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How to Add Vibrancy to Latin America's Finance Workforce

Financial services firms in Latin America looking for a social workplace should take a lesson from their vibrant culture. Image © Gensler

Editor's Note: This post is part of a series on the state of the financial services industry.

Let’s get real for a second. Latin American countries, people, and culture are vibrant, musical, bubbly, and social, with strong family bonds (kids live with their parents well into their thirties or until marriage). Play some music in any office in Latin America on a Friday around 5:30pm and you will have a dancing and singing party, or “Planchaton,” in no time!

On the other hand, financial services firms in Latin America are traditionally more conservative and hierarchical. Within more formal company culture, firms looking to add benefits to the social lives of their employees provided memberships to family clubs out in the country to be used during leisure time, keeping socialization and work separate. In the past 3 – 5 years, financial services workplaces have undergone a transformation that brings that culture into spaces that were previously more restrictive. Across the board, we see greater emphasis on collaboration and open, unassigned seating to accommodate growing headcounts and typically younger staff. We also see the appearance of hyper-amenities within the workplace; and in Latin-America, they are coming in full force. Currently these firms are working on adapting typical workplace amenities to our Latin culture and vice versa. What does this mean? Well, for starters, they are working on changing local company cultures so that top management gets acquainted with the variety of employees collaborating in and using these amenities. In more traditional offices, layouts that privilege large private offices and maintain a sharp generational divide have kept junior and support staff isolated. Part of this cultural shift is also related to the growth and support of junior talent.

Image © Gensler

The average knowledge worker spends almost half of their at-work time collaborating, a stat confirmed by Gensler’s recent workplace surveys in the US, UK, and Asia (with new data focused on Latin America coming out later this year!). Some of the most popular spaces for employees to collaborate, alongside traditional meeting/conference rooms, are cafeterias and coffee areas within the office. In addition, regional teams are working on adapting hyper-amenities to local needs and figuring out how to blend a company’s culture with the local culture. The result is hyper-amenities with a Latin twist of color and texture, mainly influenced by cultural statements such as food, music, and celebration the most popular being coffee areas, cafeterias, and event spaces. Sounds pretty typical, right? Well, not so much for the typically bare walls of Latin American financial service firms.

Cafeterias are without a doubt the most discussed and popular hyper-amenity in the region, but with clients, we find that many struggle to understand and justify the need for this kind of space. The decision to invest a large portion of real estate in an eating venue is often seen as excessive. And yet these are some of the spaces that workers are most interested in—particularly given the importance of eating as a social activity in Latin American culture. On weekends and for special occasions, we organize “lunches” as opposed to dinners. In the afternoons, we have coffee gatherings, a reminder to slow down and a prelude to the last stretch of work before people go back home. This is a cultural legacy from when farmers used to end their work days and go back home to sit on their decks, drink coffee and gather with the rest of the neighbors and family. These traditions remain part of everyday life. They are built into the rhythm of the workday and end up reflected in coffee areas and lounges. Workers demand having a full hour, or more, for lunch and a space where they can sit, socialize, and share. They also value larger coffee areas to recreate the old-fashioned afternoon “tertulia” or social gathering.

Image © Gensler

These larger socializing areas are not yet prevalent in the workplaces of traditional financial firms in Latin-America, just as they are not typical in other regions of the world. Hence, it has become a hot topic for the real estate world to ask “what are these spaces supposed to look like”? At the end of the day, these spaces are the heart of the workplace- and they often end up being the social center of many peoples’ lives. The workforce in Latin American countries uses the cafeteria space not only to eat, but also to socialize. With this more significant use in mind, companies are starting to realize that these less utilitarian spaces will require a greater investment in design to ensure comfort and inspire happiness and celebration.

Companies are working out the details of the dimensions, flexibility, and design of cafeterias, coffee areas, and event spaces. In large workplaces for approximately 1,500 – 4,500 workers, with a ratio of about 4 sq. meters/seat, a cafeteria ranges from 300 sq. meters - 900 sq. meters. Because of their large size, these spaces also double as flexible spaces to be used as training areas and event or celebratory spaces. With greater flexibility and more open programming, firms are starting to invest, more than before, in acoustic design. Cafeterias at their peak hours, as well as during their compartmentalization, need to be acoustically sound. Because nobody eats at their desk, you can expect that cafeterias will be used to full capacity in the middle of the day. The resulting spaces can be full of colorful and flexible furniture, accent colors, and acoustic paneling resembling trees and other natural elements that set these spaces apart from the rest of the workplace.

We find ourselves in the middle of a huge redefinition of the workplace across Latin America. As part of this transformation, we are realizing the significance that hyper-amenities play, both for our clients and in Gensler’s own workplaces. Cafeterias and hyper-amenties are more than just a refuge from the day-to-day grind of the workstation- they represent the heart and soul of a company’s culture. And in Latin America, where the lines between vida, trabajo, and diversión are even blurrier than ever before, our designers consider cafeterias the highlight of the projects we design and deliver across the region.

Emily is a regional leader in San José, Costa Rica and a trusted advisor to global financial services organizations entering the Latin America market. Emily’s experience in design and management of a diverse range of projects brings a unique perspective to her client’s projects and their businesses. Her commitment to creating long-lasting client relationships combined with her experience and leadership has helped her guide clients through complex projects. Emily takes pride in exceeding client’s expectations and translating them into inspiring workplaces. Contact her at emily_granadeno@gensler.com.