Design Observed

Design for The Bottom Line

Green Mountain Power Corporation finds that a revamped corporate environment can lead to a stimulating, successful workplace and business.

by Anita Rafael

Design for The Bottom Line

Green Mountain Power Corporation finds that a revamped corporate environment can lead to a stimulating, successful workplace and business.

by Anita Rafael

S.O.S!—your company is close to bankruptcy. What’s the first thing you should do? Hire a better accountant? Not if you’re Mary G. Powell, President and CEO of Green Mountain Power Corporation. According to Powell, you should call a designer like John Anderson of John Anderson Studio to redefine your corporate office space to embrace communication, transparency and flexibility.

The first step GMP took in 1998 in its turnaround towards solvency and success, a process that began over a decade ago, was to sell its corporate building in Shelburne, Vermont. Then-COO Mary G. Powell thought the massive building had an unwelcoming and intimidating entrance with a “Darth Vader-like quality.” But the entrance was only one of the structure’s many negative characteristics that she believed acted as a barrier to communication among employees, as well as between the company’s operations and its customers

John Anderson was hired soon after to design a new corporate office for GMP in a brick industrial building in Colchester, Vermont that was one-third of the size of its former headquarters. (Half the company’s employees, including top brass, had already been trimmed from the payroll as a way to cut costs.) Powell asked that Anderson, a Yale graduate who worked briefly in the internationally renowned firm of Venturi and Rauch Architects, find ways to make every square foot of the new office space flexible, not rigid; flat, not hierarchical; and transparent, not secret. Although there were “huge pockets of resistance” to this new design paradigm amongst the company’s employees, according to Powell, GMP’s corporate leadership countered everyone’s concerns with optimism and enthusiasm.

 

The Design Solution

Anderson used every design element that would support change in GMP’s corporate culture. For example, Powell asked a simple question: “Why, just because we’re a utility, does the building’s color scheme have to be gray and brown?” Anderson didn’t think that drab colors were necessary, so he used bright, friendly colors in the interior spaces to define different functions—greens and blues to soothe and reds and yellows to energize. Anderson also raised the ceiling therefore adding more air and light into the workspace and gave every employee, including the CEO, the same size work area and equal access to natural light.

But Anderson’s ingenuity in using space differently did not stop there. Instead of locating the employee lunch room in an inconspicuous, remote corner of the building, he created a cheerful, indoor sidewalk café that has no walls or doors and placed it in the middle of the action. Powell now describes the café as a “communications hub” where the staff spends time talking about work in a relaxed setting. As a result, the café is as much a conference room as eatery.

What about GMP’s conference room? Forget the typical dark wood-paneled, heavy carpeted executive boardroom. At GMP, they call their conference space “the bubble.” It’s a glass-walled, centrally located enclosure filled with air and light and festooned with a colorful mural by Anderson. No other design factor speaks to the company’s commitment to transparent business dealings more than this space.

The GMP energy control center also became a key de-sign element when Anderson realized that the complicated schematic wall was, as he calls it, “the ticking heart” of the utility. Rather than entombing the panel behind a thick wall and under a secret shroud as it usually is at an energy company, Anderson put the graphically powerful board on display. Like the queen bee of a tight little hive, the panel —now fully visible behind a huge glass wall—is the first element one sees when entering the front door, a daily reminder of the company’s purpose: selling energy.

The Result

Today, GMP executives, once secluded in exclusive offices on the uppermost floors of a corporate tower and visibly inaccessible, are located in the area of the building with the highest traffic flow. Powell notes that she conducts her duties as CEO “in as public a setting as possible,” giving her the opportunity to interact with the greatest possible number of her colleagues every day. In short, a simple, open floorplan has removed multiple barriers between management and operations and successfully opened the flow of conversation in all directions.

How ironic that although Green Mountain Power sells energy, for years its own corporate culture and physical environment was counterproductive to their own success. Powell says that now people who enter the new office say, “There is such energy in this building, you can feel it.” Indeed there is; the organization is now not only communicative and cohesive, but also highly profitable, has skyrocketing customer satisfaction ratings and is winning accolades for its innovative use of alternative energy sources while creatively “greening” its operations.

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