Joco 913

Johnson County’s coolest offices are places where people want to work

The atrium at Perceptive Software, 8900 Renner Road in Lenexa.
The atrium at Perceptive Software, 8900 Renner Road in Lenexa. The Kansas City Star

Bruce Wang needs a computer and Internet access to do his job. He could do it just about anywhere. He chooses to do it in Perceptive Software’s new office building in Lenexa.

It’s a very cool place.

Wang, Perceptive’s director of cloud services, is a San Francisco transplant and a walking, talking illustration for why forward-looking (and financially able) employers in Johnson County are transforming their offices.

“Environment matters,” said Wang, seated in Perceptive’s sunny four-story, 90-foot-tall atrium, just a few feet from a curvy aluminum slide that employees can use to whoosh to the first-floor cafe from the second floor.

“There’s a lot of energy in this building, a lot of cool public places, but also cool spaces to work by myself when I need to,” Wang said.

The whole facility adds up to a recruiting and retention tool for an employer in a competitive software industry.

Sure, “Dilbert”-style office cubicles still exist in Perceptive’s building, as in workplaces nationwide, but furniture makers, interior designers and architects are providing multiple ways to break away from the boring grids of the decades-old cube farm.

The Harvard Business Review in October said these best workplace designs are balancing “we” and “me” — supporting collaboration as well as privacy.

For a one-stop-shop look at what’s possible in new office design, the Scott Rice Office Works showroom in Lenexa is a working-office example that helps corporate clients consider new furniture, space dividers and layouts. It’s a carefully considered space, largely with Steelcase products. Steelcase says it has spent $107.7 million on furniture and work research, design and development over the last three years.

“We practice what we preach,” said Stacy Roth, who holds the unusual job title of Scott Rice director of education solutions. “Each inch of space has a purpose, not just for show. Each space supports our organization.”

The entrance lobby is styled as a “living room” for showroom visitors to perch, but it also serves as a wired meeting circle for employee work groups. Nearby is the “work cafe” with oversized counters and power outlets on the island because, like at household parties, “everybody ends up in the kitchen.” Adjacent, too, is a “free address” space which looks something like a well-equipped airport gate lounge, a place for vendors, visitors or employees to get work done.

About that “free address”: Also known as “hoteling” or “hot desking,” it’s a burgeoning concept in office design, especially suited to workers who don’t spend a lot of time in-house. Think of outside sales people or financial auditors who spend most of their work days away from the office. Their personal cubicles sit empty most days. But when they hit the office, they need a place to stash their stuff, sit and work.

At Scott Rice, vice president Ron Burns has opted for a free address. He has his own locker and set of drawers, part of a worktop-covered cabinet used by multiple itinerant workers. To sit, he has a choice of open tables or height-adjustable desks along with other workers who move in and out.

Business and operations experts at JE Dunn say the baseline square footage per office employee typically starts at 150 square feet. But that’s trending down in newer workplaces because of the move toward more collaborative work areas coupled with work-at-home options and free addressing.

What once were 8-foot-by-8-foot cubicles are sizing down to 6 by 6, partly to cut costs and partly because there are so many other places in an office for employees to get work done. By saving money on per-worker floor space, the trendiest employers in Johnson County are dedicating resources to other amenities.

“Because technology lets people work anywhere, the places where we come together are more important,” said Alissa Wehmueller, director of interiors at Helix Architecture + Design. “Companies are paying attention to the group spaces — cafeterias, meeting rooms, lobbies — the ‘we,’ or team, spaces where the furniture is purposeful and inviting, not just an afterthought.”

Wehmueller cited two other notable trends: flexibility and sustainability.

The flexible part comes with modular furniture and movable partitions. It also comes with the use of color. Today’s bright color preferences (purple, aqua, lime green and orange) could become tomorrow’s avocado green and harvest gold, so employers are opting to use color in easily swappable spots, such as bench colors, cubicle bulletin boards or single accent walls.

At Scott Rice, interior walls are movable partitions made of glass or whiteboard that can be scrawled on and erased. Partitions vary in height, depending on worker or work-group preference. Small private places, for personal phone calls or serious one-on-one conversations, have the highest dividers.

