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Amex takes inspiration from Silicon Valley for new Canadian head office

Each floor at the new Amex headquarters in Toronto features a “pantry” or kitchen space in addition to the main dining area, which provides subsidized healthy meals, a Tim Hortons kiosk and seating for up to 200 people.


American Express has new chairs. And anybody who's gone through the pains of searching for, testing and finding the perfect office chair will know just how big the payoff can be.

"I've had a few creative thoughts just by sitting in one of those crazy orange chairs," said Naomi Titleman, the vice-president of human resources for Amex Canada.

That's exactly the kind of result credit-card issuer Amex is trying to create with the with the move of roughly 2,000 employees to its new Canadian head office in Toronto completed this month.

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In stark contrast to its former headquarters in Markham, Ont., Amex's new digs evoke the look and feel of the head offices of Silicon Valley-type companies: From whiteboard walls to state-of-the-art fitness facilities, the workspace screams startup.

"[It's] a very, very different environment here. We have lots of open airy space. It looks much more like a trading desk in a lot of ways rather than traditional cubicles with high walls," Ms. Titleman said.

In an effort to woo employees with a new and improved flexible work style, Amex is in the process of redefining itself as an employer.

With business casual dress, and a Montessori school, dry-cleaner and convenient store all on site, every decision made about the new headquarters was focused on building a positive corporate culture, Ms. Titleman says.

"The world has changed and we need to change with it. So with our new home … we've really planned and designed the space completely around the needs of our employees."

Those needs, Amex decided, include a subsidized cafeteria with healthy-eating options, a gym equipped with running track, salt-water pool and tennis courts, and and a free shuttle to the building from Don Mills subway station.

And open space. Lots and lots of it: for concentrating, collaborating, eating, exercising – you name it.

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"Any time throughout the day if that space that you are in does not work for the purposes of whatever you are doing, you can choose to get up and go to a different space," Ms. Titleman said.

In fact, working in the same place for too long is discouraged: while there are a number of executives who have assigned offices, everyone else keeps their belongings in personal lockers and filing drawers, and reserve a different work area each day, depending on the project.

"Many, many jobs no longer need to be done sitting at the same desk from 9 to 5, so we need work styles and work spaces to reflect this change," Ms. Titleman said.

There's no doubt the way work gets done is evolving. Technology has made it easier for people to work remotely and at their own rhythm. And a certain type of flexibility in the office is what top talent has come to expect.

Born out of Silicon Valley – where attracting and retaining talent is considered vital – the idea that luring the cream of the crop to your organization requires Facebook and Google-style office perks is catching on outside the tech industry.

In 2010, a survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management found the biggest workplace challenge of the decade for HR is getting the best people to work for you. The same survey found the most effective way to attract that new talent was providing flexibility to balance life and work.

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Amex seems to have got the message. The personalized gym classes, muralled walls and around-the-clock "technology concierge" suggest the company is pulling out all the stops to win over employees.

And if sparking creative thinking and collaboration among employees means giving them the flexibility to hold meetings over a quinoa salad in cafeteria or while sweating together during company Pilates classes, then head office is going to get on board with that.

Having already rolled out their flexible-workspace strategy, called BlueWork, in several of its U.S. offices, the Canadian market is its latest frontier.

And yet, even Ms. Titleman is first to admit Amex was late to the game in embracing the flexible work style in its Canadian office. "Tech companies have been doing this for a while," she said. "We're near the 12th [office in the global network] to embrace this 'workplace of the future.'"

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