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Modern Office Designs for Fast-Growing Creative Companies That (Super)Power Their Work Cultures

Outsell's Post-It note wall of achievements, photo by Jasper Sanidad

Outsell's brand experience wall, photo by Jasper Sanidad

A collaborative space at Outsell, photo by Jasper Sanidad

Outsell's kitchen, photo by Jasper Sanidad

Outsell, photo by Jasper Sanidad

mono's open offices, photo by Chad Holder

mono office space, photo by Chad Holder

Collaboration space with a view at mono, photo by Chad Holder

The era of realizing your life’s work at one company is a thing of the past—at least for most of us. If we haven’t already, we’ll change jobs—perhaps even professions—many times during our best earning years. This new career mobility is fueled in part by technological innovation, a Millennial mindset that values digitally fueled collaboration and creativity, and the Baby Boomer generation’s desire (and often need) to keep working.

As a result, traditional workplace expectations and workspace design are being reinvented. Creative employers are teaming with innovative architecture and design firms to figure out new ways to attract and retain superior talent, show employees just how much they appreciate them, and inspire their staff to collaboratively develop fresh, applicable ideas for clients.
The answer, more often than not, involves designing an awesome workplace environment: One that not only provides technology rich spaces for heads-down work, spontaneous and planned interaction, and camaraderie, but that also reflects the company's brand, culture and the people at work within it. In this article reprinted with permission from Architecture Minnesota, we explore two great Minneapolis offices designed for 21st century workplace transparency, creativity and collaboration.
Outsell: Superhero lairs for collaborative tech workers
“Which conference room is our confab in today? Watchtower? Hall of Justice? Batcave? Oh, right: Fortress of Solitude.”
For employees of Outsell, which develops and markets interactive, analytical customer-service software for car companies and their dealerships, naming their collaboration spaces after superhero lairs is one perk of their new offices on the 32nd floor of Capella Tower in downtown Minneapolis.
Others include the fully stocked kitchen/cafe just off the elevator, with panoramic views of downtown, and the office’s clean, modern design, fully integrated with digital technology. There’s an iPad or iPod Touch in every meeting space—in case you forgot yours—where you can upload your work.
But there are plenty of low-tech touches, too: Several erasable whiteboard-painted walls are ready for spontaneous brainstorming; another wall is covered in Post-it Notes on which employees have scribbled their achievements and goals.
It’s the kind of environment you might expect from one of the fastest-growing companies in the U.S. (according to Inc.). Outsell has increased its revenue more than 400 percent and tripled its staff over the past three years.
“Our people are our most important asset by far,” says CEO Mike Wethington. So Outsell’s new offices, designed by Gensler Minneapolis, “give the best spaces to associates,” he explains.
Adds Gensler Minneapolis managing director Bill Lyons, Assoc. AIA: “The workspaces for Outsell’s highly skilled tech workers needed to attract and retain the best talent, all while integrating and reinforcing the company’s brand from the elevator all the way through to the individual workstations.”
The first thing employees and clients encounter when they exit the elevator is a long wall on which red and gray communication symbols ranging from smoke signals, Morse code and carrier pigeons to TVs, iPads and emoticons spell out “TRANSFORM.” “Because we’re engaging consumers through digital marketing software,” says Wethington, “we’re transforming the way our clients engage with their consumers.”
There’s also a low-tech, 25-foot-long Brand Experience Wall in the reception area, with 2,200 black-and-white wood blocks that staff can arrange to create client logos, messages or mission statements. “We’re a tech company with a lot of tech in our space,” says Wethington. “But I had to convince our management team not to fill the reception wall with TV screens” and go instead with the “analog” message board.
Gensler placed meeting areas, the cafe (which can be closed off with metal-coil drapery), shared support spaces and collaboration spaces—all nodes for interaction—along the main circulation path around the building’s core. All employees have a cube, including Wethington, but most work happens in the collaboration areas—or on the popular treadmill workstations.
All of the workspaces overlap, just like the circles in Outsell’s logo. And speaking of brand identity, Gensler used punches of blue, red and yellow throughout the office space to “bring this classic modern design together with Outsell’s brand colors,” says Gensler senior associate Betsy Vohs, Assoc. AIA.
Then there’s Bart’s Room, a glassed-in space named after Wethington’s former business partner, where technology is expressly prohibited. In fact, there’s a $100 fine if you’re caught. The room, says Wethington, “is for people to meet and talk face to face.”
And maybe relax in the red Saarinen Womb Chairs? “That doesn’t happen much around here,” he says with a smile.
mono: A cultural vibe of organizational meritocracy
Transparency is the talk of business these days. But few executives have made their commitment to the idea as visual and concrete as the owners of mono, an advertising agency based in Minneapolis’ Uptown neighborhood.
Last year, the fast-paced, fast-growing firm decided to make the move from the second floor of an old warehouse to the top floor of a new midrise a few blocks away. The new space—roughly 20,000 square feet, with 13-foot-high ceilings and 360-degree views of Minneapolis through wrap-around windows—would accommodate more employees, but it had to function the same way as the old mono space.
“We’re very multidisciplinary and inclusive in how we work and attack problems,” says Michael Hart, one of mono’s three owners. At the center of the agency’s old offices, for example, was a wall where creative concepts were posted, developed and distilled. Comments from all workers were encouraged.
To build out the newly leased space, mono retained Charlie Lazor, Assoc. AIA, of Lazor Office and Alex Haecker, AIA, of AWH Architects, both in Minneapolis. Lazor, who helped launch the modern-furnishings company Blu Dot and introduced the prefabricated FlatPak house to the market more than a decade ago, had previously worked with mono on its warehouse build-out.
Lazor and Haecker were charged with creating a design that promoted several of the key tenets of mono’s business philosophy: transparency, flexibility, meritocracy, simplicity. Executives also wanted the physical space to reinforce the idea of organizational flatness: Apart from a few key positions, everyone at mono changes desks every four months. Executives work alongside new hires and interns, rather than retreating to corner offices.
The resulting plan allows all staff to enjoy ample natural light from the windows. Partitions are few, so the views are wide. Employees sit at long counters rather than individual desks. Cables, wires and cords are bundled and hang from the ceiling. White finishes and metal trim give the space a clean, modern feel.
Lazor and Haecker reestablished the idea wall on either side of the floor’s mechanical core, with a metal-mesh drop ceiling to help set those spaces apart. Several feet above the drop ceiling is a layer of soundproofing material made of recycled blue jeans, to keep the pinup conversations from echoing. “We love the idea that there are 5,000 pairs of old blue jeans above us, helping make the creativity happen,” says Hart, with a laugh.
Creativity is also often fueled by food, so mono devoted a large area to a kitchen where employees can meet, make meals and gather for Monday meetings. A 40-foot-long table formed from a single western hemlock dominates the space. Lazor hand-finished the piece himself. “Cooking is vital to the life of this place,” he says.
The designers also used wood to soften the interior, infusing the space with some of the character employees had come to love about their old warehouse offices. They created conference rooms at two corners of the floor by stacking timbers like a child’s set of Lincoln Logs.
“It’s the simplest form of building,” notes Lazor. “You just take rough-sawn timber, stack it, screw down through the corners and repeat.” Glass between the logs helps block sound from the larger workspace. Sliding barn doors, painted the same blue hue as the mono logo, complete the rustic-modern enclosures.
Hart says the new space has made a big impression on people while promoting the company’s desire for transparency, flat structure, simplicity and egalitarianism. “You can understand how we work—our philosophy, our approach to work and our cultural vibe—almost within seconds of walking into the space.”
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