A New Way To Work

There's a scene in cult classic flick Office Space where the disgruntled Peter Gibbons – played with dry hilarity by Ron Livingston – knocks down the wall of his cramped cubicle. With that forceful gesture, Gibbons finally feels free; his workspace becomes less like a jail cell, and more like a welcome breath of fresh air.

With that sentiment in mind, four Ann Arbor companies take a similar approach to how their workspaces are unconventionally arranged. SRT Solutions, Google Ad Words, Dynamic Edge, and Menlo Innovations – all leading companies in software development and technology consulting – are kicking down the proverbial walls, and opening up their work spaces to encourage productivity, creativity, and above all, interaction and open, free-form collaboration amongs their employees.

SRT Solutions: Community Corner

One such company that exemplifies the feeling of freedom and openness is computer software consulting firm SRT Solutions. Nestled right downtown on Fifth Street, SRT Solutions was started in 1997 as a consulting collaboration between company co-founders Dianne Marsh and Bill Wagner. Marsh and Wagner started their company working from home or coffee shops, but they thought opening an office would not only help SRT grow, but could also further the growth of Ann Arbor's tech community. With seven employees to their name, Marsh and Wagner moved into their current digs in September of 2007.

The office has striking orange walls. A roomy meeting room is equipped with white boards, a conference table, Ikea-purchased collapsible tables, modern looking red and white chairs and a projection screen for presentations. There are also two consultant rooms, the workspace at SRT Solutions promotes constant collaboration between their current 17 employees, as well as a certain amount of freedom not seen in conventional companies.

"There's no assigned seating here," Marsh says. "If people are given responsibility, then we feel that those people will choose to be responsible. We feel like our democratic approach ultimately leads to our employees' happiness."

Marsh and Wagner's communal approach doesn't just end with those happy employees, however. Every other Friday from 3:30 to 5:00 p.m., SRT Solutions opens up their doors to the community at large, hosting public user group meetings. Better known as "lightning talks," members of the public can come into SRT and discuss technology related topics -– such as phone calling over Twitter, or blogging using Windows Live Writer -– for up to five minutes each. Marsh says, "You never know who will show up."

Luckily, the open space and communal environment guarantees that whoever is there -- whether it be employees or Joe Computer off the street -- will surely be comfortable and productive.

Google AdWords: Work and Play Is A-Ok

Significantly larger and perhaps better known than the more mom-and-pop-like SRT Solutions, is the multi-floored Ann Arbor offices that hosts Google AdWords.

Opened in May of 2007, and also downtown –- on Division St., and housed in the old TCF Bank building –- the vibe at Google AdWords is, well, very Google-y. The color scheme reflects Google's famous blue, red, yellow and green combination. The lobby is decked out with lava lamps; filtered, real-time search terms are projected on the wall. Even Mr. Potato Head can be found perched upon the reception desk. Further inside the building's belly, there are massage rooms, snack-stocked micro kitchens, children's play areas, a game room with a Nintendo Wii and pool tables, and a café offering healthy lunches for all Google staffers. In one section of the office, an inflatable version of the Incredible Hulk dangles from the ceiling. To a first-time observer, it's hard to imagine any work gets done here.

But, it does. At any time, sub-teams of the 150-plus Google staffers can be found assembled around projects, working in groups in spacious areas that just barely qualify as cubicles, or gathering in one of the countless huddle rooms around the building. "The collaboration here is unprecedented," says Online Sales and Operations Manager Karen Godwin. "We're all about 'team, team, team.'. And, wouldn't you know it: the massage room, the micro kitchens, and even the game room – all empty.

And though the bells and whistles that adorn Googles' offices are fancy enough, it's their attention to community and local color that gives them true character. At their employees' behest, they've named all of their conference rooms after Michigan cities – including Houghton, Mackinac Island, and Munising – and each features donations from the local chambers of commerce as decoration (the walls of Munising, for example, are adorned with street signs and snowshoes). They even call the top floor of the building the Upper Peninsula, and the main path down one of the hallways is called Main Street.

For such a large company, it's encouraging to see it operate with a collaborative, small town aesthetic.

