A sustainable work environment breeds a healthy, happy culture

Love and marriage. Peanut butter and jelly. Culture and environment? You bet! But what does environment (as in setting, atmosphere or surroundings) have to do with culture? Everything.

As it turns out, we announced our headquarters’ move from the suburbs to downtown Cleveland around the same time we began writing this Shift Happens column to engage readers in a conversation about organizational design and development approaches supporting a sustainability strategy. The move was to solve a growing space problem, reinforce our belief in the urban core, attract and retain the best and brightest employees, create an atmosphere to ramp up a culture of collaboration and innovation and "walk the talk" of sustainability.

How to solve a growing space problem

A growing business usually means the need to hire more people — a good problem to have. But does having more people necessarily mean more space? There has been a lot of conversation about the increasing need to incorporate collaborative work areas into office space planning. Finding a balance of a space where employees can interact and private space where employees individually can focus is ideal. But how much space should we allocate per person? According to the CoreNet Global Corporate Real Estate 2020 survey of 500 corporate real estate executives, the metric has changed from 225 square-feet in 2010 to 176 square-feet in 2012, and is projected to reach 151 square-feet in 2017, with 40 percent of survey respondents indicating they would go below 100 square-feet by this time.

Smaller space per employee translates into a lower carbon footprint. Conversely, many factors play into the space reduction. For instance, increasingly sophisticated technology allows BrownFlynn to have its managing director working from Los Angeles. One of our senior consultants is in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Our employees show tremendous flexibility and work long hours to serve our clients. We, in turn, believe we need to show that same flexibility by offering the option of telecommuting, which reduces cars on the road, lost productivity time and acknowledges that children and elderly parents sometimes need us at home. According to Gallup, remote workers actually log more hours at their primary job than do their on-site counterparts.

Reinforce our belief in the urban core

According to the American Society of Landscape Architects, urban development should be guided by a sustainable planning and management vision that promotes interconnected green space, a multi-modal transportation system and mixed-use development. With these parameters in mind, our real estate advisor Allegro Realty found just the perfect place for us, not in a new development but at Terminal Tower, Cleveland's most familiar landmark and the city’s largest construction project of the 1920s. This was a massive urban redevelopment project that foreshadowed the Rockefeller Center in New York, gave Cleveland the world's third-tallest building in 1930, and forever changed the face of Public Square and wide swaths of adjoining neighborhoods.

Today, Terminal Tower is owned by real estate developer (and BrownFlynn client) Forest City Enterprises. Forest City has a strong belief in the inherent sustainable features within existing infrastructure and buildings as evidenced by its adaptive reuse and historic preservation properties. This practice breathes new life into usable structures while saving raw materials, conserving open space and reducing carbon emissions.

In 2010, Forest City finished a $40 million multi-year renovation of Terminal Tower which restored the building’s terracotta facade, and upgraded exterior lighting and windows with energy-efficient products. Terminal Tower is the centerpiece of Tower City Center, which houses the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority’s rapid transit station, two hotels and a shopping mall, and soon will enjoy a revitalized Public Square set to begin construction in the fall.

Brothers Oris and Mantis Van Sweringen, railroad magnates and the master planners of Shaker Heights, Ohio, developed the original concept for the building. BrownFlynn is honored to occupy the brothers’ historic office space on the 36th floor. Our employees look forward to bicycling to work, enjoying the easy walkable access to restaurants and green spaces, and using Cleveland’s award-winning rapid transit system which first began in order to connect Terminal Tower to the new suburb when the Van Sweringen brothers developed Shaker Heights.

Attract and retain the best and brightest employees

Because BrownFlynn is a firm that counsels corporations on embedding sustainability into their business strategies, we are fortunate to attract and retain employees who want to make a difference in the world. This can be an important differentiator, according to Net Impact’s Talent Report. The report states that having a job that makes a social impact on the world is an important life goal for most people, ranking just behind financial security and marriage. The report goes on to cite that 45 percent of employees who say they worked directly on a product or service that makes a positive social impact, or provide input on sustainability or corporate responsibility issues, are very satisfied with their jobs, compared to 29 percent of those who don’t.

But it’s not only what we do for a living, it’s where we do it. More than half of our staff is younger than 30, and they want to work where they live and play. In Cleveland, that’s downtown. Cleveland has seen a resurgence in apartment living with a 95 percent apartment occupancy rate. It’s a well-known fact that happy employees are more engaged employees.

Create an atmosphere to ramp up a culture of collaboration and innovation

While the new space, which had not been occupied in decades, clearly communicated BrownFlynn’s dedication to sustainability, a host of design challenges had to be addressed. Due to its historic nature, many aspects of the floor could not be altered (certain wall and floor finishes, locations of light fixtures, plumbing).

Challenge in hand, BrownFlynn retained renowned Cleveland (and New York) design firm Vocon to identify and implement alternative design solutions. Vocon is passionate about sustainability and cognizant of the short- and long-term impact buildings and interiors can have on the environment. Vocon understands that environmentally responsible design creates healthy and safe environments. For instance, instead of reusing the four massive corner spaces as private offices, Vocon recommended converting these areas into open offices to encourage collaboration and stimulate creative thinking. Inside these expansive spaces are Herman Miller products, such as benching systems, ergonomic chairs and standing desks all procured through local Herman Miller distributor APG. Herman Miller furniture boasts the McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry Cradle to Cradle certification. This means using environmentally safe and healthy materials and design for material reuse such as recycling or composting.

Walk the talk’ of sustainability

By listening to our employees and partnering with local vendors who also are committed to sustainability, we were able to find a space that symbolizes the firm’s deep commitment to our mission through the revitalization and activation of a long-vacant space in a historic downtown office building. We believe the environment will reinforce our collaborative culture, assist in attracting and retaining exceptional employees all while providing our firm with much needed room for growth.  

Happy employees image by OPOLJA via Shutterstock.