Outside of the cube: Memphis' coolest workspaces

From re-purposed downtown lofts to converted Midtown homes, some Memphians are breaking out of the cubicle and testing new ways to approach work space. With innovative, well-designed offices and studios, employers are carefully creating cultures that fit their needs.
A national conversation persists about the modern American office -- how does office layout affect productivity or worker satisfaction? It's commonly believed that space matters, but often companies don't have the flexibility or room to experiment. While plenty of Memphis workers are still in traditional office buildings, some companies are taking advantage of affordable real estate and plentiful space to try something new.

Workspace not only reflects a company's identity, but it also has a strong impact on the way team members interact. Providing an environment that promotes idea sharing and unplanned, creative encounters can be key for innovation and cooperation. Crafting a comfortable work space with convenient amenities may be essential in attracting and retaining sought after talent. And of course the design and location of a company's office can effectively communicate the organization's brand and values to visitors.
Cultivating Culture
Lokion Interactive provides online design and development, e-commerce, and other interactive marketing services for large and mid-size companies. The company has spent the entire 15 years of its existence in Downtown Memphis, occupying the 8th, 9th, and part of the first floor of 88 Union Ave.
President and Founding Partner Marcus Stafford said the company is very big on work/life balance because, “All we have to sell is our employees.”
The company employs 54 people (including three people in Austin, Nashville, and Vancouver), and in addition to providing them with a comfortable and creative work space, they also encourage employees to work from home. 
 Lokion's downtown offices
“We recognize that people are productive different times of the day,” Stafford said. “As long as they make client meetings and keep (clients) happy, people are given a great deal of latitude.”

Other employee amenities include a relaxed dress code, gym memberships, bike racks at the office, baseball games at AutoZone park, a booth at Memphis in May Barbecue Fest, and visits from a masseuse. Lokion pays for flu shots, something Stafford considers an investment. The office is kid-friendly and pet-friendly. After a suggestion from a developer, Lokion has embraced convertible desks in their offices where people can work from a seated or standing position.

The result? Stafford said that Lokion has a very high number of referrals of employees bringing their friends to work for the company. And they are the kind of creative people he's looking for. 
And it's not just the office environment Stafford worries about. When they are not at work, employees spend time together kayaking, biking, making music, and participating in trivia nights. 
Also located downtown, in a space just steps off of Main Street, is the nonprofit City Leadership.
If that name does not sound familiar, the name of its biggest public relations campaign should: Choose 901.
The organization was housed in a house on Peabody Avenue for four years before moving to their Peabody Place location downtown earlier this year. Executive Director John Carroll said the move downtown was because the organization needed more space to fit their culture. Rather than being downtown for the sake of being downtown, the move also provided easier access to other organizations.
 City Leadership office
Carroll and his team are located in an open concept space that once housed a bank. Now there are personal offices, a lobby, kitchen and a boardroom.
One of the key factors for Carroll was that the space has ground access. Employees also have access to a rooftop deck and workout facility. “The quality of the place matches the quality of work we do,” Carroll said.
Carroll calls the work culture at City Leadership “positive” and “friendly.”
Positivity and friendliness do come across as more than lip-service when on any given day of the week, several of the team members can be spotted grabbing lunch at one of restaurants dotting the Main Street mall or using the facilities at Beale Street Landing. Employees are known to stay around a few extra hours to catch a show at the nearby Orpheum Theatre or a Grizzlies game.
“They’re young, optimistic people who are wanting to enjoy who they work with with as much work as they do,” he said.

The Teach For America Memphis offices are home to their programmatic and regional operations staff. The corps members and alumni also often drop in for special events, professional development sessions or to meet with their instructional coaches in the evenings once school lets out.

TFA moved into Toyota Plaza, downtown next to AutoZone Park, in July of 2011, and have now expanded to occupy the majority of the 3rd floor with 50 employees.

