By employing college students on a part-time basis, Jackson National Life Insurance Company—one of the largest sellers of annuities in the U.S.—identifies and begins training its future associates. Spurred by overcrowding at its Lansing, Michigan, headquarters, as well as the opportunity to increase recruitment efforts, Jackson leased a 33,000-square-foot, two-story building adjacent to Michigan State University (MSU) to house its new workspace for the highly sought-after millennial generation. Dubbed “The Zone,” the new office space—a former Barnes & Noble location—would provide students with a unique place to gain real-life work experience and direct access to employment after graduation.
As their long-time consultant, Jackson enlisted GS&P to provide interior design, graphic design and programming services, as well as facilitate focus group studies with students. The overarching goal was the creation of a new development center that would not only help the firm attract and retain top talent from MSU, but also increase its public outreach by providing a home base for the Jackson National Community Fund (JNCF), offering students, community members and Jackson associates opportunities to volunteer.
“Jackson identified the vacated Barnes & Noble bookstore space for their new development center for its opportunity to be a before- and after-class hub of student activity just a block away from MSU,” explains Jack Weber, senior interior designer and principal-in-charge on the project. “They wanted a property with extremely close proximity to the campus, and its downtown location is ideal because it’s right across the street from the main part of campus, along with student centers and housing.
“One of the unique aspects of this project was the business-driver attraction and retention component. Jackson is a big player in Lansing, and their market share has to grow within Lansing in terms of the number of people they’re able to recruit to the firm, so they have to be very creative in how they draw and keep talent.”
Encompassing a complete interior renovation of the two-story building, GS&P’s modern makeover would include: replacing two escalators with a feature stair; a hip and flexible common area for students; a break area; bike storage; a work area and space for the JNCF on the building’s main level; and an open workspace with enclaves, training rooms and support spaces on the lower level.
“The old bookstore space was dark, dingy and outdated,” says Weber, “so one of our biggest challenges was to make it far more inviting despite the limited amount of natural light. We were also charged with generating the design and construction documentation within an incredibly tight time frame so the space would be ready for the students by the fall semester, and that presented yet another formidable challenge.”
From a Student’s Perspective
After carefully determining Jackson’s functional needs for space, GS&P began to explore design and function from the students’ point of view. This involved leading a student-centered focus group through a process of discovery that revealed what students considered important for both image and functionality. This distillation of information also allowed the design team to glean the importance of issues such as access to information, social gathering, bike storage, privacy and comfort.
From there, GS&P’s next task was to quickly begin conceptualizing the layout and locations for primary work zones, training, break areas and collaborative and utility spaces, as well as an area that would officially be called the “hang space.”
“The Zone was all about the students, and we wanted to support what was the most comfortable to them,” says Weber. “We interviewed potential students, as well as students who were already working for Jackson at their headquarters, and asked them what they’d most like to see, do or have access to. One of the significant findings to come out of the work session was that they needed an area where they could simply hang out—a place where they could eat, do their homework or whatever they wanted to. It had to support a variety of activities and at the same time be hip, comfortable and inspirational.”
Offering a variety of seating areas, mobile booths and table spaces—along with a kitchen area that gives students a place to study or simply socialize—the hang space is located on the building’s main floor at street level, providing prime storefront visibility.
“Jackson’s main goal was to attract the students from across the street, and they wanted them to be able to see inside as they were heading to the nearby Starbucks or bookstore in between classes and say, ‘Wow; what’s that?’” says senior interior designer Michelle Oakley. “The design solution we came up with is both eye-catching and functional, and it features distinctive elements such as a huge chalkboard wall that allows students to communicate announcements or events that are happening throughout the month.”
“It’s unique to anything in East Lansing,” adds Weber. “It’s not a typical space for anything. It’s not retail. It’s not office. It’s not somebody’s living room. It’s a very different place. And students like things that are different and not necessarily the status quo, so that makes it hip. It’s everything that other spaces are not.”
Designed to be flexible as well as stylish, GS&P’s hang space design incorporates polished concrete floors, wood elements, open ceilings, glass partitions, inside bike storage and an on-site training room. The multipurpose space also doubles as a public zone for Jackson’s Community Fund activities, allowing for large group meetings.
