Creative class, creative office design

The flexibility of blending old and new spaces has given the modern office both diversity and agility that allows for choices and change.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Ten years ago, many Wisconsin companies viewed Google office designs as a weird idea. Today, thanks to the success of those workplaces as a magnet to attract employees, increase collaboration, and promote creativity, the best aspects of those concepts are increasingly part of the design language in Madison.

Other types of businesses here are also incorporating open and collaborative space to the extent it aligns with their culture, some embracing the concept and others testing the waters.

Today, open and collaborative is common and becoming the norm, not only because it lends itself to creativity and stronger business performance, but also because it’s a recruitment and retention tool for luring young professionals.

“Yes, definitely, with co-working, collaborative areas, flexibility, diversity of space — all of that finally has come to Madison,” notes Robin Stroebel, owner and CEO of InteriorLogic in Madison. “It started maybe eight years ago but it has really picked up to the point where people are actually requesting it.”

The change in thinking is led by the creative class companies, especially information technology and software development firms. To get a take on how the creative class works, we reached out to the ultimate local creative-class company — Epic Systems, the Verona-based medical records software developer. Andy Krueger, vice president of H. Krueger & Associates, has done a great deal of design work for Epic, but he doesn’t like to use the word “trend” because his firm tries to do things outside the box. “What you’re seeing is an influence from IT and it started with big companies like Epic, Google, and the ITs from the coasts, and they started making spaces more casual, more user-friendly, and more inviting for not only their clients, but their workers,” notes Krueger. “You want to go there because it’s a fun, interesting space.”

Components of modern office

Designers start from the standpoint of strategic planning and now clients are beginning to understand the advantages of it. Before they go to work on an office, they must know how a company works or wants to work. According to Stroebel, the information gathering process begins with how an organization envisions its culture and brand — in other words, how it wants others to see them. “That’s where I like to start because once I know how they see themselves, we can talk about workplace strategy solutions and how they align with their culture and brand,” she explains.

If you are building your space to work for 10 to 15 years, it’s important to know the direction of workplace environments other than your own, and why you are migrating there. It is also important to understand where the workplace is trending and where your business and culture fit in the trend. For example, on the coasts and in urban areas, the ratio of individual seats to collaborative space is 2:1. In Wisconsin it’s about 1:1.

Could the creative design of Summit Credit Union’s Fitchburg branch come to banks and law firms?

According to Stroebel, pertinent questions include: What are you comfortable with? How do you view the private office? Would you consider planning predicated on highest occupancy? Do your business plans include work-from-home or off-site work? How do you want to encourage collaboration and coworking? What elements are important to attract and retain younger talent?

“Those are the types of questions that shape the workplace strategy for planning, and then are prioritized,” Stroebel says. “Not every company thinks about it. Sometimes, they haven’t had time to think it through or haven’t yet realized the impact of their business plan on workplace environment.”

 There are several types of spaces within the modern office space, each designed to encourage certain kinds of work. Coworking spaces are defined as areas where two people can work on a project together, and collaborative space typically is space where a team or group of people can work together. Both areas foster collaborative work, but there is still a place for the private office, albeit such spaces have been whittled down in size.

Stephen Dickmann, chief administrative officer for Epic, says the company has always understood the need for private offices and how valuable they are for productivity when the work requires a lot of thought. “For example, if you’re a software developer who has spent several hours figuring out the requirements for drug-to-drug interactions and those details are in your brain, if your thoughts get distracted by noise in the next cube it may take you a long time to recreate what you had previously done,” he explains.

There used to be a lot of tall workstations, but now businesses realize the importance of visibility, flexibility, and mobility. The resulting spaces include the aforementioned coworking and collaborative areas, plus enclaves where people who normally work in open office space can go to have a private conversation, and work lounges, small meeting areas, and touch-down spaces to be configured as needed for a meeting.

