The Office: Cube culture replaced by creativity, collaboration

TRAVERSE CITY – What do you think of your office space? Is it a good place to come to work? You spend the majority of your daylight hours in this space. Does it look better after dark?

The Business News took a quick tour of some offices around town to see what kind of interesting things we could find. What we discovered were some cool office designs that complement the work being done in them, while at the same time respecting what people need to be productive.

Sleek and seamless – with a latte room

When bank management decided to build a Front Street presence, they wanted to "do it right," said Teri Damman, a bank vice president and manager of Northwestern Bank's mortgage center at the Hannah & Lay building, which opened in March of this year.

A café-style lobby welcomes customers from the street, complete with bar-height tables and stools, coffee, and a front row view of Front Street.

"We made it a very comfortable place to come into," Damman said.

Once inside, customers see a seamless and sleek blend of business activity and physical features. Individual offices were created by a stackable frame and tile system that can create any look-from traditional to contemporary-explained Mary Winowiecki, co-owner of Northern Contract Interiors, the company that headed the design project and installation. Pam Houtteman (Houtteman Interiors) and Beth Swanson (Northern Contract Interiors) were the designers and planners on the project.

The office tiles are made of glass, wood or metal and can be custom-arranged to fit privacy needs, yet don't create a closed-off environment. That aspect was very important to employees, Damman said, because of the confidential nature of the work. Glass extends above the offices clear to the ceiling, lending openness and light to an overall space that is long and narrow.

"It's so true that your physical work space has a strong impact on how you feel about going into the office every day," said Winowiecki. With the myriad of commercial furniture options today, "there's really no excuse for the uninspired grey cubicle," she added.

While the offices are in close proximity to each other, next-door conversations are not audible whatsoever, thanks to a "white noise" system and soundproofing material applied to all the walls and office panels, explained Damman. There are 12 people who work in the space.

The office highlights some original features of the historic Hannah & Lay building, including the load-bearing pillars and brickwork. The bank also chose cork, a sustainable, earth-friendly product, for its flooring.

Open door policy

The open floor plan at Viktor Incentives & Meetings in Copper Ridge takes center stage in this 3,000 square-foot design with windows that offer an expansive view of Traverse City's west side and allows the office to incorporate a lot of natural light into the design, explained Partner/President Mark Bondy.

When the company decided to move into the Copper Ridge development in 2005, officials started with a concrete canvas, literally. Working with local design and installation firm, Interphase, and their designer, Janelle Schillinger, Viktor created a space that encourages collaboration, but doesn't create disruption among its 26 employees.

It's a stark contrast from its old space of unconnected office suites, manager Lane Corbin said, that didn't mesh with the firm's team approach.

How to handle the noise in an open environment is always the main concern with this type of design and one that was successfully overcome at Viktor, said Interphase branch manager, Keely Eagle. Through the use of sound masking technology, ambient background sound that makes speech unintelligible, phone conversations and other office sounds are not a problem.

"You know someone's talking, but it's been shown not to disrupt work," said Eagle.

Each workstation is 6 x 8 feet, and panels and screens give each employee individual space yet allow for collaboration. Creative shelving keeps items off desks. A rolling filing cabinet with a cushion pulls double-duty as an extra seat.

Senior management has individual offices that are designed to be more private, but also have features that complement the accessibility of the rest of the office. As an added bonus, the walls for the private offices and conference areas are moveable, which allows for flexibility in workspace design as needs change.

Leave Cubeville behind

Eagle's one piece of advice to those creating a new office space is to "know what you want in terms of functionality but be open to creative ideas and thinking outside the box.

As far as office trends, Eagle said the open plan at Viktor is big and has been for a while. More and more businesses are giving thumbs down to "cubeville," she said, and wanting work areas that support "pods of teams."

When Hagerty Insurance opened its new building on Cass Street downtown nearly two years ago, the work environment was designed to support the company's culture, explained Kate Hogan, human resources manager at Hagerty. The focus was on how the space would foster teamwork and innovation in a large open design.

With the guidance of building architect John Dancer of Cornerstone Architects and the Interphase staff, the call center areas group employees with different skill sets together to best serve clients, explained Hogan.

Also, a key component of the design at Hagerty was the flexibility to be able to move workstations around-something they do a lot of, Hogan added, and is made easy since all the cabling and wiring is routed through the floor.

Lately, there have been more requests from commercial customers for design that offers the "hospitality" or "home" look, according to Eagle, with features that make the environment more comfortable and relaxing for both employees and clients-often that means getting rid of the conference table.

At Zeal International, a business development and marketing firm on Sixteenth Street between Cass Street and Boardman Lake, its "bullpen" area bears a strong resemblance to a family room with a couch, recliner and coffee table. The 'pen' is where the Zeal team collaborates and works on creative strategies for clients, according to co-founder Jennifer Borokovich.

It's a feature the firm hopes to recreate when it moves to the newly renovated CenterPointe building in Greilickville-the largest commercial building in Leelanau County on the shores of West Bay-later this year.

And sometimes, office elements don't have anything to do with work, per se. At The Jenkins Group on Woodmere Avenue in Traverse City, each employee has individual lockers (actually, kitchen cabinets from IKEA) for all personal gear.

"We have many active people on staff," said Jim Kalajian, company president and COO, including people who go to the gym, cross-county ski, bike, golf, play tennis and more.

The employees have flexible work schedules, too, so having all their personal gear at work makes sense.

The idea for the lockers came from the company's interior design firm, Scott Lankford Design.

"The lockers are in plain view of clients and staff, but have a very clean and finished look," Kalajian said. "Everyone loves to have their own space to stash stuff." BN