Redefining the Workplace

"BLAAP-BLAAP-BLAAP-BLAAP." Click.

For most of us, you know the drill. One leg. Pop. Then the other. Creek. Shuffle to the bathroom. Reach for the toothbrush. Pull on clothes set out the night before. Start the car, and join the morning rush hour as you head towards the 4'x5' piece of real estate you call "Home" 40 hours a week.

But is cubefarmland really the most productive work environment? A couple of Cincinnati companies don't think so. In fact, one organization laid out a cube farm in its original office space, and, over time, realized that many creative ideas got trapped inside these cubes. The bottom line, although not explicitly stated to me, cubes carried a high opportunity cost. They had to go. And along with them, a number of other office artifacts considered "conventional." Another organization built an open work space from inception, as the group that facilitates use of the space had experience in designing environments that unlock creativity and focus tremendous energy on solving a problem.

WonderGroup and LAUNCHFORCE
One step off the elevator on the 11th floor of 312 Plum and you're overwhelmed with color. Not just color for color's sake, but darker hues – olives, oranges, and reds, with wood accents. I want to work here. "Here" is the offices of WonderGroup, a digital 360 advertising agency dedicated to understanding moms and their children, and LaunchForce, a highly creative innovation consultancy.

Chief Creative Officer, Matt Fischer, greets me in a lobby replete with complimentary m&m's. A glance to my right and I'm treated to a breathtaking view of Paul Brown Stadium along the Ohio River. If I were a client, I'd want all my meetings here. Top Cat and CEO, Tim Coffey, and top-notch designer, Bethany Baar, lead me through the compelling space.

"This is our living room, now," says Coffey of the kitchen area, an space full of modern bar stools and tables, stainless steel appliances, a countertop and bar that extends the length of the room, and suspended lighting. Kitchen may not be the right word. Perhaps a café with a modern flare. Like the gathering place in most homes, this has become the central meeting place where both companies co-mingle and collaborate to generate new ideas. Collaborating around a water cooler becomes too constrained. A non-descript conference room? Too sterile. A space like this becomes necessary as it enhances the creative process and provides a natural gathering place. Yes, a gathering place becomes a productivity enhancer, not a time waster. On the bar sits a bowl of fresh fruit, available for whoever would like some.

Coffey and Baar continue the tour. A number of offices line the outside walls. They point out that these are conference rooms, each with its own theme, and available for anyone's use. Soft couches, comfortable chairs, indirect lighting, cutting edge multimedia, rolling whiteboards, these rooms provide both the physical and mental space to create. Each has its own name: The Pub, The Links, The Beach, The Can… After all, where do you do your best thinking? Subtly adorning the wall of The Shower, "Everyone who's ever taken a shower has an idea. It's the person who gets out of the shower, dries off and does something about it who makes a difference." And then there is the Swass conference room. Yeah, I was afraid to ask. Apparently it gets hot in there. Let's just say the "Sw" stands for "sweaty." These spaces unlock the value in collaboration rather than paying homage to the formality of corporate hierarchy. It's the customer that matters, not one's position. Coffey and Baar designed the space to serve the customer's needs first.

With the exception of some confidential accounting functions, everyone gets an open area workspace. "We tried offices and cubes, but they were tall and it was difficult to see anyone else." And no natural light could get in. So Coffey spent $75,000 developing the most effective lighting systems to support his digital workforce. Kudos to him for giving in when the software developers, creative directors, and copy writers simply turned the switch off as they preferred working in the dark. The space provides both "continuity and the flexibility to work in different kinds of environments." It works for them, and it produces for their customers. In the cut-throat world of consulting, making your people more productive increases value, and Coffey has spared no expense in doing so.

Everyone gets a set of noise cancelling headphones, although I doubt the headphones would help much with the gong. Yes, the gong. As I finished my time with Mr. Coffey and Ms. Baar, they rang the gong that signified a new deal had been won. And to my delight, heads started popping out like groundhogs from everywhere wondering what just happened.

P&G's the clay street project
Speaking of gongs, my next stop was P&G's the clay street project in Over-the-Rhine. Imagine you had one problem to solve. Just one. Probably a big one. Big enough that you had to throw away your suit, leave your BlackBerry at home, forget about your laptop, and assign every other work responsibility you have to someone else. For three months. Really. Just you and your team with no distractions, no hierarchy, no titles, and one problem to solve. Could you do this in a partitioned space where you rarely saw your co-workers and only interacted from time to time? Probably not, and there you have the panacea that is P&G's the clay street project.

P&G collaborates often with The Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce in efforts to grow OTR. They have contributed quite a bit to the revitalization of the area, and having a physical presence in OTR just makes sense. Barbara Hauser met me outside the the clay street project lofts and escorted me into the facility to meet Karen Hershenson and Jason Born, two of the project's facilitators. Similar to WonderGroup, the clay street project's environment is designed around open spaces that give participants the physical and mental space to collaborate. Yet this space is more subdued, more a living space than a working space. And in that space human connections are made.

Picture a loft space with hardwood floors and exposed wooden beams. The color green seems to permeate the creative spaces while earth tones accent the conversation areas. Teams did not make use of the facility the day I visited, but it was not difficult to imagine people collaborating, throwing corn-hole bags, rolling around on exercise balls, meditating on the beautiful rooftop, and, yes, hammering the gong, as they threw off the daily fetters of work to focus on The One Thing.

Ringing the gong, I am told, is a reverent call to action. Teams circle up to plan the day together, and by the end of a day filled with everything from yelling and jumping to walls of post-it notes and silent thought, the team makes progress. And right there is the key. Progress isn't necessarily coming up with the big idea. According to Hershenson and Born, the idea is easy. It's building the team that requires effort and time. The team will then create the idea. The space facilitates team-building as it removes all the barriers to face-to-face interaction and requires each participant's full attention. Contrast that with corporate meetings where participants constantly check BlackBerry devices and clack away on their laptops. The clay street project is real productivity on hyper-drive.

A new team experiences a stretching of their minds at first - an immersion, an introduction to concepts and ideas that will serve as tools available to solve the problem. Then the team learns to express and form ideas, getting them out of their heads. They unlearn multitasking and learn how to go slow. It's a shock factor as "you peel away the way you work." With time, the team connects, and in the end works at whirlwind speed, accomplishing more than they ever could in the physically and mentally confining space of an antiseptic conference room.

With a nod to the formal corporate culture, and the fact that Culture eats Strategy for Lunch, time at  the clay street project is limited to three months. The value of the clay street project. is that some of P&G's stickiest and most difficult problems receive their deserved attention. Rather than allow the short-sightedness of conventional thinking, executive management understands that large problems cannot be solved without devoted people and the space that frees their minds.

Photography by Scott Beseler
Wonder Group office
Clay Street, P&G

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