Design comeuppance: The call center gets its turn
February 04, 2019
February 04, 2019
A thoughtfully designed workplace environment, amenities, brand message, and name help shatter the mold of a stereotypical call center
I was a teenager in Des Moines, Iowa, and needed money for gas, CDs, or whatever shiny bauble was critical for my teenage existence at the time. My mother owned her own commercial janitorial business, so she offered to put me to work. I thought, “Why not … I can empty some trash cans and wipe off a few counters.”
One of her clients was a mid-sized call center, probably about 40 people. We headed out after dinner (we cleaned off-hours), and as we pulled into the parking lot, she gave me this look of equal parts consternation and embarrassment, pointed at me and said, “Now, I don’t want to hear any complaining about this. The faster we move, the faster we will be done. I mean it.”
Companies want people for the long term, so investing in their spaces means they are attracting the best and brightest while investing in their future leadership.
Sure. Whatever. Easy money.
We toted the cleaning supplies up to the second level and walked in. The grimy stench punched me square in the face. Hard.
Old cigarettes. Overflowing ashtrays. Stained ceilings. Half-full cans of stale soda. Cold coffee with curdled artificial creamer. Leftovers in and on the microwave. Dingy. Mildew. Beige. Bad lighting. A labyrinth of awful, tiny cubicles. Worn out chairs. Matted and crunchy brown carpet. Sloppily closed or broken vertical blinds. More beige (or was it just dirt?).
It was abysmal. And teenage boys generally have a high tolerance for abysmal. I now understood my mother’s pointed comment in the car. This was going to be rough.
Obviously, I survived the effort. But my vivid recollection of that rank exercise led to a deep appreciation and understanding of the concept of underestimation. I clearly underestimated how awful that workspace was, the severity of my mother’s warning, and how wretched those four or so hours would be. The notion wasn’t lost on me then, and still isn’t.
Fast-forward a few decades, and oddly enough, here I am, part of a team designing these types of spaces. The call center environments may have improved (somewhat) over the years relative to design, but there remains a perception that they still hold some of those less-than-stellar characteristics mentioned above. Consequently, as a designer, I continue to think about that prevailing concept of underestimation and more specifically, where to avoid it.
DO NOT underestimate:
The points above are all great in theory, but the proof of success lies with an actual example of a built project. Enter the Wintrust Customer Contact Center.
Stantec does a good deal of work with Wintrust Financial Services, but this project was different. Both Wintrust and Stantec knew this one would need a little extra attention to overcome the stereotype of the business line as well as the outlying suburban location.
We took inspiration from some of the more urban tech spaces we’ve been designing. We knew we needed to address all the items listed above, but we also wanted to get people talking about this anything-but-run-of-the-mill financial office space. We wanted to create a destination, and why not? Just because it’s a contact center doesn’t mean it can’t be a destination.
The design of the space takes an industrial direction, which is antithetical to the rest of the spaces in the building, and pretty much in your face as soon as you walk off the elevators. We designed an over-scaled perforated and cold-rolled steel signage piece with a backlit laser-cut logo, exposed ceilings, industrial linear lighting, and stained concrete floors. Immediately adjacent and off the entry, we created an oversized café space with the same industrial lighting that bends and folds its way into the space, a varied-height communal table, plywood nooks with exposed connections and subtle complementary colors to create balance.
We took advantage of the abundant natural light that entered the space by minimizing built environment at the perimeter, and when it does occur, it’s conference and/or communal space. All the ceilings were left exposed, acoustically treated, and a sleek LED lighting scheme was developed to act in harmony with natural lighting.
In the open office, all the desks are sit-to-stand and have views to the surrounding landscape. We employed unexpected materials, such as worn and recycled metal panels, to create storage towers and hide irregular column placement, and primary color-coded for wayfinding. We developed an easily changeable slip-form steel tube framing module that separates core circulation from the open office and holds glass panels with tongue-in-cheek historical telephone super-graphics.
This was the edge they were seeking. We created an office that was downtown-reminiscent, uniquely branded, technologically-forward, uber-functional, attractive, and suitable for developing a strong and communal office culture. But most importantly, it proves that both Wintrust and Stantec meant it when we said we were going to do something special. And that kind of mileage is endless.