 “Creating space conducive to collaboration and discussion are definitely keys to designing an effective workspace,” says Natalie Laraque, Managing Director of Regional Communications for TFA. “Teach For America recruits a diverse group of outstanding individuals into the field of education. In the spirit of embracing our diversity on staff, we are constantly exploring ways to learn from each staff member’s unique perspective and background.”
Teach for American Memphis
TFA worked with PLAN Architecture on the office design, who strived to understand the TFA culture and process. “For the recent expansion, we started the design process by conducting a focus group with all Memphis staff to understand working styles and preferences. We then incorporated this feedback into the design with our architects and continued collaboration with staff,” Laraque said.  

They wanted the space to have an authentic Memphis feel to it, which resulted in certain southern elements like a “front porch” area that wraps around the interior. “Our intent was to design a fun and functional space that met all of our organizational needs. We work to provide spaces that are efficient, fun, inspiring and collaborative.”

A Space to Create
The vast majority of Memphis’ creative studios (that is, those specializing in public relations, advertising, web design, and the like) are located Downtown. Two smaller creative agencies have bucked the trend and set up shop in Midtown, one located on Young Avenue, in the middle of Cooper Young and the other on Cooper Street between the energy of Cooper Young and Overton Square.
For Loaded for Bear, a multi-disciplinary advertising agency, standing out from the pack begins with their name.
 Loaded for Bear
“When we were going through the naming process, there were several names that were in play,” said Loaded for Bear partner Joel Halpern. “We had a bracket and Loaded For Bear won out because of the definition. It literally means to prepare oneself. Those words resonate with us and in our work.”
The firm also chose their location in Midtown to be different from the rest. “By having our office in Midtown, it has made things a lot easier in terms of clients finding us and getting around town quickly,” Halpern said.
The almost three-year-old agency is a small one, with five employees. But Halpern said that their dedication to putting out the best work possible has led to a culture of cross-collaboration and openness. And they designed their office space to promote needed collaborative and solo time.
“It is important to have a space that encourages thought,” Halpern said.  “It is also important to have a space that is just fun and cool to be in. A lot of time is spent brainstorming ideas over beers on the couch. Having a home-like environment has really added to our work. It’s not uncommon to find clients showing up randomly just to hang out because it’s such a cool spot.”

