Coffee, couches and creative communication Featured

9:59am EDT July 22, 2002

When most companies want to improve communication among employees, they install e-mail. Or they publish an employee newsletter. Marketing communications firm Blattner Brunner Inc. is building its own town square.

You won’t see pigeons in this front office gathering place, but you should see employees communing over coffee or lounging on couches, amongst themselves and with clients—sharing ideas and strategies.

“The advertising industry is not to be taken too seriously,” says agency principal Joseph Blattner, the agency’s chairman. “It’s about fun, and you have to create continuously. Our town square is about having really relaxed, functional, wired places to work. It’s about having a very productive place for people to meet, communicate and get things done.”

The town square, at the entrance to the Blattner Brunner office, includes a coffee bar with bar stools, counter and a continuous flow of Starbucks coffee; a living room setting with rocking chairs, couches and other soft seating; and four “privacy rooms” with soft seating and desks, Blattner says. The entire area will be rigged with computer network plug-ins, where employees and clients can hook up their computers for demonstrations and other presentations.

The town square concept is only part of an extensive renovation of the 20,000-square-foot 16th floor of Four Gateway Center, where Blattner Brunner is moving April 1 to accommodate its 60 employees. It’s moving from the 6th floor of One Oxford Centre.

The move, Blattner says, takes his staff one giant step forward in his quest for the ultimate open office environment to accommodate the firm’s teaming atmosphere. For some time now, the firm has divided its employees into teams that include people in account services, public relations, sales promotions, media planning, production and budget management. Previously, each was a separate department.

But even the teaming concept, Blattner says, wasn’t enough to effectively divide up the work.

“It got to the point where ‘team-crossing’ became so significant that there was no integrity left in the teams we set up,” he says. “Of our 20 clients, 15 utilize all the services of our organization. So the question became, how can the information flow effectively through the entire organization?”

That’s where Four Gateway Center comes in. With help from architectural firm Burt Hill Kosar Rittelman Associates, which designed the space, Rome Communications, which planned the technology infrastructure, and Pro Com Systems, which designed the presentation technologies, this marketing communications firm is taking the open-office concept to a seeming extreme in search of good communication.

Unlike the Oxford space, which has offices for some of the executives and tall cubicle walls for the rest of the staff, the new office will have only four-and-a-half-foot walls around cubicles—and no executive offices.

Asked about potential noise problems in such an open environment, Blattner says the firm is taking care of that with a sound filtration or “attenuation” system above the ceiling with speakers that pipe a quiet hissing sound through the air to mask quiet conversations around the office. Carpeting and other materials likewise have been chosen to soften any noise. Blattner says the attenuation system and other features provide enough privacy to avoid employee distractions while encouraging everybody to work together more closely. The cost, he says: about $1,000 a square foot.

“Giving us more privacy by taking down walls is an incredible concept,” he says.

Blattner does acknowledge that adoption of this open office/town square concept comes with some worry over its acceptance by all staffers.

“There’s trepidation, there’s fear,” he says, “but they got excited about it.”

To help ensure the concept’s continued success, the company now has a human resources director on staff whose main purpose is to help develop and promote the firm’s desire to push teaming to a new level.

Says Blattner about the entire project: “It’s fun, it’s functional and it’s wired.”