Appearances do count Featured

9:52am EDT July 22, 2002

For the last nine years, Michael DiMaio, president of Fairlawn’s Michael DiMaio & Associates Inc., has helped area businesses create up-to-the-minute work environments that not only make employees happy but make them productive as well.

Then one day he looked around his West Market Street offices and thought he’d better do something for himself.

“It’s like that old story about the cobbler’s children having no shoes,” DiMaio says of many architectural firms. “We’re out there designing great spaces, great homes, and sometimes our own space is rubbish.”

DiMaio’s space may not have been rubbish, but he knew it needed improvement. Over time, the size of his firm outgrew the size of his space, and he thought his employees could benefit from a more stylish interior. What he didn’t know is how much he would benefit from the improvements he made.

“It’s affected productivity greatly,” DiMaio says of his January move to Fairlawn. “People get more done, and they’ve taken on more responsibility. ... They feel good about the company, so they have a positive attitude, and a positive attitude causes good things to happen.

“I’ve had a number of my employees say to me, ‘Thank you for putting us into this space.’”

He’s not alone. According to DiMaio, more and more employers are sinking money into their office interior to keep quality employees at the company and get the most out of them while they’re there. In an age in which people jump jobs as often as they change shoes, everything — including the color of their office space — counts.

“The average worker spends between two and four years with his company, where some length of time ago it was between 20 and 40 years,” DiMaio says. “It’s all about choices. People make their decisions based on benefits, corporate culture, flexibility, quality of lifestyle, quality of workspace. When we bring new hires into this office and we say, ‘This is what we’re all about,’ we see they’re impressed. It becomes a place they want to work for.”

Maybe that’s why DiMaio took the time to ask his employees what they wanted out of their new workspace before he began drafting plans. Maybe that’s also why Joel Wolfgang, owner of Akron’s Joel R. Wolfgang & Associates interior design firm, interviews up to 100 employees in a company before he starts a design job.

“I have to find out what’s wrong,” Wolfgang explains. “There’s going to be a common link. It’s going to be, ‘It’s dark in here. Or my eyes hurt at the end of the day. Or I have a glare coming in this window.’ You might get that from 50 to 100 people. ... We sit with them for a very long time to find out what their needs are and how their tastes are different.”

Wolfgang’s investigations uncover a wide variety of problems — from complaints about the aquamarine color on the walls to the lighting that gives them a headache to the office layout that forces them to run what seems like a mile just to get to the copy machine.

“We might find out that the copy room is in the wrong place, that they have to walk too far to make copies, or that having two fax rooms or two copy rooms would be better for them,” he says.

Wolfgang and DiMaio say that providing something as simple as natural lighting can do wonders for your busy crew.

“If the sun’s shining, and there’s blue skies, people like to see it, because there’s not very many sunny days,” DiMaio says.

But replacing your drab interior with today’s colors and fabrics — even giving employees a funky mousepad or two — can be an innovative way to tap into creativity your employees didn’t even know was there.

“If it’s old in style — if it’s not progressive — it gives people a sense that they’re not up-to-date, that they’re not hip, that they’re not on the cutting edge,” DiMaio says. “The quality of their workplace affects their attitude and hence affects their productivity.”

But how do you know if you’re going to see a return on your remodeling investment?

“If you have cinderblock walls and concrete floors, that’s going to affect productivity,” DiMaio says. “But do you need $20-a-yard or $40-a-yard carpet to make an employee more productive? What it boils down to is the personality of the business owner. Some want to make a statement about who they are vis a vis the space that they are in ... But others simply say, ‘We have to do something about the noise in this space or we need more room.’”

Employers should encourage employees to take their office environments into their own hands. While working in a glistening downtown office building in a corner suite that appears to be plucked out of a movie set may make some people happy, Wolfgang says nothing is more powerful than what you can with your office space yourself.

“You should surround yourself with things that you love,” he says. “That doesn’t mean you have to have 75 pictures on your desk and four bouquets of flowers. It means that you should look up and see something that says, ‘I’m working here for a reason. I’m looking ahead to something.’

“It gives you a reason to go home at night.”

And that’s the space that matters most.

How to reach: Michael DiMaio & Associates Inc., (330) 836-2343; Joel R. Wolfgang & Associates, (330) 659-7000