Opening Up

TPG Architecture helps global PR firm Weber Shandwick make the move to a more collaborative mindset in its new Chicago offices.

05/01/2012 By Elianne Halbersberg


When international public relations firm Weber Shandwick prepared to move its flagship Chicago office into a new space, management had several goals in mind. They sought a high-quality building that would meet LEED requirements; close proximity to their old location to ensure ease of commute for their staff; and a modern, open floor plan to promote the company’s collaborative environment and contemporary brand. After a careful search, Weber Shandwick selected the John Hancock Center as their new home, and contracted TPG Architecture to execute a seamless redesign.

Through visioning sessions with Weber Shandwick executives, including Cynthia Kalk, CFO at Weber Shandwick Chicago, and Sarah Lee, core global facilities manager with CMG, Weber Shandwick’s parent company, TPG Architecture presented hundreds of visual images for design ideas.

“We explained changes that are happening in the workplace and why they’re happening, based on technology and people working more collaboratively,” says Larry Berger, partner in charge with TPG Architecture. “Both visually and verbally, what Weber Shandwick expressed was a desire to be very open. They were coming from an environment where 60 percent of their people were in closed, private offices. Now, 20 percent are in offices and they’re all glass-fronted. Through the visioning sessions, we were able to understand what image they wanted to convey.”

The company also sought LEED Silver certification and met some key components in order to do so, including choosing a central location in the city and a 10-year lease on the space. All products, materials and manufacturing techniques were selected to meet certification standards. Natural light is harvested through expansive exterior windows, reducing power consumption. Mechanicals within the space are new, and the central mechanical system within the Hancock Center is also being upgraded.

To further enhance the concept of openness and collaboration, TPG designed perimeter-based workstations with low-level dividers and interior offices with glass walls. “Statistics show that only 48 percent of time is spent doing focused work in a general office environment,” says Berger. “The other 52 percent is spent talking to other people and being away from your desk. Some jobs still require an office—for example, I’m not putting a proofreader in an open bay—but for the most part, very few people still need private offices.” Weber Shandwick’s staff can now interact within clusters of workstations and at meeting tables, rather than being housed on multiple floors or isolated in cubicles.

“With most companies that we design for now, the ratio of open space, on the conservative side, would be 80 percent, with 20 percent in private offices,” Berger adds. “What we’re seeing in media, entertainment and advertising companies is almost 90 percent in open plan and 10 percent in offices. Management is becoming a part of the daily activities rather than setting apart from it. The glass allows people to communicate and see one another. It’s part of the contemporary look.”

The open environment necessitated additional meeting rooms in lieu of private offices. Small, informal meeting rooms with privacy curtains are located at the corners of the corridors. These are meant for “touchdown areas where people can have brief, impromptu meetings,” says Berger. To ensure maximum productivity, proper audio-visual conferencing equipment and wireless internet connectivity was also installed in the main conference room and additional workrooms, and seamlessly integrated into work stations and teaming areas.

The entrance to the office features a circular reception desk and area designed as a “town hall” where staff can gather for short meetings or after-hours events. Conference rooms located just off the reception area include 6-foot pivoting glass doors, allowing the space to open up even further for large groups. A modern, colorful café sits adjacent to the rooms and creates a sense of flow between all of the entry spaces.

The reception floor is made of reclaimed butternut wood from Vermont, which extends into a two-story feature wall surrounding a staircase framed by glass railings, and then turns at lower level to create a seating area. TPG and Weber Shandwick chose butternut wood because of its warm color, durability and versatility for both flooring and wall treatments. The office’s stunning view of Lake Michigan also inspired nature-oriented color schemes and patterns for décor, from the gray stone tile on the café floor to warm greens and cool blues in the upholstery and furnishings of the meeting and work areas.

To enhance the spatial, airy ambience, TPG removed the ceilings in the majority of the open areas and exposed the building structure for maximum height. And while acoustic control is a common concern when dealing with open plans and exposed systems, Berger says Weber Shandwick was more concerned about the opposite problem.

“Fifteen years ago, when everyone used cubicles, they had some acoustic property to them, but not a lot—not as much as people thought they did. Acoustical ceilings absorb a lot of sound. What’s interesting about all of this is that one of the requests we hear all the time—and it was one of the requests at Weber Shandwick as well—is ‘We want the place to have a buzz to it. We want some noise. We don’t want this dead silence you hear in our current office.’ There’s always the concern about what happens with the acoustics if we have open ceilings and get rid of the partitions, but most firms are looking for a livelier atmosphere. It adds to that collegial, collaborative feeling that this is a place where people are working together, and ideas are being developed and generated.”

Indeed, the layout and collaborative ambience of the new Weber Shandwick offices are a sign of the times, and a look into the future of the workplace. As younger generations brought up on computers and cutting-edge technology enter the workforce, the days of working one’s way up from a cubicle to a corner office are disappearing. It’s now about technology, tools and removing boundaries, rather than creating privacy.

“A very different work environment is starting to emerge,” says Berger. “It’s the first time in history that there are four generations in the workplace, and soon to be five. The whole workplace has changed drastically, and what people find important is changing drastically. Companies like Weber Shandwick are planning for the future. They didn’t design for today; they designed for 10 years from now and the generation that’s going to be working there in 10 years.”

“The hardest thing that happens with these projects is that we consciously try to make the decisions that will be right for the future of the workplace, but we’re the older people who are making the choices,” he adds. “So it’s tough. It’s a smart manager with a lot of foresight who can at least make what appears to be the right direction for a decision. It’s very interesting to see how things are changing.”


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Weber Shandwick
875 N. Michigan Avenue
Suite 2400
Chicago, IL 60611
(312) 988-2400

project team
architecture + interior design
TPG Architecture
360 Park Avenue South
New York, NY 10010
(212) 768-0800

Larry Berger, partner in charge
Yelena Mokritsky, lead designer
Simon Yeung, project manager
Asif Alli, project architect

Scott McDonald of Hedrich Blessing