Dynamic Edge: Think Tanks and Brain Fuel

Coming off, perhaps, like a combination of SRT Solutions and the Google AdWords offices is the humble but very modern space that houses "beyond" tech support firm Dynamic Edge Inc. and sister-company Dynamic Edge Consulting.

Founded in 1999 by Bruce McCully, Dynamic Edge is located a few miles from Downtown Ann Arbor, cast in a slightly more typical "corporate looking" part of city. Walk into their office space, however, and anything "typical" gets thrown out the window. Like the offices of SRT, staffers have no assigned seating, and are welcome to move around the space's multiple rooms –- known simply as the "orange room," the "blue room," the "red room," etc. -- at their leisure. "Being able to go from room to room is really helpful," says Marketing Director Stormie McGee. "It encourages communication, and everybody here has different skills, so if you need help with something, it's kind of like having a sounding wall, where we can come up with solutions to problems together."

The center of the office provides for the more unconventional and intriguing locales in the space. A set of stairs has been converted to a "think tank" area, adorned with pillows and other comfy attributes, where employees are encouraged to take off their shoes and work in a cushier environment. Just up the stairs is the lounge area, featuring a video-game emulator set up to look like an old arcade game, a personalized soda machine where drinks are available for 5 cents, and enough cereal and snacks (or "brain food" as McGee calls it) to keep the employees fueled for hours.

But with all these distractions, one would think that not a whole lot would get done.

On the contrary, McGee says, "We like to keep the environment light around here. I think they realized that the more bored people are, the less productive they will be. You don't have that 'going back to the hole' feeling here. People do really want to come here and work."

Menlo Innovations: The Invention Factory

Located on the top floor of the Kerrytown building in Downtown Ann Arbor, software design and development firm Menlo Innovations shares characteristics with the three previously mentioned companies – an open space, no assigned seats, and a collaborative work environment. But the inspiration behind the set up of Menlo's workspace is rooted deeply in the theories and ideas of one history's most influential innovators.

Founded by Richard Sheridan, Thomas Meloche, James Goebel and Robert Simms in 2001, Menlo Innovations is highly indebted to the works of Thomas Edison. The warehouse-esque work environment – a.k.a. the Menlo Software Factory, where 50 or-so employees sit in clusters, surrounded by brick walls and a sun-drenched skylight – is modeled after Edison's original Invention Factory.

"Like Edison, we believe in serendipity around here," Sheridan says. "Edison wanted people to overhear each other while working, in hopes that they would keep sprouting new ideas."

With that in mind, no employee has their own space, and work in assigned teams of two for one week only on any of the multiple projects being developed simultaneously for clients. At the end of the week, the teams are switched up, and a new set of individuals will continue the work of the previous group. Sheridan calls it a cyclical process, and at one time or another, all employees will have worked together in some capacity.

Another unconventional practice -– especially for a software development company –- is Menlo's attention to tangibility. Instead of keeping track of their work on spreadsheets and Microsoft Word documents, employees log their process and findings handwritten on sheets of paper -- paper that is then tacked to walls that function as calendars, making progress of their work available to all in the office.

"Everything is about process," Sheridan says. "Having the process handwritten on paper makes everything more engaging. I don't have to stand there breathing over their necks to find out what kind of progress they are making. I can just walk up to the walls and find out for myself.

"There is little wasted time here, and in turn, everybody is free to purse the work they love. It really is a joy to be here."

Ryan Allen is a metro Detroit-based freelance writer and musician. He has also contributed to Model D.


Richard Sheridan Has an Idea At Menlo-Ann Arbor

Dianne Marsh Relaxes and Works at the Same Time in SRT's  Meeting Room-Ann Arbor

Google Has World Domination In Mind Even in Their Lobby-Ann Arbor

Dynamic Edge's Dynamic Workspace-Ann Arbor

Stormy McGee is in the Think Tank at Dynamic Edge- Ann Arbor

Sometimes You Need a Punch in the Head at Menlo-Ann Arbor

All Photos by Dave Lewinski

Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer.  He enjoys the music of Men At Work.  However, he does not come from a land down-under.