Changing a Company’s Status Quo Through Workplace Design

At a recent Metropolis Think Tank talk hosted by the Atlanta office of Gensler, architects and experts discussed how sensitive disruption can increase productivity.
Think Tank atlanta gensler workplace

The planted courtyard at Coca-Cola’s 2 million-square-foot Atlanta headquarters, designed by Gensler. Courtesy Garrett Rowland

For architects and interior designers, it can be challenging to find the pulse of a particular organization to leverage in a workplace design. “We can’t just go in there acting like we know the DNA,” observed architect Michael Lutz at a recent Metropolis Think Tank talk hosted by the Atlanta office of Gensler. To do so might risk damaging a company’s culture.

But if wielded sensitively, disruption—that is, to break the status quo without tearing the fabric of things—can be a positive motivator, Lutz explained. As a design director and senior associate at Gensler, he has lent his powers of delicate disruption to soda giant Coca-Cola, tech company NCR, and Fitzco, Coke’s branding firm, all of whose Atlanta headquarters were designed by Gensler.

Gensler has also spearheaded designs for the likes of Facebook and The Washington Post. The team planned the social media colossus’s one-million-square-foot campus to mimic the improvised nature of Facebook’s inception, with a “work in progress” aesthetic—plywood ceiling, concrete floors, shop lighting. For the Post, the architects devised an office layout that accentuates the bold black-and-white elements of the print news business while also knocking down walls to foster a free-flowing editorial workforce.

Think Tank atlanta gensler workplace

An architect at Gensler’s Atlanta office walks visitors through a project in development. Courtesy Gensler

That doesn’t mean the trappings of a heritage brand should badger employees. At the new headquarters of NCR, formerly a cash register creator and manufacturer, you will not find a hall of cash registers, said global occupancy planning director Julian Tablada. The goal, he added, “was to be reserved and not splash [the brand] everywhere.” In the same vein, Gensler was careful to avoid design references to Coke’s marketing materials (those polar bears, for instance); moreover, office spaces are not designated according to the names of Coke’s sub-brands, such as Fanta and Sprite, which are also housed in the space.

Coke did lean on the hybrid spaces and social condensers so popular in contemporary office design. Its new HQ has focus rooms, huddle rooms, a pool table, even a coworking café. But a slyer form of disruption originally took some getting used to: The company’s modernized headquarters allotted space for an on-site medical care center. The results have been “positive,” reported Julie Seitz, Coke’s global director of workplace. “Some employees originally hesitated about using this amenity, stating, ‘Well, I don’t want the company knowing about my health situation.’” But their concerns were allayed because the medical care center is run independently by Emory Healthcare, not Coca-Cola, and the number of patient visits has exceeded expectations.

Think Tank atlanta gensler workplace

Gensler designed the corporate campus of tech company NCR in Atlanta’s Midtown neighborhood.  Courtesy Garrett Rowland

Every culture shift is attended by its own pangs. Fitzco CEO Matt Woehrmann discussed the company’s relocation from the tony neighborhood of Buckhead—he called it the “Rodeo Drive section of Atlanta”—to the site of an old slaughterhouse in West Midtown, an area that’s bustling with new development, yet far from posh. The physical disruption was striking for some employees, but bringing the corporate office to a place that better represented the city’s history, Woehrmann said, has had a positive effect on productivity and creativity, which potential hires should find enticing.

In each of these cases, the architects administered disruption in ways that encouraged collaboration, boosted productivity, and promoted talent retention. Still, it’s doubtless that, amid this flux, employees seek out some of the stereotypical aspects of office spaces. Figuring out a way to balance the need for new-age, “free address” workspaces with the desire to have a place to put up pictures of the family or paraphernalia from a favorite sports team is still something companies grapple with.

“I think this idea of self-expression is an interesting one,” mused Lutz, “and I don’t think we’ve solved for that.”

The Think Tank discussions were held on November 7 and 8, 2018, in Atlanta. The conversations were presented in partnership with Dormakaba, DXV/GROHE, DWR Contract, Lutron, Sunbrella Contract, and Wilsonart.

You may also enjoy “Forest for the Trees: Perkins+Will Brings Biophilic Design to an Atlanta Office.”

Categories: Think Tank, Workplace Interiors