In downtown San Antonio, a 1920s-era car dealership turned law office that doubles as an architecture studio is Lake|Flato’s answer to the problem of returning to work after the pandemic. The local company has transformed its existing headquarters building into its dream workplace, luring employees back to the office with outdoor space and a flexible design.
“We wanted to make working in the office cool so that we would ultimately make people think, ‘Why would I stay home?'” says co-founder Ted Flatow. One very obvious benefit is the newly created courtyard that was once a car dealership’s service center. Now Eats Employees at tables under the shade of the pavilion they designed.
Designers everywhere have been struggling lately to achieve a similarly engaging workplace, but the leaders of the Lake| Flato, Jamie Sartori and Evan Morris, say they started envisioning the future of this place about four years before the 2020 coronavirus shutdowns.
When it became clear they would be staying in the house longer than expected, the company committed to a complete overhaul of the 22,545-square-foot building it has called home since 1984, when Ted Flatow and co-founder David Lake set up shop on the second floor. They kept the historic facade of the old service center and removed the roof, creating a new courtyard that also serves as an outdoor living room and main entrance to the building. “We’ve always encouraged our customers to get people through nature, so we had to do it ourselves,” Sartori says.
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On the second floor, in the main work area, the company kept the existing open floor plan and focused on adding better acoustics and different types of meeting spaces with varying degrees of privacy, including individual rooms for Zoom calls.
One of the biggest changes, and one that sparked a lot of chatter during planning workstations. Not sitting next to the same people every day means younger employees interact with more tenured professionals in ways they might not otherwise have, Sartori points out. Flato, who previously had a separate office, maintains an office like everyone else. He says it’s one of many welcome changes: “We used to have paper everywhere, some of it dating back decades. That’s all gone away. It’s all electronic now. It’s great.”
The lack of dedicated offices also allows founders to welcome a larger number of employees without expanding the office space. People can still work at home for up to half the week, but Morris and Sartori say that in the three months since they officially moved into the renovated space, everyone has felt the benefits of returning in person. “It’s amazing that you don’t have to travel across the country to have a meeting; it’s good for us, it’s good for our time, it’s good for the environment, but at the same time, we don’t just want to communicate digitally,” says Morris.
As the pandemic subsided, they recall, colleagues found themselves looking for other excuses to collect. During the final phase of construction, Flatow hosted a hands-on workshop in the temporary office to show the team how to weave rope over some old metal chairs they planned to reuse in the new patio, a skill his father taught him when he was growing up on the Texas coast.
“It’s amazing to take the same[place]you’ve been in forever and clean it,” Flatow says. “Coronavirus has been great at getting people to figure out how to work from home. But this place has its own bubbly character. All the texture comes from the people in it.