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McClatchy-Tribune  08/24/2014 6:03 AM ET
A wide-open way of working HSBC's office format moves employees out of cubicles, into close quarters [The Buffalo News, N.Y. :: ]

Aug. 24--Kevin Quinn is HSBC Bank's top Buffalo-based executive, but these days, he works like other employees in the bank's downtown Atrium building: sitting on a bench, at a table split by a low-rise divider.

The format, which HSBC began rolling out locally about a year ago, was a big change for anyone accustomed to working in clusters of cubicles, with offices along the outside walls claiming the best views. Now everyone works in a more wide-open setting, and employees are minding their habits.

"The first couple of weeks you had a little bit of that, people who liked to whistle they work, or hum, or speak loudly," said Quinn, senior vice president and managing director for HSBC Bank USA's upstate commercial banking business. "That tends to have a bit of a self-policing mechanism, because you will quickly see heads turn, people will notice."

HSBC chose Buffalo as one of six locations to introduce the format, which the bank calls "open work." Bank officials say the layout encourages collaboration and gives HSBC more flexibility to manage its office space, especially with the influx of workers from the nearby tower that used to bear the company's name.

Employees had to get accustomed to other differences from a typical office setting. In some parts of the building, employees do not have assigned seats. Instead, they take an available space and get to work. Employees have their own file cabinets and lockers for their belongings, but the storage units are located away from the work stations.

"Theoretically we will evolve as a company to where you can take any desk," said John Beckinghausen, HSBC senior vice president of corporate real estate for the U.S.

HSBC's new format is not the norm among private employers. The most recent survey by the International Facilities Management Association says only 8 percent of private offices were using no partitions or low partitions as of 2010, up slightly from a 2007 survey. Sixty percent still used the cubicles and movable partitions familiar to fans of "Dilbert" and "Office Space."

The switch at HSBC's Buffalo operations began last year as the bank vacated the tower then known as One HSBC Center. Workers moved into two other existing HSBC locations: the Atrium, which is next to First Niagara Center, and a leased facility in Depew that uses the same new format.

The Buffalo area joined HSBC offices in Mexico City; London; Dubai; Sydney, Australia; and Mumbai, India, in making the change. Beckinghausen said the bank will apply lessons from those six locations as it expands "open work" to its operations worldwide.

Office upgrades

HSBC pledged to pour $35 million into upgrading the Atrium and the Depew facility, and plans to complete that investment by early next year.

Though HSBC no longer has retail branches in Western New York, the bank still employs about 3,000 people in the region in areas including commercial, private and corporate banking, and back-office roles for national and global operations.

Depending on the nature of their jobs, not all of the employees need an assigned seat in an office each day, Beckinghausen said. And since HSBC employees sometimes drop into Buffalo from other places, the bank provides a "touchdown" room of unassigned work stations for them.

"We do support several global businesses from this building, so we do have a regular flow of visitors coming to and fro," said Neil Brazil, an HSBC spokesman.

Technology improvements have helped make the workplace changes possible. HSBC added wireless Internet throughout both the Atrium and Depew site, giving employees the freedom to pick up their laptops and work from a variety of spots.

Amid the push for "open work" and collaboration, HSBC made accommodations for privacy, recognizing that not everything need be shared. Employees can duck into small, unassigned offices to work on confidential information displayed on their laptops, use a headset to carry on a sensitive conversation, or huddle privately with a co-worker. Employees are supposed to use these private spaces when ne

 

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