With more openness comes fewer desks or workstations, as offices don’t necessarily have a 1:1 ratio of people to desks anymore, Stroebel notes. “Traditional thinking used to be that everybody had a desk, and then you had a few other areas, a couple of hoteling areas, maybe a small lounge, but data shows on average about 60% of people are occupying their workstation at any one time during the day. If you have 100 people, do you want to have 100 workstations, plus all the collaborative areas for staff to work? Or do you want to provide 60 workstations and a diverse choice of benching, collaborative, or touch-down areas with enough seats for 40 more people?”

Collaboration areas do not have to be sprawling spaces that eat up square footage. Krueger says people, especially in the creative fields, find that collaboration spaces are fairly important, even if they are just small places that are out of the way where people can get together outside of their offices. “It’s not quite as formal as a conference room, but maybe a little seating area that has some windows and is just away from your office,” he explains. “In your office, no matter how nice and fun it is, it can sometimes start to feel like you’re trapped. To get outside of that and talk to your colleagues is becoming helpful, especially in the creative fields where people are trying to come up with new concepts and new ideas.”

A great deal of consideration goes into what future job candidates will think of the office when they come in for interviews. Stroebel’s clients often tell her that attracting or retaining talent is the impetus of change, but not the sole reason. “Even though businesses often see change as an unpleasant necessity, they realize many benefits far beyond the initial reason,” she says. “Change is often initiated with the development of a problem, or after an internal assessment of brand or culture, not simply for the sake of change, unless they are moving.”

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Epic themes

Different types of spaces are one thing but Epic, Dane County’s largest employer, has found that fun, thematic buildings also play a role in productivity and business performance. Two such examples that Krueger helped design are the Stable, which has horse racing and Wisconsin agricultural themes, and the Isis building, where the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game inspired the design.

A Dungeons and Dragons theme is evident inside and outside of the Isis building on Epic’s Verona campus.

Each Epic campus building has its own theme so employees in the building working on similar projects can feel a sense of community. Structurally, the buildings are set up to promote software development, but in each case CEO Judith Faulkner identifies the concept and it’s up to H. Krueger & Associates to come up with the interpretation of that space — subtly and abstractly, not overtly. “There are some things out there that you’ll see that might be literal, but there are other places where it’s an abstraction and you can interpret the concept of the building,” Krueger explains. “That’s our approach.”

A variety of surfaces, including walls, carpets, and other flooring, can be used to get the themes across, but there is a fine line to walk. The Dungeons and Dragons theme was a challenge because the game is pretty dark and Krueger didn’t want to go down that road, so the firm talked to people at Epic that play the game. “They gave us a lot of insight into what the game is about, and we used some of that here and there,” he recounts. “We used some of it on one level, which is small and like a village, the carpet is green like grass, and then there is one carpet that is sort of fire. On the walls, there are burnt trees and then up in the largest conference room we actually had a 15-foot dragon built. He’s protecting his chest full of computer parts, so that relates to both Epic and the game.”

If you stripped away all the theming and painted everything white, it would be a fairly normal office building. There are some spaces that are set aside so the employees can break out into small groups and work outside their office, and Krueger planned for that to ensure those spaces are functional, as well as aesthetically pleasing.

The Stable, located on Epic’s farm campus, is part of a building that is themed in two different parts, split right down the middle. One part is the Stable and the other part is an old farmhouse. “You can walk down the hall and you’ll see quite clearly where the split is because the doors change, the carpet changes, and the whole feel of it changes — one part of it being a stable and the other part of it being this old farmhouse,” Krueger notes.

Cobblestone carpets, colorful stairwells, and art reminiscent of Churchill Downs are among the features of Epic’s Stable building.

In this building, the carpets carry some weight, both literally and figuratively. On the Stable side, “it’s like old cobblestone and then the paint colors do a lot for us, too,” Krueger says.

