What employer in their right mind would design their office to encourage
their staff to chat? The pursuit of a
creative culture, it seems, is leading organisations to take drastic steps with
their work environment, as Phil Boucher reports
Jonathan Ive, inventor of Apple’s fantastically successful iMac, once said
that "good design starts with a good conversation", and several
leading companies have taken this concept to heart in the design of their
office developments. British Airways, Microsoft and Electronic Arts all have
invested significant sums in creating environments that encourage discussion,
coffee breaks and time away from the desk.
Apart from the obvious desire to create pleasant working environments, these
companies are trying to stimulate employee’s creativity and innovation through
conversation. But can workplace surroundings improve creativity and innovation?
"The key is to provide the conditions within which creativity can flourish,"
says Charles Landry, chairman of the Culture and Urban Development Commission.
This is a concept with which Sunand Prasad, partner at Penoyre & Prasad
Architects, agrees. By listening to staff and analysing what they want, he
contends that it is possible to create an environment that encourages people to
talk creatively about work and feel comfortable in doing so.
"It comes down to the whole area of pride and whether you feel
valued," he says. "Decent environments are a trigger for removing inhibitions,
which is important for creativity."
For British Airways, this kind of thinking has led to the creation of a
£200m headquarters in Harmondsworth, Middlesex, that John Rouse, chief
executive of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, calls
"part of the structural capital that defines what the company does and
where it’s trying to go".
Known as Waterside, the award-winning structure features a "street
environment" where multiple cafés, silent areas and landscape gardens
offer a variety of places to work, talk and relax. Instead of booking a meeting
room, staff can wander into one of the cafés and talk business over a
The result is a mobile form of working that encourages diverse conversations
as people from different departments bump into each other in the
"streets" and cafés.
Independent consultant Elizabeth Lank, who was previously programme director
of mobilising knowledge at ICL, says, "The more people interact, the more
creative ideas they come up with." To her mind, Waterside is an ideal
example of how this can be engineered.
Electronic Arts used similar thinking in the design of its new headquarters
in Chertsey, Surrey. And HR was involved from the start. Philip Burn,
vice-president of European HR (publishing), says, "Providing people with a
fresh, dramatic environment hopefully inspires fresh, dramatic ideas and we
were involved in every detail, right down to the fabric on the seats."
"We deliberately set out to create somewhere special to work,"
Burn continues. "We wanted work to be more than sitting in front of a PC.
We wanted it to be a complete experience where dialogue can occur with ease and
comfort between people from different functions."
Like BA, Electronic Arts chose a central "high street" with coffee
shops and chill-out areas. Games consoles were positioned on the walls for
employees and visitors alike.
The entire complex is situated around an 18th century lake to increase
relaxation. "As well as being a radical and challenging environment, it’s
also one you want to come to in the morning," says Burn.
But rather than spending millions on an office development, there is another
approach. Advertising agency HCCL & Partners has achieved similar ends
through hot-desking and a carefully designed seating plan.
Since it was introduced five years ago, the company has doubled in size.
"All the time, an office is making some behaviour easy and some
difficult," says HCCL partner, David O’Hanlon. "You need to come up
with a scheme that makes the good things easy to do and the bad things
HCCL’s approach is to allow people to work anywhere in the building, but to
manipulate the space so that conversation is encouraged as much as possible.
"Density is an important ingredient," says O’Hanlon. "Thirty to
40 per cent of our floor area is circulation space. People are crammed into the
working space shoulder to shoulder, so you can’t help but talk. And as they’re
hot-desking the ideas spread. It’s a bit like a pressure cooker as people spill
out into the open spaces where they bump into other people and hold chance
meetings. That’s where we think the magic happens – unexpected
Dr Robert Yeung, business psychologist with Kiddy & Partners, describes
this approach as "creating a feeling of a bar without there actually being
one". He relates its success to the settings ability to make people feel
comfortable and relaxed.
The result, Yeung claims, is that "people are willing to exchange ideas
and talk openly about things as they feel they are in a secure
A key element of this approach is personal freedom. But while it may be
appropriate for certain organisations to take such steps, others may be more
resistant, particularly in more conservative areas like banking and the civil
Without close analysis of the nature of an organisation’s existing
traditions and culture, it is easy to get it wrong as each initiative has to be
tailored to suit. Fail to do this and results could end up resembling a 1950s
staff canteen rather than a 21st century coffee shop or bar.
As Yeung asserts, "This only works if the organisation has a culture
that supports what you’re trying to do. You can have all the open space and
soft furnishings you want, but if people don’t feel they can relax it totally
misses the point."
It is essential to treat each organisation individually and avoid bland
transfers of management ideas from one sector to another. Without taking this
step, the environment can become over-prescribed and stifle the innovation it
seeks to inspire.
The entire company should be involved, from the managing director to the
post boy. Something which Rouse believes a lot of organisations ignore.
"Often those higher up the chain don’t take time to put their feet up in
break areas as they think they’re too busy and don’t see the point. As a
result, people begin to feel uncomfortable about doing it themselves," he
"People start to avoid the areas and those who don’t are very often
subjected to snide remarks by other staff members," says Rouse. "With
careful planning beforehand, this can be avoided or, at the very least,
minimised. You have to think, ‘What is our vision? What are the benefits? How
will it impact on people? How will staff take it?’ It all has to be tailored
It is only once these factors have been considered that the environment
should start to be designed. However, the nature of creativity has to be kept
in mind. People tend to think of creativity as something visited on musicians
or painters. In truth, everyone from scientists to policemen arrive at creative
solutions on a daily basis.
