stay longer."

Unfortunately, in today's business world, many offices look alike. There's almost no connection between what employees are doing and how the space in which they work is designed. That was the situation SEI, an investment firm, found itself in during the early '90s. The company was a bureaucratic house of cards with infighting among departments and marginal use of computers, according to Murray Lewis, company spokesman.

"Even though our bottom line was healthy, our CEO, Al West, chose to reconfigure the company," said Lewis. "We flattened the organization, put everyone on teams, and eliminated all the secretaries. Over several years, we've eliminated all private offices, cut cubicle walls in half, moved to a university-like setting, and finally eliminated the dividers entirely. There was a lot of resistance at first: Over the first three years, 50 percent of the staff quit."

However, that radical kind of reorganization requires the willingness of top executives to fight for change. Generally, stockholders don't support management by upheaval, especially if the company is turning a profit. Increasingly though, the bottom line and increased productivity support the redesign.

The Bottom Line
There's no question that flexibility costs more money initially. "For companies with 100 percent churn, how many times do they have to call a furniture installer to reconfigure, and how many times do they have to call an electrician to rewire?" said Morgan. "With the new systems, a firm can reconfigure with its own maintenance staff. And it doesn't need an electrician. Everything is plug and play; nothing is hardwired. So a company spends 15-20 percent more up front, but every time an employee moves, it saves several hundred dollars per workstation. So if it moves 1,000 workstations per year, that's a lot of money saved."

"The functionality of our new design is paying off handsomely," said Heilly of GMAC. "We've seen significant savings--about $200,000 a year--so far."

"Reconfiguration isn't cheap," said Rymshaw. "It's amazing how many companies go back to their original plan when they find out how much it will cost for the conversion."

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