116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
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From the outside, TrueNorth Insurance and Financial Strategies might just look like any other company.
But inside, the layout tells a different story.
On the second floor there are two lime green collaboration areas that each have a long sofa and two individual comfortable chairs. In the center is what appears to be a white "coffee" table, except this table can be written on and rotated to show notes to someone sitting on the other side.
The idea is to create an atmosphere similar to a coffee house where employees might go to to have a relaxed conversation.
When it made the move to its new location at 500 First St. SE in Cedar Rapids in November 2011, officials said the goal was to create a comfortable, welcoming, 21st century work environment for the 175 employees who now work there.
Their efforts go to the whole question of what makes for the ideal work environment. What's best for productivity, and what's best for your employees?
Sunnyvale, Calif.-headquartered Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer turned up the flame on the workplace discussion in February when she announced a companywide ban on telecommuting for its 11,300 employees - an internal memo that later was leaked.
Should telecommuting be offered to give employees maximum flexibility by working from home? Is it crucial for employees to interact face to face to achieve the best possible outcome?
Does a modern office with collaboration space mean employees will be more creative?
Improvement in culture
"One of things that we wanted to incorporate was really an openness, an environment that was inviting to all of our people when they came to work," said Duane Smith, TrueNorth's president. "One of the huge strategic byproducts has been the improvement in culture that we've had since we've moved.
"We've had some people that wanted to bring their sleeping bags to camp out after-hours."
There is certainly plenty of space to do that inside TrueNorth.
Instead the traditional break room, TrueNorth has built a space called the Compass Cafe. Restaurant-style booth-seating and tables create the feel of casual dining.
For colder days, there is a fireplace and lounge chairs with built-in table tops. Employees also can open the door to patio seating that overlooks the Cedar River.
Kirsten Eddins, TrueNorth director of marketing, pointed out that employees can have conversations in the office anywhere - be it the cafe, outside on the patio, or in the coffeeshop-like setting of the collaboration area.
"That's the catch-all word that everyone's using right now, which is collaboration," said Mark Hanson, president of M. Hanson & Co., an office furnishings dealership with locations in Cedar Rapids and Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and who consulted on the new TrueNorth offices.
"So the trend as far as the furniture goes is the work stations are shrinking, the footprint ... . So where we used to do 10-by-10s we're now doing six-by-sixes.
"The height of the panels if they're still doing workstations has come down dramatically. That's for collaboration."
The latest trend in workplace design, according to Hanson, is called "benching" or "desking." That's when desks are more open underneath and all attached.
"There may only be a screen between you and someone else that might only be just about eye-level," he said.
"A space that is bright and conducive to work and open, that fits the culture better of the organization, that employees feel excited about coming to, even honored, it gives them a sense of respect to be in a positive space, is really quite valuable to employee productivity, retention," John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, the Chicago-based outplacement consultant company, said in telephone interview. "People want to work in a place that gives them positive feelings."
Challenger said an upgraded or changed space energizes a company's work force.
"When you move to a new house or you build an addition in your house ..., it creates that kind of fresh-start quality that lifts people's spirits and rejuvenates them so it's great for a culture change," he said.
Challenger said spaces where people are encouraged to get together creates stronger relationships among people and more trust.
While telecommuting is advantageous in providing employees more flexibility in schedules, he added, companies need to balance that with schedules that bring people together regularly.
What employees need to succeed is autonomy, which is different than flexibility, according to one management expert.
"What we're debating right now is the wrong conversation," said Jody Thompson, Minneapolis-based co-author of "Why Managing Sucks and How to Fix It." "Right now we're debating who gets to work from home and who doesn't, and how do we categorize employees and which ones do we allow to do that.
"What we need to be talking about is how we get really clear with each and every person in terms of what their measurable results need to be."
Thompson advocates for what she calls "100 percent autonomy and 100 percent accountability." To achieve this, she said employers need to stop managing people and start managing the work.
"It sounds like, 'Oh, that makes sense,' but it's really hard for managers, based on the history of management, to stop controlling how people do the work and where they do the work," Thompson said.
"Having these big, wide-open offices that many organizations are moving towards, that in theory may be great, but some people really need to work in a quiet environment," said Roberta Matuson, of Matuson Consulting in Northampton, Mass.
"I know there are conference rooms set up and you can go into one of those. But I think everybody works differently, and so for some the idea of collaborating and having lots of people around can be great and for others it can be a huge distraction."
Matuson said she is an advocate of measuring on results, not face time.
"In order to hold people accountable, you have to tell them what your expectations are and you have to set measurements," she said.
She, too, said the key to success ties into management.
"A lot of leaders are very uncomfortable with confrontation, and so they don't set expectations because they then have to actually hold people accountable," she said. "So that's uncomfortable."