Corridor companies open up for well-being

Pearson employees Ashley Peterson-DeLuca, Anne Parmley and Mary Beth Hayes chat in one of Pearson’s open meeting spaces at its facility in Iowa City. PHOTO CLAIRE KRAMER


By Claire Kramer

The open office trend is certainly nothing new, but how companies are looking at it might be.

The movement away from cubicles to­ward airy, open spaces took hold more than a decade ago as companies looked to boost collaboration and productivity. Walls were knocked down, privacy pan­els were thrown out and ping-pong tables proliferated, all in the name of super­charging creativity and team chemistry.

As the open office trend has matured, companies, including those in the Corri­dor, are also realizing it has the potential to impact employees’ happiness and gen­eral well-being.

Educational publisher Pearson recently underwent an 18-month renovation and update of its building at 2510 N. Dodge St. in Iowa City. There’s not a cubicle in sight, and natural light fills the space, reflecting off brightly colored accent walls inspired by Iowa’s vistas. Around every corner, different plants separate seating areas or workspaces, each featuring a tag with the name of the plant species.

Workspaces have also been organized into “neighborhoods,” according to Mary Beth Hayes, a senior project manager of client services with the company.

“It opens up your network of emotional substance, and educational and intellectual substance to a broader audience,” Ms. Hayes said. “If you have a question, you are able to just turn and see somebody’s face, rather than having to pick up a phone and not know what they look like and hope that you get an answer.”

Converge Consulting’s office in NewBo

While Pearson’s facility houses almost 1,000 employees, that same feeling can be found in smaller businesses working in open office spaces, such as Converge Consulting, based in the Geonetric building in Cedar Rapids’ NewBo neighborhood.

Marketing Director Megan Bys said that the nature of Converge’s creative work for colleges and universities makes a collaborative space imperative. With a smaller staff, the firm’s office is more flexible, and Ms. Bys said that the firm’s employees switch workspaces every two months. Converge CEO Ann Oleson and President Jay Kelly work in the open space with their employees.

“You won’t find them in a corner office,” Ms. Bys said.

Converge is currently in the process of designing a new space, which will feature the same open concept, but will include more space for privacy – an area Mr. Kelly said is lacking in the current office.

“Where we’re struggling here is that we ran out of space for phone calls, talking to clients, so we’ve got dedicated spaces for that [in the new office],” he said.

Creating emotional space
The open office trend has been anecdotally credited with improving communication and approachability, but area executives also acknowledged that it’s difficult to measure their return on investment, especially when it comes to promoting mental and emotional health in the workplace.

“I just look Megan [Bys] in the face and see if she’s happy,” Mr. Kelly joked before adding that the firm generally measures the success of its space by employee retention metrics.

Anne Parmley, Iowa general manager at Pearson, also looks at retention and hiring rates as an indicator of emotional wellness within its workplace. She said that the new space makes the company itself a more appealing place to work, and is more attractive to potential hires.

“It provides Pearson the ability to compete for talent within the Corridor because there are so many fresh and new buildings,” Ms. Parmley said, adding that newer office spaces are the norm in the Corridor, largely due to the floods of 2008.

Kim Augspurger, owner and president of commercial design firm Saxton Inc. said crafting spaces that engage and empower employees has come to the forefront of business priorities, calling it a “seismic shift from process-centric to people-centric.”

“You can’t create the culture that you need to be successful if you don’t have a place that gives you that framework to connect and feel like you belong,” she said.

Kadie Yale is editor of Interiors + Sources magazine, a commercial interiors magazine published by Cedar Rapids-based Stamats Communications. She has researched the psychological effect of office spaces for years, and says that giving employees the freedom and ability to work together as needed is mentally empowering.

“What [this trend] is showing is that space is willing to allow you to collaborate and get to know each other, which is psychologically healthier,” Ms. Yale said. “It makes you feel more like a team, and makes you feel like you belong.”

Ms. Yale acknowledged that while open offices have been the trend, the lack of privacy and sound buffering can sometimes prove to be counterproductive. A 2000 study by Cornell University found that noise in the workplace can contribute to “physiological and motivational induces of stress.”

“Acoustics are what we’re seeing right now to make people feel like the open office isn’t completely open,” she said.

Ms. Yale also noted that in an open space, there may be a lack of ownership over a workspace and more anxiety over being on display at all times. For this reason, companies including Pearson and Converge have built or are planning to build closed spaces for phone calls, silent work or private meetings.

Companies are also beginning to experiment with the addition of natural elements and motifs in their office spaces as a way to improve employees’ well-being.

According to Ms. Yale, even the suggestion of nature is healthier than a blank wall. Designers are accomplishing this through products like vinyl flooring that captures the appearance of wood to lighting that better adheres to humans’ natural circadian rhythms. Pearson has adopted that approach with their natural Iowa-themed sections.

“It will become something that everyone is so aware of that they’re doing it without even thinking,” Ms. Yale said of the trend, likening wellness to sustainability, which has become a standard mode of operation for most companies. “People are going to go into offices and even if they don’t know why they feel bad in that space, they’re going to know, and they won’t want to work there.”