The CEO’s office is in the middle of the building. Many new office spaces tend to jettison the proverbial corner office or the line of “C-suite” private offices along exterior walls.

“Anything with windows is shared space, with access to everyone,” Roth said.

With-it employers also are building with environmentally conscious materials like cork flooring and striving for LEED status to keep utility costs low and recycle whatever possible. The latter is especially important to millennials, the age group that soon will dominate American workplaces.

Paying attention to employee health also motivates some newer office designs. Gyms, inside bicycle racks, healthy food in the lunch rooms and vending machines, on-site exercise classes and options for stand-up or treadmill desks are all big design influences.

“They’re saying that sitting is the new smoking,” Roth said.

Meanwhile, steady footsteps, at a 2-mile-an-hour pace, punctuated her remarks as a fellow worker put in a couple of miles on the nearby computer-equipped treadmill desk, available for anyone on staff.

Why bother with such amenities?

Employers, particularly with added services like on-site dry cleaning pickups, a health care center, exercise facilities and food options, benefit from employees who stay in the building longer. Workers may be more productive if they can take care of personal business, often at subsidized cost. And pleasant surroundings may improve morale, another productivity enhancement.

Perceptive Software

“We wanted the building to be a visual depiction of our fun, collaborative culture,” said Megan McClendon, spokeswoman for Perceptive Software, as she began a tour of the new 238,000-square-foot building in its central atrium. “We have flexible work options for employees to work at home or wherever, but employees are coming in to work more often. They don’t have to be here, but they do.”

More than 700 people work in the Klover Architects-designed building, near 87th Street at Renner Road. Many work on desks transferred from Perceptive’s previous offices, and a lot of the group amenities are merely relocated, rather than brand new. But designing the layout from scratch was purposeful.

A small gym, dubbed the dodgeball court, is adjacent to a health and wellness center that houses a full-time nurse practitioner and assistant. There’s an indoor bicycle storage area and locker rooms.

Another centerpiece of the first floor is the cafe, site of “free breakfast Fridays” for employees. Square One Studios made reclaimed walnut tabletops that are used there for both eating and working. Employees pay for food by scanning their ID badges or using a biometric fingerprint screen. Most tune out the occasional squeal from fast-sliding co-workers who hit the cafeteria after a quick trip down the serpentine metal slide, a quirky transplant from Perceptive’s previous building.

The first floor also has classrooms for employees or clients and a big-screen auditorium for town hall company meetings. It seats 233, so the overflow crowd watches companywide events through videoconferencing in the classrooms or even at their desks.

Because Perceptive Software sells to corporate clients, there’s a self-contained “briefing center” with its own kitchen, restrooms, lobby and conference rooms to accommodate client visitors. Depending on need, there are options: a traditional meeting room with a big table; a home theater-type room with a big screen and comfy lounge chairs, and a videoconferencing room with a V-shaped table. The V shape cleverly solves the problem of not being able to see everyone on video when they sit at a traditional rectangular table.

On the upper floors, McLendon said little amenities are making a difference. Each floor has a central kitchenette for workers to prepare their own food or get free coffee. Each space, of course, has a wall-mounted television screen. The Perceptive version can be segmented into live TV and internal communication spaces. And — solving the common problem of misplaced remote control devices — there aren’t any. The remotes are small touchscreens embedded in the walls.

And one more amenity: the supersize gaming console. Looking like something out of the Enterprise flight deck, the console gets plenty of use most afternoons as a stress-relief getaway.

AMC

William Slusher is wearing fuzzy white slippers and a funny hat while he explains how form married function in AMC Entertainment’s new offices.

“Our old environment in downtown Kansas City was way more serious. The goal was not to be that way,” said the architect who helped design the movie theater company’s headquarters in Leawood’s Park Place development.

Slusher won the right to dress for fun through participating in a company charity event. That kind of employee involvement has grown as an unexpected byproduct of the new environment where, he said, “We went from ‘domes of silence’ to bringing people together. … You wave at people you never used to see. It sounds kind of fake, but it works.”

