January 6, 2014
Working In Style: Companies Boost Productivity With Updates To Office Design
A common meeting space at uTest in Framingham provides a relaxed area for employees to meet. Designers say such meeting areas are preferred to traditional conference rooms today because they're more conducive to collaboration and modern technology.
by Emily Micucci
Retailers have known it for decades: incorporating the brand into interior design has a powerful marketing impact.
Starbucks, McDonalds, Target and Apple are examples of retailers that have perfected the art of creating atmosphere that's unmistakably their own.
But branding indoor spaces has become important to companies outside the retail realm, too. Central Massachusetts designers, marketers and business owners say it's no longer enough to slap a logo on your product and website. The company identity has to be a part of the spaces where the work is being done each day, too.
"Nobody really wants an office space that people don't recognize as being some place special," said Brent Maugel, president and owner of Harvard-based Maugel Architects.
Maugel works regularly with firms that want to spruce up the interiors of offices that were last refinished in a bygone area. Today, businesses want to trade square footage for collaborative spaces, and find design elements — from paint colors to lighting and greenery — that are anything but ordinary.
"The culture of the company can be expressed by the uniqueness of the work environment," Maugel said.
That's not to say that companies are only concerned about branding when they refurbish workspaces today. The hottest elements in interior office design, according to Maugel and others who work in the industry, have just as much to do with practicality and the way business is done today.
Maugel said professional offices in the past have featured several conference rooms large enough to accommodate eight to 10 people at a time. But businesses are now more interested in designing open conversation areas that feel more like a living room.
This is fueled by the desire to reduce square-footage (something many companies are trying to do, post-recession) as well as technology, according to Maugel. Today, people frequently huddle around a laptop during meetings rather than gaze up at an overhead projector.
Companies also try to send an appealing message to employees through interior design elements. To create an environment of transparency, cubicles are built lower and drywall is often knocked down to make way for glass, Maugel said. Large windows and skylights are chosen to maximize natural light — something that makes employees happier. Hip paint colors and the elimination of dropped ceilings are intended to attract fresh talent, too.
How a workplace is designed can also boost productivity, according to a recent survey by Gensler, a global architecture, planning and design firm. Its 2013 survey of more than 2,000 U.S. workers concluded that workplace design that supports the ability to focus and collaborate can boost business success and help employees thrive.
Attracting talent, and keeping that talent engaged with a company mission, is a crucial part of commercial office redesign, said Deborah Penta, CEO of Westborough-based PENTA Communications, Inc.
"When you have somebody that's coming in for an interview, they should absolutely know what your company is like when they walk in the door," Penta said, adding that branding for employees is fundamental to communicating company identity, "because they're going to be the evangelists."
Penta, whose firm oversees interior design for clients, said branding in the business-to-business realm is still relatively new. But she believes all companies should make it part of their wider branding strategy.
One company that takes branding in the office seriously is Framingham-based uTest, which plans to change its name to Applause early this year. The mobile software testing services firm's new headquarters, in an office building at 100 Pennsylvania Ave., screams "techie," and, of course, that's by design.
The office, which opened in September, features exposed ceilings that reveal piping and ventilation systems, concrete floors, numerous relaxed meeting spaces and a bright color palette. But it's the superhero nameplates attached to each small conference room door that give the space true character; that detail was incorporated after a unanimous vote by employees.
uTest's chief marketing officer, Matt Johnston, said his vision for the headquarters has been brought it life, but it wasn't easy finding a landlord that would allow it. Johnston said it's common to encounter owners with a more traditional view of how an office should look, especially in points west of Boston and Cambridge, where offices tend to be on the cutting edge of office design.
"It's very parochial," Johnston said of the MetroWest market.
uTest's current landlord, Reit Management & Research, gave the business the creative license to design its headquarters to its liking. uTest did have to do some convincing on some design elements, but in the end, Johnston said everyone was pleased.
"If prospective tenants come through, they always bring them through our space," Johnston said.
Companies like uTest that have embraced branding in the office have an edge, according to Jack Hally, executive vice president at BlueHive, a Worcester design firm that specializes in branded visual displays and interior design. BlueHive has done interior work for area companies like The Hanover Insurance Group in Worcester and Waters Corp. of Milford. The key is consistency, Hally said. That may mean using a common color palette in offices, for printed materials and on the web, for example.
From the moment Hally arrives at a client's office, he knows whether the business understands branding, so firms need to maximize the opportunity to make a good first impression, especially if they host clients frequently.
"When you take a look at companies that embrace their brands … there's a huge psychological and emotional relationship with their customers and employees," Hally said.