Six Keys to Ensuring Great Space

You’ve just signed a new lease or agreed to renew your existing one.  As you’ll be occupying this space for the foreseeable future, you want to make sure it not only supports your business operations, but also helps brand your firm and reinforce your corporate culture.   Today, space is not just a place where your employees come to work; it’s a tangible representation of who you are and, as a result, it will impact employee morale and retention and either be an asset or liability in helping you attract new talent.  Just as important, because real estate can represent one of a company’s largest line item expenditures, companies today are more judicious than ever about efficiently consuming space.  That means every foot of space must be justified.

With office space design becoming more important to companies, those charged with the execution of the office move (or renovation) need to approach the task with great care.  Tactix just executed our own transformative move to new space so we thought we’d share some thoughts and ideas with you that can help you with your next deal.

  1. Find the Right Design Firm. There are lots of great design firms in the region who have executed wonderful work environments for their clients. How do you pick the one that’s right for you?Some people feel that each design firm has its own style and that when they walk into a space, they can tell which firm designed it.  While design firm ideally take direction from their clients and then reflect the client’s vision into the space, clearly some firms have consistent components, materials or features in their work.To see if your style meshes with the design firms, visit one or two spaces they have recently worked on which they think is most representative of what you have described to them (i.e., open plan, cutting edge design, traditional etc.).   If they haven’t done something like what you want, they may not be the right firm for you.Most likely your broker will introduce you to several potential design firms and will propose that you invite them in to make presentations.  Use the interview process to test the creativity, flexibility and listening skills of the various design firms you are considering.  Most design firm pitches cover the basics: how they help you develop a space program, how they will facilitate the “visioning” process to define the aesthetic for your space, and how they document these ideas into actual plans.  Because they are all have the technical abilities to do the work, the presentations often sound the same and blend together by the end of the day of interviews.  After all, it’s not what they do that sets them apart (the steps they take are virtually the same), it’s how they do what they do.  As a result, try them out during the interview process by making it a working session.  Have them solve a problem in your existing design or come up with an idea to improve your current space.
  1. Give Your Design Team Direction. A good design firm will create exactly the look and feel you are looking for if you can clearly articulate your vision.In our case, we are a boutique brokerage firm who clients come to because we are NOT a big, institutional firm where they may feel anonymous.  They like that we’re smaller and have a more personal approach.  We wanted our space to reflect that distinction so we told our design team to create space where clients will feel like they are in our home among friends.  However, we told them that, in our case, we wanted “home” to feel like a Soho loft.  They nailed it.While this approach works great for those who know exactly what they want, what do you do if you don’t really know?  As more and more of our clients are telling us with regards to the rapidly changing landscape of space design and workplace layouts, “I don’t know what I don’t know.”  In these instances, start taking note of spaces you have seen (i.e., clients, peers, vendors or even in magazine photos) and like or don’t like. Share them with your designers.  Understand what message you want your space to convey to people and try to articulate that.The more direction you can provide them, the better the chance your space will meet your expectations and reflect your unique objectives. 
  1. Build a Representative Team of Stakeholders. Clients often ask us, “How many people should be on my real estate committee and who should I get input from in vetting our design?” It’s important to remember that change is very hard for people, especially in today’s world where the trend is to reduce people’s individual work space and often make their personal space less private.  It’s one thing to move to a new building or location and disrupt commuting, parking or eating/shopping patterns, it’s another to dramatically change someone’s personal work space.  Ultimately, you want space that helps people work better.  To ensure this happens, seek input from different departments and worker categories in the company.Law firms should seek input from their administrators on how secretaries/administrative assistants work.  Should they become shared resources available to a general population of attorneys or remain dedicated to a defined team of bosses?  How much surface area do they need for their work?  How much filing space do they need nearby and do they need a printer within arm’s reach?  Without understanding how people work, you can’t plan space to make them more efficient and that will cause problems.In assembling your team, remember, if you are asking for people’s input, you need to be prepared to listen to their suggestions and incorporate some of what they suggest.  That means you want to keep your team (or the group of people interviewed by your designers) relatively small.  You can’t accept everybody’s wish list and eventually you need to make decisions.
