December 2, 2013

For Vesta, others, ‘open’ work spaces pay dividends

Photo | Pablo Robles
Photo | Pablo Robles
Vesta’s height-adjustable desktops and open office space appeal to Vesta workers, including Ashley McLaughlin (foreground), marketing coordinator, and Marissa Danville, asset manager. 
Photo | Pablo Robles
Vesta Vice President Joshua Greenblatt helped plot the company’s headquarters redo.
Photo | Contributed
Webster Bank’s revamped downtown Waterbury banking office.

The new Simsbury offices for affordable-housing landlord Vesta Corp. illustrates the latest approach in carving out and outfitting work spaces that satisfy employers, workers and customers.

A bigger, more open floor plan aglow with natural light from large-pane windows at its five-month-old headquarters at 175 Powder Forest Drive replaced Vesta's cramped, older quarters at 245 Hopmeadow Street. Though positioned closer together, employees have workstations that raise or lower, allowing them to sit or stand, to provide a more flexible workspace.

"Everybody seems happier … and more productive,'' said Vesta co-founder Arthur Greenblatt, who himself wound up with a bit more space in a corner office that also houses his prized antique rolltop desk.

In an age where more workers use their living rooms, bedrooms or the corner coffee shop to telecommute, those who still have their names on offices or cubicles increasingly find they have less space in which to work, space already brimming with electronic devices and wireless technology, experts say.

That's also translating into more engagements and sales for office-space designers and furnishers. The state of Connecticut has budgeted at least $19.5 million to upgrade 55 Farmington Ave., the midtown tower bought last summer to house some state offices by spring 2014, officials said. Taxpayers will spend $48 million more to redo and furnish the state's other recently acquired downtown office building, 450 Columbus Blvd.

Hartford office-furnishings distributor Larry Feldman points to another obvious reason the industry is witnessing a bit of a resurgence: Customers nationally who had delayed replacing worn or outdated chairs, desks and cabinets due to uncertainty about the economy are shopping for office upgrades and furnishings, said Feldman, vice president for Knoll office-furniture vendor Office Resources Inc.

"They may have waited to the point where they have to do it,'' he said. "People in bad times will take a chair that has a tear on it and put a piece of duct tape on it, rather than buy a new one.''

The previous peak for the U.S. office-furnishings industry was 2008, he said.

"With some $2 trillion of cash reserves in U.S. companies' tills, we're beginning to see a little bit of those resources coming alive,'' Feldman said.

Michael O'Connor, who oversees Webster Bank's corporate real estate, says the integration of real estate with the human resources functions is growing more acute in corporate America. O'Connor said Webster is among employers, along with office designers and outfitters, who are asking: How do I maximize use of my space? Is it high quality and does it serve our needs? How many can I squeeze into that space?

Answers to those and others are reflected in Webster's makeover of its former 12,000-square-foot, first-floor banking center in downtown Waterbury into human-resources offices. Replacing what had been a branch is a new 3,200-square-foot banking center next door, with just four teller stations and four offices, bristling with the latest technology, including WiFi.

"Now what I've done is take 12,000 square feet and repurposed it for office space," O'Connor said. "I drove operating expenses to a positive … in that I have more employees per square foot and I have a better quality space.''

Like most companies, Webster has less office space than a decade ago. And what remains typically is outfitted with glass to create a more open, transparent feel, O'Connor said.

With Hartford's JCJ Architecture pacing the design, Webster's revamped quarters has more meeting spaces, allowing workers to cluster in groups of two or three. There's also "touchdown'' or "splashdown" spaces, small areas where Webster's bankers can come in from the field to work without tying up a conference room. "Phone booth'' rooms offer even more privacy.

In its downtown Hartford office, Bridgeport architect-interior designer Fletcher-Thompson Inc. has embraced many of those space-sharing, space-saving concepts in its approximately 4,600-square-foot quarters at 160 Trumbull St., above Santander Bank (formerly Sovereign).

Senior Project Manager Ron Goodin helps oversee the Hartford office. Goodin proudly shows off details of its office space — combination design laboratory and showcase — the firm moved into two years ago: The 12-seat conference area next to space that also doubles as a dining area for the office kitchen; sliding, opaque-glass partitions that can instantly block off space as temporary offices or for teleconferencing; a conversation nook with sofas, among other details.

"We try to practice what we preach,'' he said.

In Simsbury, privately held Vesta was eager to upgrade from the corporate address it had since Greenblatt and his business partner debuted in 1998. With only 3,000 square feet and a handful of employees at first, Vesta grew to 30 employees, outstripping its eventual 8,300-square-foot Hopmeadow Street quarters, said his son, Josh Greenblatt, vice president for acquisitions and development who oversaw the headquarters transition.

Vesta's goal by 2016 is to move into the nation's 30-largest affordable-housing landlords from the top 50, meaning it will need more staff to acquire and manage properties, Josh Greenblatt said. The company eventually settled on the Power Forest location, off Hopmeadow Street.

But there was just one problem: The 13,500-square-foot space it coveted was on two floors. So, Vesta convinced the landlord to install an interior stairwell, linking both.

In all, Vesta spent up to $350,000 on its headquarters move, including new office furnishings, Josh Greenblatt said. After an internal survey found half of Vesta's employees wanted the option to stand while working, Vesta "took the plunge'' and installed power-adjustable workstations that raise or lower at the press of a button.

Vesta workers rave over their new digs.

"I used to be so isolated, that in a given day I'd often see only the four to five people in my group,'' said Kyle Richards of West Hartford, who leads development of new Vesta properties. "Now, with better common amenities (café) and a more fluid space, I cross paths with nearly every employee daily."

Nearby sits asset manager Marissa Danville, also of West Hartford. Not only does Danville have a clearer picture of how her co-workers' tasks mesh with hers, she says her persistent neck and shoulder pain has virtually disappeared after a few weeks standing at her height-adjustable desk.

"Overall, I think we are working harder and better because of the layout,'' she said via email. "We're all involved and constantly interacting with not only our own team members but also with other departments."

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