Conference rooms and break and copy rooms also are themed, as are dining spaces. No space is left untouched — even restrooms use old barn board — so the choice of materials was key. “We had to get the right feel,” Krueger notes. “It could not look all brand new and shiny. It had to have that old farm look.”

In terms of functionality, it’s much the same story as the Isis building. If you stripped away all of the theming, it would resemble a normal office building. There are fewer collaborative spaces, but Epic has found that people are more productive when they have their own office among a variety of spaces. In some cases, Epic employees working on similar projects prefer to work with another person they can bounce ideas off, and so some offices are doubled up.

Collaboration can take place almost anywhere, not just in designated offices but also in corridors, stairwells, and other common spaces. According to Krueger, one central feature in all Epic buildings is the stairwell area. The campus is filled with mostly 20-somethings and few of them take the elevator, opting instead for central stairwell areas that are “very themed” because they are so well used and generally the center of the building.

In the Stable building, the theme of the stairwell was Churchill Downs, where the Kentucky Derby is held each year. “It’s like the gate where the horses line up and on the wallpaper are the names of all the Triple Crown winners,” Krueger explains. “The stairs themselves were done in different colors, just like jockey silks, so not only do they tell a story, they are very colorful.”

Epic competes for staff with Apple, Facebook, and Google, so the campus must be a place where workers can have great output, Dickmann states. “That means we can hire and retain the best people and give them the best environment for them
to get innovative, high-quality work done.”

Coming to a law firm near you?

Both Krueger and Stroebel believe the designs where companies let their hair down are starting to trickle down into traditionally serious offices, such as those housing banks and law firms. These creative concepts are already evident in branches of Summit Credit Union, for example, so it stands to reason that other environments aren’t far behind. “Sooner or later, we are going to see it in some of the very serious offices, the banks and the attorneys,” Krueger says, “because it not only is more interesting and more fun, it elevates the mood of the employees.”

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An invitation to creativity

With a company name like Earthling Interactive, it should come as no surprise that employees are not referred to as colleagues or associates, but earthlings. That might sound quirky to some, but it fits this 18-year-old Madison technology company and so does its office space in a refurbished warehouse on Main Street.

Earthling Interactive is best known for its web and mobile apps, website development, and e-commerce services, and its office design helps 34 earthlings provide solutions to its client base.

The second floor office embodies the elements of a creative space, including open circulation and visual connection, plus transparent, flexible, diverse, and collaborative space. Yet it’s a minimalist approach to the workplace environment, with a deft use of color to reinforce the company’s brand.

John Samuelson, COO of Earthling Interactive, has no doubt the space helps EI staffers develop effective solutions for clients, and he has another word to describe the vibe — inviting. “It starts with the collaborative side,” he explains. “Anytime we’re looking at one of our clients’ software products, the space invites folks to get up out of their seats and talk to other team members. Whether that’s a meeting at somebody’s desk or in a team member’s office space, or grabbing a conference room, the space invites that.”

Nordic connects with design  

For Nordic, one of the fastest growing companies in Madison, office renovation work isn’t over yet. Several years ago, the consulting company that helps Epic clients get the most out of electronic medical records software moved to the second and third floors — and soon the fourth floor, thanks to continuing growth — of its Regent Street home.

With nearly 200 employees in Dane County and hundreds of others working remotely around the country, it was important to merge disbursed departments in one location. “We had different departments in different buildings, which made it tough to connect on a day-to-day basis,” notes Office Manager Jessica Johnson.

The necessary collaboration takes place among employees and clients, and the space is designed with lower cubed walls to allow in more natural light. The open layout allows for organic conversations, and different kinds of spaces enable workers to grab adjustable seats or surfaces and connect on a project. There are multiple private offices, including some that are doubled up for smaller collaborations, and employees also like to congregate in a naturally lighted central staircase between the third and fourth floors. When weather permits, they connect on a patio.

“Our office is set up to foster creativity, collaboration, and transparency so that we can offer a united front and work together as a team,” Johnson states. “That’s very important to us.”

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