By Ehtan Gibble
For nearly 60 years, the Wasserstrom Co. operated within a conglomeration of five buildings that were ultimately joined together to provide the finished office space needed to accommodate the diverse needs of a growing distributor. Located in Columbus, Ohio’s, historic Brewery District, the newest of the buildings has been around for six decades while the oldest dates back to the 1870s. The Brewery District was established in the early 1800s by brewers, stonemasons, and other skilled laborers, and while Wasserstrom’s rich history would seem to be a great fit for such a location, making it work wasn’t without obstacles.
“Architecturally, the buildings looked fantastic from the outside,” says President Brad Wasserstrom. “But on the inside, there were a lot of challenges.” The location was originally used as a brewery production facility and warehousing space, which meant there were large concrete columns in areas that not only made it tough to maximize the available square footage, but also made it difficult to get consistent Wi-Fi and cellular signals. A scarce number of windows brought in a negligible amount of natural light. Yet, what ultimately proved to be the biggest challenge for the space was, well, space.
As finished office space was running low, it became clear that it would be cost prohibitive to finish more space in areas currently without electricity, climate control, or bathrooms. “The other piece was that property values in downtown Columbus are pretty expensive compared to other areas of town,” says Wasserstrom. “So, we started looking around the city and found a building that suited our needs.”
Wasserstrom’s new headquarters on East Broad Street in Columbus eliminated the technical difficulties related to Wi-Fi and cellular signals. It has windows that ring three sides of the building, inviting in more natural light. Even more important, it provided the distributor with an opportunity to start from scratch and design a space that reflects who it is today. “We’ve got great people and we’re one of the great companies in the industry, but our old building didn’t tell that story,” says Wasserstrom. “Our new building does.”
Establishing Goals for the New Space
Three years ago, when Wasserstrom started considering the move and what a new space would look like, he had three primary goals. First, the space had to tell the story of where the company’s been, where it is, and where it’s going. To that end, he conducted an internal demographic study and found that more than 50 percent of the company’s associates were millennials. Knowing that percentage would grow, he set out to create a space that was a little more open and inviting.
The second goal was about recruiting and retention. “When we brought someone in for an interview, I wanted them to think to themselves, ‘Wow, this is a great company. I need to work here,’” says Wasserstrom. “And then once they were here, they would not want to leave. I wanted to create a great environment.”
Communal flow also was a priority. Reflecting on the layout of the old building, Wasserstrom describes it in an almost labyrinthian fashion. “To get from our purchasing group to our e-commerce group, I would have to leave the room I was in, go up the steps into a new building, walk through that building, go down half a flight of stairs, and into another building,” he says. “Then, I would have to go around the corner into yet another building, walk down the hall, go down a flight of steps, and walk up the hall to get to e-commerce.”
Coffee stations were placed throughout the building, along with numerous break rooms, so associates would not have to walk as far—a gesture that was appreciated but further limited face-to-face interaction.
Putting the Plan into Action
Each conference room in the new building is named after one of Wasserstrom’s core values: honesty and integrity, community service, hard work, and family. The rooms feature décor themed for the given value, illustrating how truly engrained they are into Wasserstrom’s culture. Symbolizing the design philosophy, a photo featuring Wasserstrom, his sister, and parents hangs in the family conference room. “My sister looks like she had just done something wrong,” says Wasserstrom, reminiscing about a family trip that veered off course. “My mom and dad look completely exhausted, and I’m just done being there.” That memorable moment is flanked by dozens of associates’ fun family pictures. “I keep telling everyone, the more awkward the better,” laughs Wasserstrom.
That’s just one of the many changes in the new building. A central café has taken the place of the various break rooms and coffee stations in the old building, forming a lively community hub filled with skylights, TVs, puzzles, a foosball table, a giant Jenga, a ‘60s era puck bowling machine, and a variety of other soft perks. One of the things that inspires Wasserstrom the most is seeing people from four different departments playing foosball or eating together. “I wanted to build an even stronger team than what we already had,” he says. “I wanted everyone to think of themselves as part of the same team, not ‘I’m on the purchasing team’ or ‘I’m on the sales team.’ I wanted everyone to think, ‘I’m on the Wasserstrom team.’”
For Wasserstrom, an appreciation for employees is much more than lip service—it’s evident in many ways, including the planning for the new building. “We created a group we called the Office Transition Team, or OTT, that was made up of non-officers from departments of every part of the company that was affected by the move,” says Wasserstrom. Not only was every department represented, leadership sought out input from a combination of millennials, Gen Xers, and baby boomers. “I tried to design the OTT so that the team was representative of the demographics of the company, and then that group would ask their departments about specific elements and bring the feedback to the group,” explains Wasserstrom.
