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United Way: A collaborative workplace

Originally published in Crain's Detroit Business

United Way employees Alexis Alexander (left) and Beverley Ebersold chat in the welcome center.
Photo credit: JOHN SOBCZAK

When United Way for Southeastern Michigan moved to the renovated First National Building in Detroit in May 2009, CEO Michael Brennan was looking to save the nonprofit money.

But he also wanted to create a cool environment for United Way's employees.

He moved the organization from a 12-story location to a two-story space and asked employees to give up their desks. The move saved $300,000 a year, and at the same time led to a workplace more suited to the tasks at hand.

"It's a very collaborative work environment because you're not isolated by departments," said Annie Dunsky, director of donor relations, corporate sector. "With so many of us being mobile, it really helps us stay connected."

When walking through the doors of United Way, people might think they've walked into a trendy downtown New York office, Dunsky said. Parts of the ceiling and the walls are exposed brick, and a range of booths, tables and open cubicles provide work space for the two-thirds of United Way's 110 employees who don't have permanent desks.

That includes Brennan.

"I call it a combination of office space, loft space and Roman ruins," he said. "We don't like to think of the space as housing for our employee workforce."

Dunsky was a volunteer with United Way before becoming an employee and said the space and feel of the office have contributed to employees' success.

"I think it's very innovative to the Detroit area and is the future of what office space could look like," she said.
Dunsky

Dunsky, who managed corporate giving at IBM before joining United Way, said the leadership and closeness of the employees drew her to the organization.

"The environment I came from, although we had mobility and flexibility, as a staff we didn't come together as much in the way we do here," she said. "Having a connection with people, even in our remote environment, you need to have a balance of that to work."

United Way employees also are given one paid day off per quarter to volunteer in the community.

"We have a desire for people to be engaged in the community because we wake up every day and ask other people to volunteer," Brennan said. "We think we should model what we ask."