More than 500 people work in the year-old building, which clearly, emphatically, reminds them at every turn that they work for a company that screens movies. Notice the light fixtures in the entry lobby: They’re designed to look like movie popcorn. Wall decorations are movie-related. Even the carpets and the wallpaper are pixelated designs based on film from top-grossing movies.

The building’s central core is dominated by two giant video screens, one visible from the first and second floors, the other from the third and fourth. Stair-stepping down to each screen are broad ash wood staircases, part steps for walking and part tiers for sitting that mirror stadium seating in AMC theaters. The massive screens continuously cycle through movie and internal communications, showcasing everything from staff anniversaries to videoconferencing.

Some of the employee amenities include a conference room that morphs into a yoga studio, a nursing room for mothers, an indoor bike-borrowing rack, a putting green on an outdoor deck, and multiple shared-space locations where people can choose to work.

Especially notable for privacy are noise-canceling banquettes, where, despite being in the building’s open central core, someone can have a private conversation without being heard outside the seats’ high walls.

Appreciation for individual privacy extends to the restrooms. Each self-contained stall has a sink next to its toilet and a full-sized door and walls, much like those found in top-drawer hotels.

Something that’s really cool — or warm — for anyone who’s fought battles over office thermostats: Each workspace has its own controllable air vent in the floor, the cover of which looks like (what else?) a film reel.

Shared spaces used for group meetings, company parties and community gatherings include a full bar, a large outdoor balcony with a fire pit, and flexible furniture arrangements.

One of the coolest day-to-day things is the attention paid to each floor’s kitchenette. The company has “gone green” by using metal silverware and glass dishware instead of disposable utensils and plates. AMC solved the age-old problem of co-workers leaving dirty dishes in the sink by eliminating big, flat-bottomed sinks in favor of narrow, sloping aluminum ditches. The skinny spots allow a rinse before depositing dirties in quiet, fast-cycle dishwashers under the counter. Note, too, the magnetic rims on the trash receptacles that capture any carelessly tossed silverware.

A stocked food area includes healthy food options, a kiosk to pay with a swipe of one’s ID card, and a drawer labeled with a red cross and filled with emergency medical supplies.

Most important throughout the building, said Michele Mattoon, AMC’s manager of office services, “We tried to break down the feeling of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’”

The building follows the trend of having almost all private offices in the middle and shared work spaces around the windows. And, if managers got to pick a color for one of their office walls, other workers got to pick their colors for seat cushions atop their mobile pedestal files in personal work spaces. Giving workers a buy-in for their environment makes for happier campers, Mattoon said.

FishNet Security

After FishNet Security decided in 2011 to move into an existing building on Sprint Corp.’s Overland Park campus, it spent a year gutting and redesigning the interior space to accommodate its needs as a leading information technology security firm.

Emphasis on security.

What looks like a typical clear-glass-walled conference room will, with a flick of a wall switch, become a frosted-glass room so that passers-by can’t see what or who is in the room. An added cool factor for the product, made by a British company, ProDisplay: the glass doubles as a whiteboard to scribble notes.

“The client guests we bring in are executives from some of the very largest companies in the world,” said Mark Williams, FishNet’s president and chief operating officer. “We don’t want to look like a Best Buy with a bank of TV screens stuck all over. We need to wow.”

FishNet’s renovation of the former Sprint building devoted 21,000 square feet out of its 100,000-square-foot space to a sophisticated “executive briefing center to showcase our capabilities,” Williams said. “We roll out the red carpet with A-1 space done with a purpose.”

The wow comes easily in an auditorium used to show clients what FishNet does. The centerpiece is a 37-foot by 7-foot video touch screen, which the company believes is the largest in a corporate environment anywhere in the world.

With a finger touch from someone standing at the screen, the company can, for example, show a map with pins representing a real-time depiction of known malicious IT addresses anywhere in the world. But the real stunner is that with another touch the giant video screen can transform into glass that reveals FishNet’s actual 24/7 IT security monitoring center behind the screen, a super-secret glimpse into the company’s operational core.

