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 necessary, rather than turning them into their own offices.

Using office voices

Still, it’s not as simple as rolling out a new format and expecting employees to embrace it. And an open-style format presents its own challenges.

HSBC prepped employees on etiquette, encouraging them to use “office tones,” Beckinghausen said.

Mark Zeis, senior vice president and area director, has noticed a gradual change at the Atrium. “Probably the first 30 or 60 days, you had to get used to the fact there were people on either side of you and in front of you,” along with the accompanying background noise. Now, he said, “you almost tune it out, because you’re so involved in what you’re doing.”

Employers that adopt an open-space format sometimes use features like soundproof “focus rooms” and white noise to cut down on ambient distractions, said Jed Link, a spokesman for the International Facilities Management Association. But human behavior ultimately has a lot of influence on the format’s success or failure, such as wiping down a shared work station to help prevent the spread of illness, or talking more quietly on the phone, he said.

Bryant G. Rice, a business consultant with San Francisco-based Equal C, said open-space work formats are catching on in the United States, but there is still a “territoriality of space” mindset in many workplaces, as in, “my space vs. our space.” The open format is more prevalent in Europe, where there is more of a “sharing culture” and the go-to approach is a shared room or office for workers, he said.

As for the effect on productivity, Rice said an open-space format benefits teams of employees working on a group project. “An open environment really fuels collaboration because you can see people you need to talk to. When you need something, you get an answer much faster.”

At the Atrium, Zeis sees similar results with his HSBC colleagues.

“Before, when we were in the (tower), we were in cubes,” Zeis said. “You didn’t really know who was there, who was not there in the office, and if you look in there now, you know who’s in the office, who’s not in the office.”

Shaun Mallen, vice president of corporate banking, said he now senses “an energy, a hum, when everyone is working.”

“You’d be surprised how that kind of wide open space actually impacts your work day to day,” Mallen said. “It’s a lot easier to get things done and to get immediate answers for your customers.”

Not all excited

If employers adopt an open-work format, they have to pay attention to the details, said Paul Tesluk, chair of the department of organization and human resources at the University at Buffalo’s School of Management. “I think you often see where things like this succeed and where they underachieve is around how they’re nuanced.”

Walls and partitions may create separation among employees, but those same barriers give employees some private space, Tesluk said. “What might be stimulating and engaging for one person in terms of a physical work environment can be utterly frustrating and distracting and just difficult for someone else.”

Susan Cain has expressed skepticism of open office plans. The author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” wrote an article for Bloomberg BusinessWeek questioning the format’s impact on productivity. She urged workers to escape to private places when possible, among other strategies for coping. “You have to find ways to draw physical boundaries,” Cain wrote.

But some HSBC employees say information now flows more freely between them without cubicles in the way. And they are getting to know their co-workers better.

“It definitely fosters a sense of team for sure,” said Laura Bickert, vice president of corporate banking. “It’s more pleasant to come to work when you are more familiar with your colleagues.”

Fewer calls home

Another effect: people are more aware of their conversations.

“It certainly cuts down on a lot of the idle banter that individuals might have been carrying on with their spouses, or with their friends, on the telephone or whatnot, because you’re in the open, you’re sharing with everyone,” Quinn said. “So I think there’s a certain amount of efficiency that’s driven into the workspace, as well.”

Quinn often needs to have private conversations with colleagues, and he steps into an office when necessary. But he said employees are getting accustomed to the new format, and they appreciate the Atrium’s refreshed appearance and tech upgrades.

HSBC employees are not the only ones noticing the changes. A number of HSBC clients, from different industries, have toured the facility, as they make plans to build or renovate their own work spaces. “They want to see what the layout’s all about and whether it is for them,” Quinn said. “And it’s different for every organization because of their own culture or history, as to whether they think they can pull it off.”