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Modern office-space designs aim to lift productivity and morale

BY Andy Thibault
Special to the Hartford Business Journal

8/27/2018
Photos | Contributed
Photos | Contributed
(Left) Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits' new Stamford headquarters has a playful, mixed-aesthetic look with open ceilings, rustic oak flooring, re-sawn wood paneling and modern detailing. (Right) Remedy Partners, a Norwalk-based healthcare technology company, has a communal library that serves as a quiet space for its workers. Phones are not allowed in the library, giving employees respite from Remedy's more bustling shared office space.
What's the difference between work and play? In the ideal, innovative office space, the answer can be, not much.

Of course, it helps if employees enjoy their work in the first place.

In Greater Hartford and across the country, many companies are redefining the modern office space, incorporating new designs and features that not only aim to give the office an innovative look, but also enhance employee morale, productivity and communication to create a competitive advantage.

The high-walled cubicle is passť. Many companies are using open, flexible and collaborative spaces to encourage teamwork. Offices are also becoming brighter both in color schemes and with the amount of natural light they allow in. Fun is increasingly being incorporated into many office cultures.

Whether it's a foosball or pool table, or a popcorn machine and keg in the conference room, companies are creating office spaces that allow, even encourage, employees to socialize and decompress.

Shared office or co-working spaces are also becoming more popular.

Anne Loh Russo, senior interior designer at Amenta Emma Architects in Hartford, has produced open work spaces recently for growing companies in Connecticut.

Russo sees a corporate culture shift that aims to attract young workers and invigorate the environment. She cites a Harvard Business Review article affirming the primacy of the individual.

"Our advice to traditional companies who want to learn from co-working spaces is to give people the space and support to be their authentic selves," the article states. "The result will be employees who feel more committed to your organization and are more likely to bring their best energy and ideas to the office each day."

Russo said she's designing many different spaces based on a company's culture.

"Open floor plans include breathing space between departments and some private offices," she said.

Some companies offer lounge areas complete with couches, video games and healthy snacks. For Russo, key elements in recent designs include communal and isolative work areas, pleasant lighting and flexible desks.

She calls sit-stand desks "a huge benefit."

"Employees don't feel tied down when they can stand up and stretch," Russo said. "They can do more work and continue on their tasks without feeling the need to take a walk."

Technological enhancements for such desks include phone apps that pre-set desired heights. These apps also alert workers if they have not gotten up lately.

When the time comes for heads-down, isolative work, away from the more interactive shared spaces, Russo has designed library areas where no phones are allowed.

She said Remedy Partners, a young, innovative healthcare technology company based in Norwalk, is applying these strategies in its new space.

The library, Russo said, is separated visually and acoustically from the rest of the office.

"This library concept supports other research that suggests Millennials are comfortable working in libraries, a carryover from college," she said.

Another client, Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits, which just moved its corporate headquarters to Stamford, has a playful, mixed-aesthetic look for its creative areas, including marketing and a tasting room, that include open ceilings, rustic oak flooring, re-sawn wood paneling and modern detailing, Russo said.

Light and space

There's been a definite shift to open space, trying to attract younger staff and invigorate the environment, said Jon Putnam, executive director of commercial realty brokerage Cushman & Wakefield in Hartford.

"It can be a motivator and it can create more experiences," he said.

Putnam offered a restaurant comparison: dark and quiet versus more lively, somewhat noisy, more interactive. In an office, he said the choices are creativity and enjoyment versus quiet and solitude.

The most common layout for many companies these days is open workstations with more conference rooms and smaller meeting spaces, Putnam said. He said kitchen and break areas are opening up to be part of the workplace flow, with bar seating and hi-top tables becoming common.

Sound attenuation with acoustical panels, white noise masking and noise cancelling headsets are being used to counteract the acoustic problems that an open plan presents.

Like Russo, Putnam cited the benefits of natural lighting in open spaces.

"The window line isn't broken," he said. "This results in a certain level of well-being even if the window is 50 feet away. It can be a morale booster."

He also pointed to possible downsides of open space in a corporate environment.

"Some bosses might not think you're working, depending on the culture and the leadership," Putnam said.

For Bob Jacobson, CEO of an international management consulting firm, the bottom line is productivity.

"Productivity almost always increases when a change, any change is introduced," said Jacobson, whose firm, Jacobson Solutions, has offices in Chicago, Phoenix and London. "The question is, 'How long does this effect remain before people start returning to their old practices?' "

He cited a productivity study conducted by Western Electric over eight years in the 1920s and 1930s at the Hawthorne Works plant outside Chicago.

"They started with changing the lighting to something brighter and found it increased productivity," Jacobson said.

Regardless of whether the employee has a permanent desk, or is transient, the need to have a flexible work environment that offers different settings is universal, Russo said.

Q&A: Greater Hartford's office market sluggish through first half of 2018