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Firms betting open-office design, amenities lead to happier, more productive workers

Sunday, February 09, 2003

By Joyce Gannon, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Mark Saunders practically grew up at GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare. He did a high school internship at GSK's law department in Philadelphia, worked at GSK while he went to college, and after graduation, joined the company's management training program. Ten years ago, he relocated to Pittsburgh for a position at GSK's North American headquarters.

Marconi employees Ted Drapas and Rahmi have lunch in the company's cafeteria. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)

Related article: At Heinz, it's hoped openness begets oneness at renovated Gimbels quarters

So forgive the 38-year-old senior marketing manager if he balked when he found out that he'd have to give up his private office to work in an open-wall cubicle when GSK moved into its new, $49 million headquarters in Moon last October.

"I was worried about it," Saunders said of his new workstation without walls. "Rightly or wrongly, working up toward an office was the standard way of getting promoted. We'd all heard stories of the corner office with a great view."

While he was trying to make the mental adjustment of going from four walls to none, Saunders encountered another problem: his workstation was positioned at one end of a highly traveled corridor where he was exposed to a steady stream of colleagues and company visitors. By the end of his first day in the new space, Saunders said, "I felt sensory overload."

Four months later, he's working happily in his new space.

To provide a privacy shield for Saunders, the GSK's design team came up with a nylon mesh screen that he can position around his cube to reduce distraction. It's lightweight and portable so other workers can borrow it when they need a break from the open environment.

The screen went a long way toward helping Saunders deal with the culture shock of his new space.

But for GSK's management, it was one of many steps they took to smooth the transition their employees made from ordinary suburban offices into a sleek, open floor plan that also features lots of natural light, a fitness center, a lactation room for nursing mothers and a cafeteria run by a professional chef.

Months before the move, the company assembled teams of employees to help management and interior designers Burt Hill Kosar Rittelmann Associates sort through questions and complaints about the new headquarters. The teams tackled issues ranging from how they would make private phone calls from open cubicles to what art would hang on the wall and how colors like bright blue and citrus lime would work for furniture and carpets.

Of roughly 575 employees, only 61 have private offices. But even those offices aren't shut off completely. They're located in the interior of the building -- where there are no windows -- and have glass walls to increase their visibility to the rest of the staff and reduce layers of hierarchy.

"We wanted to build a whole new culture," said Bill Mills, GSK's vice president of human resources, who occupies one of the glass-walled offices near the president, Manfred Scheske. The open plan and attention to on-site amenities such as upscale cuisine and yoga classes are ways to make the building "mirror our values" as a company, Mills said.

Consider GSK's line of consumer goods -- Aquafresh toothpaste, Tums antacids, Oscal calcium supplements and NicoDerm CQ and Nicorette smoking cessation products -- and it becomes obvious why they want a happy, well-fed and physically fit work force.

Unlike GSK's former offices in Kennedy, where employees could smoke outside, smoking is not permitted inside or outside the new headquarters. To help employees deal with that new policy, GSK offered smoking cessation classes before the move and gave free supplies of NicoDerm and Nicorette to those who needed it to kick the habit.

Like other companies that have adopted open workspaces in recent years and equipped them with decidedly new economy perks such as gyms, free coffee and healthy cafeteria menus, GSK hopes its investment in atmosphere will translate into more efficient, productive and satisfied employees.

"It takes the decision makers at any corporation to buy into it" for an open environment to succeed, said Burt Hill's Vicci Franz, who helped design GSK's new headquarters.

"GSK is so in tune with its people. They realize people are the biggest asset," said Franz. By using low panels between workstations instead of walls, "it makes people more aware of their co-workers," she said. "With the added light, they're also seeing time and seasonal changes and that's wonderful for humans." To give employees more control of their own space, GSK gave each a $250 voucher to buy their own accessories such as phone holders, tape dispensers and paper trays.

Among the places GSK turned to for inspiration was Alcoa, whose curved headquarters along the city's North Shore has become a model for how an open office environment improves efficiency.

Designs such as Alcoa's are "driven by function and need rather that status and hierarchy. There's an energy to being there," said Martin Powell, principal with The Design Alliance, Alcoa's architects.

Alcoa's design was achieved through intense collaboration between the architects and former Chairman Paul O'Neill who insisted on putting all the company's executives, including himself, in open cubicles.

The riverfront landmark has gained so much attention worldwide since it opened in 1998 that to meet the demand of callers and visitors who want to know more about the innovative space, Design Alliance developed a brochure that features a photo of the building and details about its floor plans.

"So many people have benchmarked Alcoa that we did the brochure," said Powell. "We have a constant stream of visitors, and we didn't want to forget our original ideas."

