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For Rich Products' tech staff, cubicles are out, 'neighborhoods' are in

In Rich Products' refurbished information services department, few employees have assigned desks. But they have plenty of places to choose from to do their work.

They can sit at workstations equipped with dual monitors. They can take a seat in a comfortable chair, a meeting room or the social area near the kitchen, where sparkling water is on tap. If employees really need to focus, they can head into the "cloud room," illuminated by cloud-shaped lights, where talking and phone calls aren't allowed.

The new format is about as far as you can get from the sea of cubicles that used to populate this part of Rich's corporate offices on Niagara Street. Like some other employers, Rich has embraced a more "flexible" office layout, scrapping the assigned-seating system in favor of a variety of options.

The changes highlight the importance the $4 billion food products company is placing on technology and the employees who drive those operations.

Rich recently hired a new chief information officer, Yexi Liu, a veteran of industrial manufacturing companies. Meanwhile, Rich is preparing for a change at the top, with Richard Ferranti set to take over as CEO in January from William Gisel Jr., as part of a planned transition.

Rich has been steadily renovating its corporate offices, and information services was ready for its turn. The old layout was indistinguishable from many workplaces, consisting rows of cubicles separated by 6-foot-high walls. As planning for renovations got underway, Rich officials decided it was time for something completely different.

"It kind of dawned on us that we were redesigning the building for what we needed a year ago or five years ago," said Jon Zirnheld, manager of manufacturing systems and automation engineering. Rich officials toured some area workplaces, like 43North, IBM's offices at Fountain Plaza, and Sodexo, to gather ideas.

What Rich ended up creating wasn't the "open-office" format found in some workplaces, but instead "neighborhoods" – different sections set up to suit different styles of working. Rich recognized that workers sometimes need a place to get together to work, and other times, quiet space with no distractions. The new format accommodates that range of needs, designed to be appealing to tech workers who are much in demand.

"You're not trapped in a cubicle all day," Zirnheld said. "If you need a certain space to work or go collaborate with someone, you have that."

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The new format would be a significant change for the roughly 95 information services workers at Rich. Only 19 of them would have "resident" desks, making the rest of the workers "nomadic." They select a place to work from one day to the next. Each employee is assigned a storage locker for their belongings, and a bag for carry their computer, a headset for phone calls and other items.

For all the advantages Rich pitched – different ways to work, many more meeting rooms and more natural light streaming into the offices – Zirnheld knew some employees would need convincing.

"A lot of those people were the apprehensive ones around, 'You're changing what I've known for 30 years. We're a family company. What are we doing? Where's the picture of my kid going?' " he said.

Rich recruited a team of employees to involve them in implementing the changes and communicate with co-workers. Zirnheld gave the employees a 45-day pledge: try the new format for 45 days, after which the company would gather feedback and see what adjustments needed to be made.

Jon Zirnheld, manager of manufacturing systems, said the company wanted to give employees different ways to work. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

The company was a stickler for details. Rich installed easy-to-reach power outlets where employees would sit to work, so they could plug in and get going. At employees' insistence, all of the workstations, instead of just some of them, were equipped with dual monitors. And the furniture throughout the floor had to be just right.

"There's not one piece of furniture that I didn't sit in before I let the purchase order go out," Zirnheld said.

Among the rules employees had to get accustomed to: no eating at the desks. Zirnheld said the reason was twofold.

"The No. 1 thing that makes new things look old is stains," he said. "We don't want to ruin what we've just built."

Rich also wanted to encourage employees to take time out to eat, away from their work, Zirnheld said. "There's a lot of surveys and research showing overworking doesn't lead to better performance." And when employees cross paths and talk to each other, they might have "creative collisions" that lead to new ideas, he said.

The revamped information services department has all kinds of seating options. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Some other features of the revamped workspace:

  • White noise controlled by dials. The sound is similar to an air conditioning unit, generating background noise without being distracting.
  • One meeting room is equipped with stools that are deliberately uncomfortable, with the purpose of moving things along. "This is not meant to be a long-haul, half-hour meeting," Zirnheld said. "This is meant to be, 'get in, get out.' "
  • Another meeting room has a table shaped so that everyone standing around it can make eye contact with each other.
  • The sparkling water tap in the kitchen has proven so popular, employees walk there from other parts of the building to fill their containers.
  • Meeting rooms featuring "distraction graphics." The glass walls have enough markings on them to provide for privacy, but still allow someone passing by to see if the room is in use before barging in.

One of the people who has settled into the new format is Liu, who joined Rich in July as its new CIO. He described the approach as open and collaborative. "That type of environment is appealing for our new generation of workers," he said. "I think those things are important to them."

Senior programming analyst Meghan Downey catches up on a report in the "Cloud" room at Rich Products. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Liu has one of those "resident" desks, or assigned seats, on the floor. Under the old setup, managers and directors occupied closed-door offices along the windows that blocked sunlight from streaming deeper into the offices. The higher-ups' new offices are more open now, preserving some privacy for them while sharing the daylight with everyone else.

After the changes were fully implemented earlier this year, Rich surveyed its information services employees about their impressions. They were asked things like how much they enjoyed it, how easy it was to work "nomadically," and how easy it was to collaborate. All of the scores on day 45 compared to day one, Zirnheld said.

"I don't think there's any associates that really want to go back to their 10-by-10 cubicles, not after having this," he said.

Work stations in the department were set up with identical equipment. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

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