An Engaging Solution
Another prominent feature to emerge from the student-centered focus groups was the creation of the bleacher-seat stairway that serves as a large gathering space for impromptu collaboration, study sessions or larger groups.
“The old Barnes & Noble layout featured two escalators—one going up and one going down—which connected the lower level to the main level,” explains Oakley. “We immediately started thinking about how we could change this because escalators aren’t necessarily inviting or fun. We wanted to keep that space open because there are no windows at all downstairs, so to engage the upper and lower levels, we came up with the concept of a connecting bleacher stair that could also be used for community events.”
“The bleacher-stair solution maximizes that vertical space,” adds Weber. “It makes it an active space versus just making it a link and circulation route. Now it’s a place of communication and camaraderie.”
Encouraging collaboration and impromptu interactions as students come and go from their workspace, the 25-by-25-foot bleacher stair has the capacity to hold up to 50 people easily, and features reclaimed wood from barns and horse stables in Michigan.
Work Zones and More
Located on both the main and lower levels of the building, the design team centered work zones around the large opening between the floors where the bleacher stair connects the two spaces both physically and visually.
“We designed these work zones for both full-time and part-time associates who we knew would have the ability to tailor their individual work schedules around their class schedules,” explains Weber. “These spaces weren’t meant to be collaborative because the nature of the work is primarily data entry. So it was more about creating visual access to the entire environment, and it’s a very open and flexible atmosphere. There are no assigned seats in these work zones, and students can simply come in and choose their workspace on any given day.”
To offer privacy when needed for small groups or private phone conversations, enclaves were distributed throughout the space. Glass-enclosed meeting spaces were also added throughout to provide places for larger group meetings. As training is a large component of Jackson’s new employee onboarding, a large training room and pre-function space were designed to accommodate up to 40-person training sessions.
Several café areas were distributed throughout the two floors to give associates access to refreshments or a place to simply take a break and converse with fellow co-workers. A large bike storage facility on the building’s main level provides a secure place for associates to lock up their bikes, scooters, wet clothes, umbrellas, snow wear and other personal gear away from their desk.
Designing with Transparency
To breathe new life into the former Barnes & Noble space—which only featured windows on the side of the building’s main level and on its front facade facing the street—GS&P incorporated glass walls and access to daylight to help the dark two-story interiors feel bright, open and spacious.
“Wherever there was daylight, we maximized exposure to it by using glass walls almost everywhere,” explains Weber, “so there are very few enclosed drywall offices or spaces of that nature.
“We looked at the lighting and ceiling components in a different way with this project, and tried to keep the ceilings open so it created bigger volumes of space rather than trying to bring a ceiling down to the standard 9-foot height. And when something did need to be enclosed, we mostly enclosed it in glass to allow the light to come through.”
“We didn’t want people to look up and experience a sea of ceiling tile,” adds Oakley. “So we took out all the ceilings to expose the structure, which not only opened up the space but also made it feel more current.”
“I think we did a good job transforming the interiors from what everyone on campus knew as a Barnes & Noble to this more electrified space where they could enjoy hanging out,” says interior designer Amy Klinefelter. “In fact, a student and Jackson associate who was very familiar with the former Barnes & Noble told me that she immediately sees the contrast when she walks in the building, and that it’s gone from a ‘boring space’ to an environment that’s fun and lively.”
Completing the design as well as construction documentation within an extremely aggressive one-month schedule, GS&P successfully met one of the project’s key challenges, allowing The Zone to be open for business by the fall semester.
“The Zone is a win-win project for the city of Lansing, Michigan State and Jackson,” says Weber. “We were able to take a two-story, 33,000-square-foot space, turn it into something that wasn’t your typical office space, make it flexible, efficient and inspiring, and do it super fast!”
“We’re pleased that GS&P created the visionary facility we were looking to provide, and our associates greatly value the fresh, welcoming environment,” concludes Greg Farhat, director of workplace strategies and delivery at Jackson. “The modern, multipurpose space not only meets our associates’ needs, but also serves as an ideal meeting spot for local organizations, helping our company better connect to our community.”