It is understanding the different nature of this creativity and delivering a
means of inspiring that is important. As Stephen Bradley, founder of design
consultants SpaceforBusiness, says, "What is right for creatives in an
advertising agency is very different to traders in an investment bank."
At Microsoft’s new Reading head office, this has been achieved by following
the overriding principle that "creative people work better in a
comfortable environment", says Steve Harvey, Microsoft’s director of
people, profit and loyalty. By allowing light, space and foliage to fill as
much of the building as possible, the company hopes to have created varied
environments that match several different states of mind.
"Part of my job is to create an environment where people can do great
work," says Harvey. "The top priority is speed of communications, and
within the main building there are no boundaries so you can see right from one
side to the other."
Three separate buildings are connected by a central roadway. This forces
people to walk through the middle of the building where there are places to sit
and talk. "It creates a buzz and takes some getting used to – but once you
do it enables you to talk to people much more easily," he claims.
In the case of Microsoft, the concept is to stimulate creativity by
providing harmony between an individual’s state of mind and their surroundings.
While Microsoft has chosen to do this with a large-scale office development, it
can be achieved through simply varying colours, furniture, activities or the
amount of open space within a building.
To do this, a strategic vision has to be in place. That way the subject is approached
with a view to introducing change gradually and with less risk of failure.
"The most important thing is to communicate your vision in a structured
way," explains Bradley. "It’s vital to make certain that all players
understand the intent and that it will change over time."
Architect: Bill Soper for TP Bennetts
Location: Reading, Berkshire
Microsoft’s Thames Valley Park is comprised of three separate buildings
connected by interlinking corridors. On an average day, it will house 1,000
The central feature is a main atrium that encourages informal
meetings in a light, airy environment brimming with foliage. Other innovations
include, coffee bars, picnicking areas, a specially created lake and an
"anarchy area" where games, TV and music collide to form a chill out
By the end of this year Microsoft aims to have completed the
fourth building in the development and will include an on-site creche as well
as additional areas to relax.
Architect: Foster and Partners
Location: Chertsey, Surrey
The 18,000 square metre building, which has a lake on its
northside, features a group of three-storey office blocks arranged as five
"fingers". These fingers are linked by a sweeping glass wall, which
encloses a street-like atrium. The "street" is an animated showcase
for Electronic Arts’ work and is the social focus of the campus.
Employees are able to make use of games arcades, a gym and
sports pitch, a library, a bar and a 140-seater restaurant.
Architect: Richard Rogers Partnership
Location: Chiswick, London
Chiswick Park has been designed to be a "thoughtful and surprising"
workplace for up to 10,000 people
The flexible structures which surround a central lake and
landscaped grounds, feature open-air meeting places, sculpture gardens and
hideaways where you can plug in a laptop or simply read a book.
Kiosk shops, cafes and restaurants, a health club and a
concierge are also nearby.
The idea is to generate a sense of fun. Special events have
included Joanna Lumley serving lunch in the canteen, jazz bands in the coffee
shops and mini courses on anything from life drawing to cookery.
Architect: Niels Torp
Location: Harmondsworth, Middlesex
This £200m building uses a village concept of streets and neighbourhoods.
Six four-storey buildings, each with individually-styled courtyards, are
arranged on either side of a 175-metre glazed atrium, known as The Street 8.
There is also 240-acres of parkland surrounding the development
– the largest new public park and nature reserve created in London in the last
100 years, complete with 70,000 newly planted trees.
At Waterside, 2,800 employees can order their weekly shopping
electronically from an in-house supermarket.
There is also a fitness centre, a hairdresser, a bank and a
Can office design boost
While good office design has
advantages, the opposite is true of environments that are cramped, untidy and
outdated. Workplace consultancy AMA surveyed more than 10,500 British workers
and found the vast majority of buildings are poorly laid out and in need of
Big-desk syndrome is just as prevalent in today’s senior
managers as it was in the days of Reginald Perrin, with most space being allocated
to those who use it least.
"No office will work well unless someone is actively
maintaining it," says Alexi Marmot, managing director of AMA. "A good
office is about working well, about work processes, about people and their
happiness as much as it is about the product. You have to consider everything
from the cleanliness of the loos, to fresh flowers in reception and when it’s
right to buy new furniture."
The survey found that many UK workplaces are failing to do
this, with workstations being unused for 46 per cent of the day. Furthermore,
many employers would rather save money
that invest in facilities and, in turn, create conditions that improve staff
Marmot says, "Some [employers] are just mean about
everything, but the truth is you don’t have to spend lots of cash to get things
right as major change can come through simple measures like updating the coffee
"If you think that making the business better has anything
to do with worker happiness and motivation then you are fooling yourself by
saving pennies on the working environment.
"All too often business is watching the pennies and losing
the pounds. It’s much cheaper to invest in a building that’s good and buzzy and
where people want to come to work, than it is to endlessly recruit new staff."
The way to do this, Marmot says, is to give employees a say in
what’s happening around them. "Very often it’s the simple things that make
most difference. If you involve people, you get the right solution for them and
provide them with some level of ownership. The organisation just has to be
rational and intelligent about it and solve their hassles first."