San Diego Business Journal

Companies Design Flexible, Creative Work Spaces

In the early 1990s, employees timidly began requesting casual, flexible work environments.

The end of this decade has brought about greater demands not only for casual dress and flex-time, but for everything else from stock options to Palm Pilots.

What more is there to demand? What's on today's highly-courted, cavalier, young and technology-savvy employee's list of "must have's" for the '00s?

While some employees might jokingly ask for in-office steam baths and personal masseuses, they are really searching for spaces to regroup their thoughts and refocus on their priorities. Corporate office designs today need to address the basic issues of rest, motivation and employee retention. How do people rejuvenate their spirit and drive within the confines of the workplace? Some of the more innovative-thinking companies have begun to address these issues. They understand that today's employees are making lifestyle choices as much as company/career choices.

One such company, a leading national law firm focusing on the representation of technology and emerging-growth companies, is in the process of relocating from Downtown to Del Mar. The firm placed a high priority on creating casual, technology-enhanced, interactive work spaces for both its employees and its clients.

The firm's new offices will provide Internet and Intranet connections from its in-house gym, sun deck and schmooze room, where everyone can track their favorite sports team on an extra-large digital TV from oversized leather lounge chairs.

- Leaving Behind The Old To Acquire The New

Another company, which acts as a call center for facility management and property maintenance supplies, will be leaving behind a corporate art collection in favor of real-world displays of company products. The products will be available throughout the space to see, touch and use. Understanding their products lets sales associates assist clients more confidently, which will directly affect the company's bottom line.

And speaking of bottom line, their up-to-the-minute stock price is also prominently displayed on monitors throughout the space. It's good motivation to see how those options are faring.

Like other E-commerce-driven businesses, this particular company puts a high priority on lifestyle-enhanced spaces. Its new offices have a gym, volleyball court, running trails, nap rooms and an outdoor amphitheater for company gatherings or chairman's chats. Extra effort was also made to provide spaces where casual interaction can occur. A centrally-located latte bar on each floor will have the character and charisma of a coffee house, and provide a relaxing environment to promote interdepartmental friendships and exchanges of ideas. Leaving behind the linoleum who-stole-my- lunch kitchenette, the company is providing the infrastructure to successfully enhance the lives of its associates.

By far, the stand-out in employee retention-driven businesses is an Internet company in the music industry. The company employs many young software and network engineers and artist service representatives. These mavericks insist upon dark, quiet cells to work on their computers for endless hours. The window-view office with the standard, high-back leather chair is a detriment, not an asset.

Amenities for these new offices go beyond the now-traditional company gym to nerf basketball courts, pingpong and billiard tables and video arcades.

- Creating Space To Release Energy

Designing "playrooms" to refresh oneself instead of coffee-break rooms are mandatory in this intense, high-energy environment. Often working 12 or more consecutive hours, these high-tech internet company employees need places to release energy.

Increasingly, companies are seeing the need for flexible spaces that give discriminating employees control over their environments. A favorite option seems to be a recreation of a college dorm, complete with posters and action figures. Other ideas that have come up are rock-climbing walls, Internet/laundry cafes, and jam rooms for musicians who might be working for these high-tech Internet company.

This assumes these companies are able to work with progressive landlords who are willing to open their minds to new ideas to assist these creative-thinking tenants in their recruitment and retention efforts.

Ten years ago, providing such employee amenities would have been viewed as extravagant. In today's business climate and the region's unemployment rate down to a mere 2.5 percent, creating higher quality work environments for employees is simply smart business. A design-savvy employer can expect to achieve a healthy return on its investment in terms of increased employee retention, morale, and productivity , all of which can drastically impact a company's profitability.

Sneed is vice president and partner of Howard*Sneed Architecture & Design, a full-service commercial architectural firm.