Sunday, January 26, 2003

New look knocks down office walls

Open-office concept designed to inspire creativity, innovation

By Ken Alltucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Procter & Gamble's multimillion-dollar renovation of its executive offices is part of a design trend shaping office construction across the U.S.

The renovated reception area for the 11th floor executive offices at P&G.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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The idea: Create a more open environment by knocking down walls that separate high-powered executives from each other and their employees.

While P&G's new executive digs, unveiled this week (STORY), mark a dramatic departure from its cloistered, wood-paneled suites of the past, many smaller companies in Greater Cincinnati already have embraced the open-office look as a strategy to spur innovation and creativity.

In fact, the sleeker design is often an important selling point and corporate image for smaller firms such as Lightborne in Over-the-Rhine and BHDP Architecture at Third and Plum streets.

"It is not only happening among the Fortune 500 companies, we are seeing it among the smaller companies," said Gary Volz, president of PDT Interiors Group Inc.

Fred Hecht, president of Lightborne Co., works in his open-design office.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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The trend toward open-office design - with a heavy emphasis on glass and available light - gained momentum in the '90s and is now the standard for many firms, especially creative industries such as design and advertising, according to Mr. Volz.

"We're able to use our building as a factory, a showroom and a presentation of our identity," said Fred Hecht, partner of Lightborne. "The building and the company reinforce one another."

Lightborne purchased the Excelsior building at 210 E. 14th St. in Over-the-Rhine and converted the former steam laundry building in 1994 into an open office. It has a vast open floor with seven video editing suites. The windows include special treatment to allow more natural sunlight, and the lighting fixtures were made from scratch.

Because Lightborne's video editing and graphics products are a visual business, Mr. Hecht said it was important the firm's office design reflect a visual sense.

"For our business, what you see is what you get," said Mr. Hecht.

The office of P&G CEO A.G. Lafley has a desk that accomodates his need to stand on occasion while working.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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Similarly, BHDP Architecture sought a showcase building when it moved downtown from its Fairfax headquarters more than a year ago. It chose Al Neyer Inc.'s redevelopment of the Crown Manufacturing building at Third and Plum, a structure offering riverfront views.

"These moves fit the culture that the company wants to create," said Patrick Donnelly, principal of BHDP.

Mr. Donnelly said the office is meant to represent a showcase of the type of design services offered by BHDP, which also helped design P&G's 11th floor executive offices.

In the late '90s, many dot-com firms pushed the limits of the open- design concept. Because the design is meant to throw out the traditional, staid business environment in favor of a fun and creative workspace, it served many Internet firms well.

But experiments of mixing work and fun with furniture on wheels or parking basketball hoops and ping pong tables on office floors represented the excesses of the Internet era.

"What you wound up with is chaos," said Mr. Volz. "A lot of the stuff was probably better in theory than practice."

P&G's new office redesign is meant not only as an effective way for executives to better communicate with each other, it's also a symbol of corporate change, said Dick Antoine, global human resources officer.

The new executive building has no doors separating the executives from each other, but they do have glass conference centers adjacent to their desks so they can duck away from a private phone call.

In the old executive offices, "it's just harder to make contact with one another," Mr. Antoine said.

The new workspaces are designed to promote collaboration, openness and access, he said.

Each workspace has individual touches with furnishings and color schemes.

For instance, chairman and chief executive officer A.G. Lafley's office includes a special desk that allows him to stand while chatting on the phone or drafting a memo. (Mr. Lafley has a bad back, so standing is easier for him.)

The new offices also added high-tech offerings, too, with plasma television screens, new boardrooms with teleconferencing capabilities and special displays highlighting P&G's $1 billion brands.

With all the extra touches, it's hard to notice that new executive offices are actually smaller than the old ones P&G executives have used for the past three decades.

The old executive offices ranged from 220 to 250 square feet apiece, compared to the 144 square feet for the new spaces.

The smaller, more efficient executive suite takes up about one-third of the floor. P&G's training center will relocate from the nearby Polk building to the remaining space on the 11th floor. That will save P&G $900,000 to $1 million a year in lease payments and operating costs.

Cost cutting is a common incentive for firms switching to the open space.

"I think people are always want to spend less money on their space," said Pam McDonel, associate principal of interior design for BHDP. "Most people want the space to represent their business, to be agile, but not ostentatious."

One of the main concerns of firms contemplating a switch to the open design is privacy, said Jose Garcia, design director of Al Neyer Inc.

"The complaint is that if you have to make a private phone call, you have to go to a specific place," he said.

But Mr. Antoine said privacy is not a major concern among P&G's executives, including those in charge of sensitive legal issues. The glass rooms at the side of the executive's desks should provide enough privacy, he said.

While most converts to the open-design office have been creative firms, increasingly financial and legal companies are turning to this type of design, as well.

For instance, the former Arthur Andersen building at Sawyer Point was built with a large open lobby, glass conference rooms and open workspace. Accounting and consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers now occupies a floor there.

"It's inviting, it's dramatic and unique," said Don Bush, managing partner of the PricewaterhouseCoopers' Cincinnati office. "It has been very well received because it is a bit unorthodox and out of the norm. It's refreshing and has stimulated work in the office."


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