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Dream Offices

Frontier -- Workplace

Dream Offices

What does it take to turn a drab workplace into a perfect environment? A little cash and a lot of creativity

An office is more than a place to house employees. These days, it's a place to seek the inspiration of an urban skyline or a peaceful sunset. Not to mention a place to shoot a few hoops, play some ping-pong, take a nap, sip an espresso--or build a little buzz. n Today's small companies seek an environment that quickly communicates an image of success and creativity, one that wows potential clients, reassures investors, attracts hard-to-find recruits, and helps employees forget how hard they're working. Achieving all that can mean going to extraordinary lengths.

Consider Future Protocol Inc. The Austin (Tex.) computer network design company spent most of its five years in a stodgy, uninspiring office complex. When their lease expired, the partners asked their real estate brokers for something really different, and they got it: an abandoned adult-movie theater.

To convert the former porno palace into a high-tech headquarters, Future Protocol punched windows into the walls, added skylights, and tore out the theater's seats to make room for workstations. The balcony was extended to add a second level of offices and conference rooms. The theater's marquee is now used for free advertising. The price tag? Just $200,000 (not counting exterior improvements paid for by the building's owner). Not only did the renovation generate considerable publicity, but the company's 25 employees love it. "I've seen the motivation level climb to a new height," says Jennifer Hussey, Future Protocol's 34-year-old CEO. "People seem to get here a little earlier, stay a little longer."

Indeed, attracting employees in the first place and enticing them to stick around motivates many of the most innovative office designs. Bob Cagle, CEO of Thuridion, a Santa Cruz (Calif.) software developer with 48 employees, offers a light-soaked, 15,000-square-foot office, packed with amenities like a communal kitchen and coffee bar, a comfy upstairs lounge, and a balcony where employees can hook up to the Internet and enjoy the ocean views. "It gives people--both job candidates and customers--the feeling that they are going to be treated well here," says Cagle, 41.

Image may not be everything, but it certainly comes close. In the following pages, frontier takes a look at companies that have creatively defined their dream offices, often by utilizing startlingly simple and inexpensive materials and making the most of their building's innate virtues. While some of these entrepreneurs admittedly have splurged on their spaces, they know that a really good-looking office, like the right clothes, often pays for itself many times over.

While everyone expects freshly minted dot-coms to strive for coolness, they're not the only ones on the creative edge. GMA Capital has managed to portray a solid, dependable image but hint at its techie sophistication by letting Victorian charm and a cool contemporary interior merrily clash. David Oakey Designs built a new office that fully exploits its bucolic setting and in the process makes a statement about the entrepreneur's own source of inspiration. Toni Steedman, CEO of Steedman Wilson, eschews the popular trend of office-as-playground, but all the same she manages to inject visual excitement into her ad agency's offices with bold furniture and textile designs.

While open space prevails in most of these offices, the cubicle isn't dead just yet. It's being redefined with inventive fabrics by companies like BodyMedia. When there are private offices, walls and partitions are usually put on wheels. Drywall is definitely out, and industrial chic is in--with plenty of concrete and exposed ducts.

The ultimate, drop-dead office can cost a million bucks, as in the case of Version2 Editing, but even a splash of color, softer lighting, and some movable partitions can go a long way toward improving your existing space (below). And if you can't get the office you know you deserve just yet, it never hurts to dream a little.By Larry KanterReturn to top

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