  1. Insist on Clarity from Your Design Team. Moving into your new space shouldn’t be a surprise. If you don’t fully understand what your space is going to look like, ask for more clarity.  While you will typically see test fits of your space (one-dimensional partition plans), pricing notes which reflect quality of materials and even sample boards showing color palates, fabrics and finishes, it’s often hard to visualize what the space will look like.  Given how important the space is to your business and how much money you will be spending to construct the space, you’re entitled to fully understand what you’re getting.Today, design firms have cutting edge technology which can enable you to take a virtual, three-dimensional tour through your space before it’s built.  In our case, we had our design team prepare artists renderings of what our space would look like as well as photos of similar spaces we could expect our space to look like.  The result:  no surprises. We got exactly what we were expecting on the design.The furniture can cause some unique issues.  If you can go to the showroom (more likely for larger tenants given the cost involved), you can actually touch and feel the exact product you will be purchasing.  In fact, in some instances, we have had furniture vendors set up mock offices in our client’s existing space featuring the new furniture systems and configurations so they could test drive the package before committing to it.  In our case, we sometimes needed to pick furniture based on photos or brochures and hope for the best.  Luckily for us, our designer knew our taste and we ended up loving what we got.  If you are picky, insist on seeing the actual product you are buying.
  1. Establish a Budget and Stick to It. Anyone can design beautiful space if money is no object. The real talent is designing great space within a fixed budget.  Figure out how much money you are prepared to spend on your “all in” move and work backwards from that number.  You’ll need to consider how much cash your landlord is providing you under your lease for Tenant Improvement dollars and make sure you cover all related project costs including: furniture, information technology, audio visual, moving, artwork, design and project management fees and even the landlord’s “supervisory fees”, if any.Once you determine how much money you can afford to spend on “bricks and sticks” construction, make sure your design firm buys into this budget and commits to work within it.  Create a process whereby you have interim checks on pricing as the design progresses so that you can spot problems before it’s too late.  When we got our initial pricing back based on our schematic drawings, it was clear that we had exceeded our established budget by a good amount.  Because we caught the problem early and had time, we were able to work with our designer to come up with wonderful value engineering alternatives that got us the aesthetic we all wanted at a fraction of the originally quoted cost.  By identifying the pricing issue early on, we were also able to keep with our schedule.
  1. Make it Fun. The process of taking on a major construction project and move can be extremely stressful. This is especially true when the person running the transaction already has a full-time job at the company like CFO, COO, head of procurement or managing partner. On the positive side, there are not many endeavors that can impact a company and its employees so positively as new space. You only get the opportunity to re-imagine your offices once every 10-15 years in many cases.  Embrace the opportunity and take advantage of it.One key to keeping it fun and positive is to create a team environment with your designers, project manager and contractors.  While many people dread the weekly progress meetings at the job site, we looked forward to them.  We had great channels of communication and had a lot of fun working together.  Our contractor and designers still come over to check on us months after we moved in because they felt like valued members of our team and took immense pride in what we all built together.  As a result, when problems arose- which they ultimately will- our team members jumped in and fixed things.Understand that problems will arise during the process.  Most are fixable. While perfection is a laudable goal, even Vince Lombardi knew it was not realistic.  As he told his players during a famous pep talk: “Gentlemen, we will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while we can never attain it. But along the way, we shall catch excellence.”  And ending up with excellent space is not a bad outcome.

Conclusion

We’ve lived through the same move process that we counsel our clients about every day.  In the process, we learned a great deal and reaffirmed a lot of what we thought we knew.  While there were certainly hiccups along the way, we got exactly what we wanted.  By sharing our experiences with you, we hope that you will not only end up with exactly the space you want, but you will also enjoy the ride.

For more information contact Glenn Blumenfeld http://www.tactix.com/team.php#Glenn

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