During the course of the project, information was funneled through members of the OTT, meetings, the company newsletter, and even an internal website specifically designed for collecting and sharing developments. “Whether it was when the color palette was established or when we picked out the office system, there was a big change management effort put into place. We tried to include a lot of people to have a lot of upfront buy-in,” says Wasserstrom. To ensure the feedback was as relevant as possible, the OTT toured six offices around Columbus that had been renovated in the past two years to get a sense of what modern spaces were like. Wasserstrom’s office system hadn’t been updated in more than 15 years, so it was important to combine takeaways from tradeshows like NeoCon with insight gained from local office tours to build excitement. “We wanted to get them acclimated, so they could be cheerleaders inside the company,” adds Wasserstrom.
While incorporating modern amenities was a clear point of emphasis, celebrating the past was not far behind. The blending of old and new is a consistent theme throughout the office. The layout, fixtures, and furniture are all very contemporary, but for every modern desk and lounge chair, there is a phone booth, a Wate and Fate penny-operated scale, or some other vintage piece. “Our company is 116 years old, but I don’t like to think of us as an old company. We just happen to have a lot of history,” Wasserstrom explains. “When you walked into our old building, we had a 1,500- to 2,000-square-foot historic area with artifacts detailing our past, so it kind of smacked you in the face. We still have those elements, but they’re spread throughout the entire building.”
Incorporating those artifacts into the design gives the building a distinct art deco vibe, celebrating the company’s history while embracing its evolution. And evolve it has, as evidenced by an infographic-style wall that lists some key business facts and statistics. Wasserstrom makes it clear that, externally, it’s not about numbers. But internally, he wants his team of associates to be very proud of who they are. The wall helps capture the big picture, highlights accomplishments, and puts into perspective the complexity of their operation. “It takes a lot for this to work, and that’s what I want my people to understand,” he says. “Without all these people, [our accomplishments] don’t happen, and I want them to know that.”
With Wasserstrom’s move into the new building now complete and employees having time to settle in, what’s been the response? Overwhelmingly positive. “There are always some people that will have a hard time with change, and we’ve had a couple that have struggled with this,” says Wasserstrom, “but for the most part people have loved our new space.”
All of the physical support columns in the old office created some large 10-by-10 cubicles out of necessity, so despite the presence of an ERP, many had grown accustomed to filing hard-copy documents in their own personal filing cabinet. In a modern space with 6-by-6 cubes, however, an effort was made to go in a digital direction, so educating associates on the benefits of electronic systems was important. “There are great tools out there,” says Wasserstrom. “If you need to pull together a folder, you can use something like OneNote and put it in there.”
Beyond the digital transition and minor adjustments like maximizing the Wi-Fi coverage, the changeover has been seamless, and the feedback as expected, if not better. “The reaction I’m getting is exactly what I wanted,” Wasserstrom says. “People feel more energized, whether it’s because of the colors, the light coming through the building, or they like being able to more easily talk to their neighbors. “I had people saying to me, ‘I just met so and so. We both worked here over five years and we never met each other.’ I don’t have concrete numbers but anecdotally our turnover is down.”
“We knew that whatever direction we moved in, the drive for people in the opposite direction might become cumbersome. I called that our area of risk,” says Wasserstrom. There was a concerted effort to communicate the big picture implications of the move on associates’ commutes. Many might be traveling 5 miles further, for example, but it would end up being five minutes quicker since they were not dealing with the hectic downtown traffic.
While most embraced the change, the few who left because of the move did come from the projected area of risk. “There’s this one area where you can’t get here in anything less than 45 minutes each way during rush hour, and they used to have a 15- or 20-minute drive, so I get it. I knew that going into it. That was certainly a risk.”
When it was time to move into the new building, careful planning went into ensuring the transition was as efficient as possible, without disrupting day-to-day business operations. To that end, the move was mapped out across three weekends. “We teamed up with a professional moving company,” explains Wasserstrom. “We had 240 people to move so for us to have expected to get everyone on the same sheet of music and get it done fluently, would have been unrealistic.”
Everyone was given one box to fill with anything that would fit. If they were moving that weekend, they stopped working Friday at noon, packed everything up, and left so the movers could take their box and IT their electronics. On Saturday, the movers transported associates’ boxes to their new cubicles, and IT hooked up computers, phones, and other necessities. On Sunday, associates unpacked, confirmed they could get into the building with their badge, sign in to their computer, make and receive a phone call, print a document, and perform other key functions listed on a clearly-defined checklist. “We set the expectation that when you come in at 8 AM on Monday, you’re not unpacking or getting settled in; you’re done. Because our customers expect that,” says Wasserstrom.