KTGY Irvine – Architects say their new office space design pays off

The Orange County Register

April 17, 2016

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The modern, open office space – you know, what some might call the cubicle farm – filled with worker bees and executives has almost as many detractors as fans.

Now, count Tricia Esser as a huge advocate.

You might say that touting the benefits of modern office design serves Esser’s job as chief executive of the KTGY architecture firm from Irvine pretty well.

But Esser isn’t an advocate of open office spaces because of KTGY’s book of business – her firm primarily designs housing and shopping centers. Rather, Esser’s appreciation of these new workplace designs comes from real-life experience.

Seven months ago, KTGY made a 2-mile move across Irvine from its crowded, low-rise headquarters of 11 years on Fitch near the 55 freeway to a spacious, two-floor setting in a midrise office tower off Von Karman.

Why? The company had grown to a local staff of 147 workers, with 209 more workers in offices across the nation and in India. Plus, KTGY could sell its old headquarters and free up capital to invest elsewhere, as it’s now a renter.

The new offices have classic touches of the so-called “creative workspace.”

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The space is bright and airy and heavy on technology, meeting rooms and signature-gathering places. Gone are rows of window-hogging executive offices.

The theory behind the modern, collaborative office space is that a friendlier, open space creates more opportunity for everyday worker interaction. That’s supposed to raise creativity and levels of innovation.

If that’s just all talk, there’s a bottom-line reality to these alluring offices.

As the economy has improved, and talented workers become a scarce resource, office space has become part of the retention and recruitment game.

Esser says the bump in workplace morale at KTGY was tangible from day one after the move – not to mention favorable buzz among industry peers, clients and want-to-be employees. That ramp-up in company productivity continues to this day, Esser says.

“The idea has been that creative space will elevate your discussions. After living it, it does,” Esser says. “I wasn’t sure it could make such a difference.”

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Can a fancy coffee station, couches, a large-screen TV and a pingpong table make that much of a difference in how workers interact? It’s not just the quality of conversations, Esser says. The energy level is perceptibly higher. And it’s not just good design.

“The employee is thinking differently. They see their company investing in them, so it ups the game,” Esser says. “Even as an owner, I feel differently. I feel I have to take my game up to match the new offices.”

The open-office thesis does have its detractors from across a globe’s worth of cubicle farms.

Academic studies have questioned the bottom-line value to the loss of worker privacy, especially for high-ranking managers.

Some folks complain the interaction created by low-walled cubicles makes the office too busy for clear thinking and leads to time-sucking distractions.

Others says the supposed collaboration boost is just a smokescreen for penny-pinching corporations cramming more workers into smaller spaces.

Esser is keenly aware of the CEO’s powerful aura in the workplace.

She no longer sits in an “executive” office, rather her workstation is much like most other employees’. And there are plenty of meeting rooms at KTGY for conversations that require privacy or might interrupt the daily work flow.

Esser knows her frequent presence among her staff could hinder the ability for frank, over-the-cubicle wall chatter – if she isn’t careful.

A common criticism of modern “open” office design in which executives sit among the front-line staff is that the presence of high-ranking managers dulls the staff interactions the collaborative spaces are designed to stimulate. But Esser says it’s imperative for bosses to break down this old-school communications barrier.

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“The CEO can be isolated,” Esser says.

Today’s effective executive has the real-time pulse on his or her business. Hearing the daily business chatter from the troops, unfiltered by levels of management – is a key tool. Too often, CEOs only get fed the good news.

And it’s not just industry insights Esser seeks out. The health and welfare of her staff – from both a workplace and a family standpoint – is also a concern.

Getting employees the help they need, as soon as they can, makes for a better company, she says.

And, yeah, “I want to hear the gossip, too,” she admits.

Some of these communication barriers may wear off over time, as employees get more comfortable with the brass working nearby in open spaces.

But in that same timeframe, the novelty of the new space may wear off – just like the buzz of any novel tool that eventually becomes an operational basic.

Esser says she’s already thinking about ways to keep the extra energy that the new offices have generated – whether that be new workplace routines or the need to constantly update the look and feel of the offices.

“The big question: How long does the energy last?”