Not very far from Loaded for Bear, in an old, small Midtown house, is Southern Growth Studio. Formerly located Downtown, the company decided that Midtown was a better fit.
 Southern Growth Studios
"We find that what we do is really think for a living and we can do that more in an old house than open space," said Michael Graber, Managing Partner of the innovation and growth strategies firm. “Downtown to us symbolized the 20th century model of the office. We have a different concept of what an office is. So for us it’s like a second home almost. We’re all comfortable, but focused.”
The 11 "studio members" (rather than employees) have no formal vacation, sick, or flex-time policy. They can also work from home, a perk that Graber says has worked for the company’s past seven years.
“Our initial thesis was if you just respect people, they’re going to respect the place and the organization,” he added. For Graber, organic and not forced collaboration is key to the culture, as well as the office space.
“The space is everything to us,” Graber said. “And it really is what I would call an organic office, an office of the 21st century, the post-industrial world. It’s a different way of working and a different mindset than assembly line, Six Sigma methodology.”
We have reported on the growing trend of coworking in Memphis: Work space that charge a fees or membership to use as needed. These places serve as important venues for new startups, budding entrepreneurs, and artists and artisans.
On any given Monday through Saturday at 594 N. Second Street, you might find a local businessperson, tourist, or writer working while noshing on a Smokey City Melt or Scutterfield Club salad. Office@Uptown offers Wi-Fi, workspace, a board room for small meetings, plus breakfast and lunch options named after nearby North Memphis neighborhoods.
According to owner Valerie Peavy, the original plan was to find a space to house her office. She and her husband bought the Uptown space and needed to figure out what to do with the additional space they weren't utilizing. After surveying what existed in the community, Peavy decided to do something different during the building renovations.
“You know there’s no place around here to make a copy or fax,” said Peavy, recounting her thoughts. “And then we realized there are not many places you can go on this side of town and sit down and eat. So the idea was ‘Can we merge the two?’"
Because Peavy lives in Harbortown, she enjoys that her business is close by. She said she was impressed by the character of the buildings and the area and she wants her business to be part of the North Memphis landscape. "We don’t want to lose that identity that still exists with the Smokey City, New Chicago, the Greenlaw, Seventh Street. We want people to still look at us as part of the neighborhood.”
Peavy offers gallery space for artists and welcomes tourists on their way to the Burkle Estate Museum. People can come into Office@Uptown to use one of the computers, send faxes, make copies, scan documents, use the WiFi, or make use of the 12-person conference room. People have used the room for small team meetings, strategy sessions, and meetings with clients. Since the Office@Uptown is centered around charter schools, teachers are regular visitors.
Making Work Home
Although rare in the city, two couples in two distinct parts of town are making the office/home hybrid work in unique ways.
Sarah Fleming and Christopher Reyes’ space in the Downtown core is home to Cat and Fish, a boutique marketing and production company, and SE2M, focusing on developing websites and online strategies. The space is also currently used as headquarters for the annual local bicycle festival, Bikesploitation. The couple work in freelance film and commercial production, as well, and are often creating sculptures and projection artworks in their home.
 Loft and small library in Chris Reyes and Sarah Fleming's downtown studio
Reyes originally purchased the property in 1992. It began as just an open warehouse space but over the years it has evolved to accommodate both living and working needs.
Fleming and Reyes’ office is downstairs and the majority of the living space is upstairs. There are not separate entry ways, but the office is located in a separate part of the house.
“Work is a part of our lifestyle,” Fleming said. “Being creative is a big part of that, and a lot of our living and working gets intertwined. And we're happy with that. The biggest challenge is probably remembering to leave and go check out the rest of Memphis.”
Fleming believes their Downtown location helps inspire their creativity. “It's such a vibrant neighborhood, I can't imagine being anywhere else, especially at an office park or something.”
Part of a joint photography team, AM Photography, with her husband Jonathan, Amanda Hill also operates a boudoir and pinup photography service, The Memphis Bombshells, out of the their Broad Avenue home. Local hair and makeup artists work out of the studio for all of her shoots, and Amanda also hosts other local artists occasionally.
“We moved into this space in September 2013 from my former studio space in Harbor Town and our house in Cooper Young,” she said. “The drive from Cooper Young to Harbor Town doesn't sound like a lot, but it can be when you have a last minute meeting or forget something!”
Amanda said that the two always wanted to be in a mixed-use space for convenience of working close to home. They looked at a space on South Main, but decided to make the move onto Broad Street after seeing the environment during the Broad Avenue Night Market last year.
 AM Photography Studio
“We saw the potential that was there, and we are very excited to be a part of the resurgence in the neighborhood,” she added.
The spaced is zoned for residential on the top floor and commercial on the bottom floor, with separate entrances for both.
Amanda counts the benefits of working and living in the same place as low gas/travel costs, easy access to her things in case she forgets something for a shoot, the ability to prepare for her clients whenever needed, and not being limited to certain hours for the sake of travel.
But the biggest challenges of working and living in the same place, she says, is how hard it can be to unplug. "I force myself to lock the studio doors, leave the computers, and ‘turn off the business’ when I walk upstairs to go home," she says.
For anyone interested in living and working in the same space, she offers this advice: “Make sure you set clear boundaries on when you will work, and when you will not work, otherwise you will work 24/7. Have your hours posted and make sure your family is a priority in that decision.”

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Read more articles by Elle Perry.

A native of Memphis, Elle Perry serves as coordinator of the Teen Appeal, the Scripps Howard city-wide high school newspaper program.