Food for thought

Hung prominently to one side of the reception desk, In-sync Consumer Insight’s six corporate values read as follows: Encouragement, Innovation, Passion, Teamwork, Commitment, Food. You are permitted a double-take on that last item.

” ‘It’s all about the food’ is one of our core values,” says Amanda Ram, in good-humoured defence. CFO of the international research consultancy firm specializing in bio-pharmacy branding, she is touring its newly completed Toronto office beside Darryl Balaski, one of the team leaders from design group Figure3.

Fittingly, we start at The Kitchen, the 1,100-square-foot hub at the centre of a concentric circle of offices, meeting rooms and work stations. A large, airy space, it is set with long, butcher-block tables and long-legged chairs, stainless steel appliances and plenty of counter space. A ranked series of huge Nur hanging fixtures cast an intriguingly vibrant pink glow below. It’s here that company colleagues commingle on a regular basis, eating together, meeting together, and generally hanging out together.

If that invites comparison with house parties where all the guests end up in the kitchen, it’s no coincidence, according to interior designer Chris Wright (ARIDO, IDC), a partner in Figure3 and head of the design team.

“In-sync’s work philosophy is very creative and based on a holistic synergy,” Wright says. “Their people do highly concentrated work on their own, but come together quite often to collaborate and brainstorm on projects. It’s a very social company.”

What more natural for a firm that values food so much than to make the eating area the central point, where, like a Renaissance vision of urban utopia, all roads — or in this case, office walkways — lead to?

The Kitchen’s democratic levelling extends to the work areas encircling it. None of the four senior partners possess a fancy private office. Everyone — administrators, consultant-strategists, social scientists, quantitative researchers, project managers, creative designers and writers — gets approximately the same-sized personal space. Each of these spaces incorporate a feature wall that the occupant can customize from a palette of four corporate colours: fuchsia, turquoise, grey, and In-sync’s signature Deep Orange (which also happens to be the name of the company’s ad hoc rock band). Those same colours are echoed in the rectangular, crisscross swaths of carpet throughout, as well as the free-standing, rotund book pillars clustered around a collaborative teaming area.

Individual offices are partitioned off by frosted-glass sliding doors enlivened by orange laminated “thought bubbles,” on which the occupant can write particulars of their current project, everything from relevant points to off-beat factoids. Many side walls, including several in the Kitchen, are also made with washable writing surfaces that allow quick ideas to be sketched out and explored. It seems that every urban area needs its own form of graffiti.

A further continuation of the theme of democratic cityscape is evident in the way offices are separated from the floor’s broad window banks by a carpeted corridor, thereby granting the “right to light” to all, instead of just a few lucky or highly placed employees. Rectangular “peek-a-boo” glass panes, however, slice a line through these offices, offering both natural light to their occupants and a literal window into their activities.

Random scribblings, impromptu meetings, outside light, bright colours, the ability to personalize one’s own space, and even down to the jars of candy, board games and Guitar Hero set-up in the library area — all these are more than just fun office attributes. Singly and combined, they serve to stimulate the right side of the brain, firing off the creative synapses and, ultimately, engendering innovative ideas.

And then everything comes together, like protons and neutrons in an atomic nucleus, meeting in the Kitchen, or what Darryl Balaski calls “the centre-core brain trust.”

The concept of making an employee eating area the main focus of an office is not only highly unusual, it can only really be done with a company like In-sync, which rarely receives client visits (although one suspects that those who do drop by would be quite envious of the environment). It even took In-sync’s employees a little time to get used to the whole holistic thing.

“Initially it was a shift, culturally speaking,” says Amanda Ram. “From a corporate perspective, we’ve got a lot of square footage invested here. But the collaborative areas really work. People do use the Kitchen. Like [our firm], it’s functional yet captures our sense of passion and fun.”

It’s also not a bad little place to nosh. CI