This is not your father’s office. Instead of being situated in cubicles, employees’ desks are tucked into miniature houses with little windows and siding. The break room is designed to look like a 1950s diner. The outside of the main conference room recalls a church, which would be a gathering spot in a town in New England, where the chief executive is from.
And those aren’t all the special touches Chris Cook has overseen at his business, National Vendor Management Services. The company operates out of what amounts to a small city inside a 21,000-square-foot space in Manassas, complete with narrow “streets,” real curbs around a “median” with fake grass, and bathrooms dressed up as outhouses.
Cook is president of the firm, which usually goes by NVMS. It performs real estate inspection services for commercial clients such as banks and mortgage and insurance companies.
But Cook didn’t have his indoor town created for training purposes, or to replicate clients’ properties. He just thought it would make a fun working environment.
About 10 years ago, NVMS inspected an architectural firm’s office in Atlanta that had work stations in little houses instead of cubicles.
Cook, 54, was smitten with the idea and wondered whether his business, then leasing an office, could do something similar if he owned a building.
After a few years, he asked a contractor how expensive his alternative office would be, compared with a typical one. It came out to about 2½ times the price, but Cook didn’t think that was an outrageous bill.
So in 2012, he bought a building that measured more than 44,000 square feet. It had room for an aquatic center his children’s former swim team could use — that’s the current Central Park Aquatic Center — and for his NVMS village.
He paid $3.6 million for the building and has so far spent about $1.5 million on the village components, which he continues to add to.
There’s the residential area, as well as a downtown with workspaces inside mock businesses, such as a saloon, a barbershop, a bait-and-tackle shop, a law firm with the joke name “Dewey, Cheatham & Howe,” and a bakery with a thatched roof. A real thatched roof would have been a fire hazard, so Cook hired a company that provides faux thatching to Disney theme parks.
Other details come from plays on words. A sign on the window of the chief financial officer’s digs proclaims the office “Bailey Bros. Building & Loan,” the name of the main business in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Employees who work with software are in a space that’s planned to become a hardware store, highlighting the software-hardware connection.
Some of the features came to life only after labor-intensive efforts.
For example, architectural plans initially called for a painted median strip to divide a street. Cook thought that would look too fake. He wanted curbing like what’s on real roads, but it’s difficult to rent a curbing machine or to persuade a contractor to do an indoor job, he discovered. So he bought a curbing machine, and he and two helpers made their own. The machine is still in his garage.
NVMS employs about 30 people and works with independent contractors around the country. But the more than 20 employees based at the Manassas office are the ones who regularly experience Cook’s town. They go all-out when decorating for Halloween and Christmas, their boss said, and some have brought in antiques to contribute to the scenery.
“They do really kind of get into the whole thing,” Cook said.
Alhough NVMS’s home cost more to construct than other offices, Cook will see a return on his investment if the unusual layout is in line with the company’s culture and supports the way employees need to work, said Natalie Grasso, the District-based editor of Work Design Magazine, a digital publication that focuses on workplace culture, research and design.
Workers and prospective employees pay attention to how workspaces are set up, Grasso said.
“The workplace is a really important tool for attracting and retaining talent,” she said.