Among those who have toured it: representatives from Coca-Cola, the U.S. government's General Services Administration and Marconi PLC's North American headquarters in Marshall. Some who have copied the open office plan, at least to some degree, include PNC Financial Services Group at its Downtown processing facility, PNC Firstside Center, and H.J. Heinz Co. at its North American headquarters in the old Gimbels department store. Marconi was built before Alcoa but in its most recent expansion, open offices were added to the design.

"The ideas Alcoa advanced there remain durable," said Powell. "Architecture speaks to the culture of the organization."

Even though the work force at Alcoa's headquarters has grown by about 150 people to 541 since the building opened, the space is far from cramped, said Powell, who has helped Alcoa make some changes to accommodate the increase in personnel.

Because privacy was a major concern in the initial design, there were originally 30 "privacy cubes" scattered among the building's six floors. But the company found they weren't being used as often as expected and employees could get the isolation they needed by using conference rooms. So the cubes were eliminated.

To handle larger meetings as the headquarters staff grew, Alcoa also needed additional "big" gathering spaces and fewer of the small, collaborative areas in the original plan. On the first floor, for instance, an area with lots of small tables was converted to a spot for one, large, conference table and the two-level cafeteria was converted into one floor to provide more seating.

"As we designed it, we knew the company would look different and change every five years," said Powell.

GSK's Mills said his British-based company liked the open-air style it saw at Alcoa "because we're a company that doesn't believe in class or layers," said Mills. "We call all of our people 'associates' because they're all equal."

The equality theme is also reflected in GSK's casual dress code -- no ties or suits even for top executives -- and a policy of addressing everyone by first names, from the president on down.

That culture made it easier for employees to broach concerns about the new headquarters such as the fact that a fitness center wasn't included in the original plans.

Once GSK employees realized there was no gym, some of them raised the issue to the teams gathering input on the new headquarters.

After a company-wide survey found overwhelming support for a gym, management agreed to build it with the provision that employees would have to help bear the cost. The 150 who currently use the facility -- which includes workout equipment, locker rooms, showers and aerobic and yoga classes -- pay $25 a month.

Exercise specialist Jen Neupert, left, works with GlaxoSmithKline purchasing manager Diane Kelly in the company's fitness center at Glaxo's new North American headquarters in Moon. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

"I'm, quite frankly, healthier because of it," said Saunders, who uses the gym about twice a week. "And being in good health adds to productivity."

There are two fitness centers at Marconi's sprawling five-building campus, designed by San Francisco firm Studios Architecture and best known for the unique, tilted design of the structures. The telecommunications company, founded as Fore Systems, put a heavy emphasis on Silicon Valley-type perks for its work force that has an average age of about 35.

Part of the strategy is convenience: Marconi is in a rural setting north of Pittsburgh and employees often work odd hours and weekends.

But the amenities also contribute to "an atmosphere and camaraderie that makes people want to stay," said Kevin Walling, vice president of human resources.

The fitness centers are open 24 hours a day and are free of charge to employees. There's also an outdoor basketball court and indoor Ping-Pong and Foosball tables.

A coffee bar, the Jitter Cafe, serves made-to-order espresso and cappuccino. Employees can pour free coffee and tea at kitchen kiosks located around the campus. The in-house food court has free soda and specializes in diverse and diet-conscious fare. Hot breakfasts are available from 7 a.m. and for lunch, a typical menu might feature a choice of pork chops, pizza from a wood-fired oven or a health-conscious entree of grilled pesto salmon and steamed vegetables. If employees want to try the menus at home, the chef offers evening classes in low-calorie cooking several times a year.

Other amenities include ATMs scattered around the complex, a lounge for nursing mothers and a dry cleaning drop-off service.

Managers are convinced the extras have helped to keep the attrition rate at 2.5 percent or less per year.

Even with massive job cutbacks -- Marconi's London-based parent slashed hundreds of workers from its Marshall operations in the last two years as it restructured debt and coped with an industry downturn -- the company has continued throwing casual get-togethers on occasional Fridays after work. The company springs for the drinks and snacks.

They also hold Ping-Pong or Foosball tournaments to help maintain morale, as well as frequent gatherings to recognize achievements such as a team of employees who worked around the clock over Thanksgiving weekend to solve a customer's problem.

A significant number of Marconi's current local work force of about 800 are foreign-born and moved to the Pittsburgh area specifically for their jobs, Walling said. For many of them, without family nearby, "They come here for more than a paycheck."

Rhonda Mike, a human resources employee who uses the gym an average three times a week and attends the cooking class when it's offered, said her first glimpse of the Marconi campus came one evening after she had dinner with a friend who worked there and wanted to show off the place.

"It was 8:30 at night when we walked around and I said, 'I want a job here.' "

Joyce Gannon can be reached at jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.

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