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Banking, Finance & The Workplace

Out with the old office and in with new, hip spaces

The office in Buffalo is getting a whole lot cooler.

No, I don't mean the temperature is going down. I'm talking about the trendiness and "hip factor" of the environments in which people work.

It's not exactly a real hot and sexy topic, but the office is where many of us spend the majority of our working days. And what's coming out now aren't your parents' work spaces.

To attract and retain a younger workforce, and in recognition of changing habits and desires, employers are redesigning their offices to make them brighter, fun and especially more conducive to collaboration. It's not just about the colors or textures, but the configuration, feel and features.

The goal is to support a happier and more comfortable employee, who in turn will be more productive. And it's what the new workforce is seeking, as they evaluate whether their employer or potential employer is keeping up with the trends. That's critically important given the talent competition that Buffalo faces.

"Those are the new decision-makers," said Jill Pawlik, spokeswoman for Uniland Development Co., one of the region's biggest office-space developers.

That's not to say that every workplace has been revolutionized. Many – like The Buffalo News' newsroom – remain just the same as they've been for years, or even decades. For others, the changes can be slow and gradual – especially for more traditional employers that may be hesitant about radical transformations.

But the trend is clear. Out are the walled-in private offices, drab desks, uncomfortable chairs, bland carpeting and high cubicles. Here come more vivid designs, open spaces, "convening" or gathering areas, "resimercial" soft seating, conference "booths," and even recreational, dinette or relaxation zones to encourage employees to take that break and move around, so they can refresh their minds for the next task.

"That is a big piece of what we're seeing here," said Melissa Brinson, director of marketing, communications and business development at Millington Lockwood Business Interiors, which recently rebranded its interior design division, AMP Interior Construction. "It really is about tailoring the work environment to the individual."

 

That's particularly the case for incubator spaces or new offices for technology firms and startups, which are known for the youth of their workforce. Pingpong or pool tables, foosball, air hockey and other games are common features, allowing workers to blow off some steam and have a little fun in between cranking out code or designing new technology applications. But so are the bright colors, funky art, comfy chairs or couches, and central meeting spaces where coworkers can work out issues together.

"The heavy tech users need not just the physical break for their bodies, but for their eyes as well," Brinson said. "So those spaces have become extremely popular with the employees, and they're becoming more and more the expectation, that a firm would have a place like that where employees can go and unwind."

Take Uniland's new Hansa co-working space on Ellicott Street. That's a bit of a head-scratcher name, but it's Latin for "guild," meaning uniting people for a common purpose – in this case, to share space. The facility will offer separate offices or suites as options, but there also will be an open space with tables and desks that can be shared, as well as other alternatives such as quiet phone booths, meeting and multipurpose rooms, and lounge areas.

"We’ve designed areas for multiple uses to provide the most flexibility to meet the demands of today’s workforce," said Mary Hazlett, Uniland's interior designer. "You choose where to work based on what you’re doing."

Located in a former warehouse that Uniland is renovating, Hansa will feature what the developer calls a "chic industrial interior design and the fusion of modern office and residential furniture and decor." The decor will vary from meeting room to meeting room, with different lighting, carpeting and wallpaper. There also will be a meditation room.

"Every work zone has a design focus to create its own look and feel," Hazlett said. "Office design is no longer a one-size-fits-all model."

Or look at what Rich Products Corp. did with its refurbished information services department. The Buffalo food-service company revamped the space, taking out the rows of cubicles with six-foot-high walls and replacing them with a range of options – workstations with dual monitors, a comfortable chair, a meeting room or the social area near the kitchen, or the new illuminated "cloud room" where there's no talking or phone calls allowed.

That, in turn, was based on what other companies did, including Sodexo. Great Lakes Orthodontics also redid its break room and cafeteria space as part of an expansion two years ago and now it "looks like something you'd see on a real hip college campus," Pawlik said.

"There are fewer and fewer instances where private offices really make sense," Brinson said. "People are just becoming accustomed to moving. They like that flexibility, where they're not anchored to a desk."

Marketing firms Martin Group and Crowley Webb each completed major renovations of their downtown office space that gave a modern lift and airy feel to older buildings.

Most significantly, M&T Bank Corp. and developer Douglas Jemal are working on the bank's new technology hub at Jemal's Seneca One tower, which will eventually house 1,500 M&T employees on two sprawling pedestal levels and 11 floors of the high-rise. It will be joined by technology business competition 43North and its portfolio companies.

That space hasn't been designed yet, as the parties seek bids for the work. But the expectation is that both M&T and 43North will follow the same trends.

"They really understand that employees coming to work have a completely different set of expectations of what their working environment will look like," Brinson said. "They're responding to their workforce, and all of the companies that are really smart will be doing that."

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