As might be expected, access to sensitive operations requires biometric matching of authorized workers. The most secret space in the building is its “crime lab” used for IT forensics — “to chase the bad breaches,” Williams said.

The surroundings aren’t just supposed to impress visitors, though. Attention also was paid to making a better work experience for about 300 employees.

“If you’re a security engineer, we’ve invested millions on the resources you’d want to do your job,” Williams said. “It’s a huge recruiting tool. … There are about 100,000 more jobs available in our industry than there are qualified applicants. We’re competing for the best people, so our conference rooms are really nerdy. When we bring people in for interviews, we need to impress them with lots of interactive screens, to wage a marketing campaign. We put on a show, and we rarely lose a recruit. … It’s like giving kids access to a candy store.”

The FishNet offices include a professional-grade studio to produce IT security videos in-house. The $600,000 to $700,000 spent on the studio has paid for itself, Williams said, given that the company no longer has to outsource video production and that clients now rent the studio to produce their own videos.

“And we have no trouble recruiting production folk,” he chuckled.

Given the nature of the work, FishNet has employees on the job 24/7. Midnight munchies can be a problem if Sprint campus food facilities or area restaurants are closed.

“When we asked employees what they wanted in the new building, the biggest thing was subsidized vending,” Williams said. And the machines stock plenty of standard junk food and soda pop — also requested by employees.

FishNet moved to the Overland Park location from several sites in Kansas City’s Crossroads area. Williams said some employees weren’t completely sold on the move or had a bit of nostalgia about the original locations. To ease the transition, the company installed mock street signs, hanging from the ceiling above aisles in all the cubicle work spaces. Someone can direct people to a cubicle by saying, “I work at 17th and Walnut,” or whatever faux cross street is closest.

Because of its Sprint campus location, FishNet workers have access to the campus gym, food services and other amenities, so the company didn’t duplicate those extras in-house. It focused more effort on the actual work spaces for employees and the showcase for clients.

Like other newer offices, said John Van Blaricum, FishNet vice president of marketing, “We’ve tried to make a nice environment where people want to work. We’re a fast-growing, dynamic organization, and we want to have fun, too.”

SPECIAL REPORT: Kansas City's downtown development boom

To reach Diane Stafford, call 816-234-4359 or send email to stafford@kcstar.com.

Cubicles and campuses

Office cubicles, designed to cut down noise between desks, grew out of the 1960s. But grew isn’t exactly the right description. Cubicle sizes actually began shrinking as early as the 1970s. And they’re getting even smaller as companies cut down on personal space in favor of group work space, such as various sized conference rooms and food service areas. Many newly designed cubicles are 6 feet by 6 feet instead of what had been 8 feet by 8 feet.

Cubicle walls, varying from about 31/2 feet tall to 51/2 feet tall, usually are fabric-covered — for sound absorption or to use as bulletin boards of a sort — or made of white board that can be used to scribble notes or be teamed with magnets for a different kind of bulletin board. Some cubicles are outfitted with a personal locker or coat closet cabinet. Some have room for a visitor chair or bench. Most have some attention to ergonomic alternatives, such as adjustable desk chairs. The poshest options include adjustable-height worktops, standing desks or treadmill desks.

Regardless of size or configuration, the cubicle remains an office staple, even in many so-called open environments. “Dilbert” cartoons shared the comic side of cubicle culture with everyone. One comic cubicle legacy: The rise of “prairie dogging” as a term describing heads popping up over cubicle walls to see what’s going on.

The concept of an office campus, in which a single company erects buildings in a complex similar to a college quadrangle, emerged in the 1940s. Bell Labs, General Electric and General Motors were among the early office campus creators, primarily for their research and development departments.

The office campus quickly moved to suburbia, where real estate developers created parklike enclaves for multiple tenants, allowing many smaller companies to enjoy the same environmental ambience. But the modern office campus remains characterized by single companies (Google and Facebook being prime examples) that offer multiple personal-service amenities for their employees. The extras include on-site food service, exercise facilities, medical offices, dry cleaning services and child care — all designed to make it easier for workers to come to work and stay at work.

Diane Stafford, stafford@kcstar.com

Related stories from Kansas City Star

  Comments