The new space age

Pleasant, designed workplaces can bring many benefits, from improved productivity and morale to an enhanced corporate identity.

Being called ‘The Doughnut’ may not sound like much of a compliment, but the new GCHQ building is proving a hit with its new occupants. So nicknamed for its layout – two circular blocks separated by a street (pictured right, during construction) – the £337m, state-of-the-art complex is a vast improvement on the organisation’s previous location, which comprised more than 50 buildings across two sites, four miles apart.

GCHQ is among a number of organisations investing time and money into improving employee workspaces. Other high-profile revamps include the Treasury’s recent £141m refurbishment and the Welsh assembly’s forthcoming £55m Cardiff headquarters. Many commercial offices have undergone well-earned facelifts as well.

So why are companies doing this? Because they care? Maybe. But more likely, it is because there is a growing realisation that pleasant, well-designed offices can boost productivity and morale, as well as improve corporate identity, image, recruitment, retention and absentee rates.

“I have no doubt that the improved quality of office buildings is almost entirely about businesses looking to create communities, not just containers, for employees,” says Paul Morrell, partner at construction consultants Davis, Langdon & Everest, and chairman at the British Council for Offices (BCO), an organisation that assesses the development, funding and design of office buildings. “It’s about the way businesses want to see their employees interact. Increasingly, buildings symbolise what an organisation is about.”

Among the most notable design trends is the open-plan office, in which barriers are broken down, allowing even senior management to emerge from the shadows. The result? Improved communication, teamwork and transparency, the very ideas that drove the design of the Treasury’s refurbishment. Previously a labyrinth of corridors and small, cellular rooms, more than seven and a half miles of internal walls were razed for the refurb; now only four of the most senior employees have private offices. The redesign also freed up 23 per cent more office space, enabling all Treasury staff to operate from the same complex for the very first time in 50 years.

Additionally, internal e-mail traffic quickly plummeted as employees engaged in more face-to-face conversations, according to the project co-ordinator Scott Harvey, deputy head of workforce management and head of HR strategy at GCHQ. This was just the result hoped for by GCHQ’s planners, who aimed to promote communication and interaction among staff. “In the old buildings, we did much of the work by telephone, particularly if it was raining or windy,” says Harvey. “There was an insular, silo mentality. We wanted greater teamworking and flexibility, and for us to be a single corporation with a single objective.”

Another priority for Harvey was that staff be able to respond to world events and group together at short notice. “We can probably form a group in five to 10 minutes now, whereas it would have taken a considerable amount of time in the old buildings,” he says. “The ability to reshape ourselves quickly is the key.”

Teamworking is a buzzword when it comes to office design. It’s something that the Bristol employers at international law firm Osborne Clarke envisioned at their new offices, so they too have gone open plan. Traditionally, lawyers operate from behind closed doors, tucked away in private offices. But Julian Hemming, partner at Osborne Clarke and mastermind of the office move, said such set-ups hinder cross-team working. “Sitting in individual boxes is not conducive to teamworking,” he says. “But it is important to us, so we wanted something to help with collaboration.”

Before finalising the plans, Hemming and a few others piloted the open-plan scheme and tested the furniture. Hemming also test-drove the idea with employees, compiling staff feedback. This approach already has borne fruit.

“I’ve learnt that it’s a powerful way of enabling us to deliver advice,” Hemming explains. “For example, if a junior lawyer has a difficult question thrown at him over the telephone, you can tell if he’s in trouble. It sounds intimidating, but it’s good because we can go over to help.”

Hemming also says open layouts are a great leveller, breaking down barriers between management and junior staff, and eliminating the stuffy, formal atmosphere created by partitioned spaces and imposing walls.

Although good office design has long been known to have beneficial effects on team morale, a survey by pollsters ICM revealed that a quarter of managers are ashamed of their workplaces. Half of the 600 managers polled reported they would sacrifice a company car, medical insurance and £1,000 of their salaries for better offices, and 45 per cent indicated they would consider working for a competitor that offered better surroundings.

While the poll results suggest employers still have a long way to go in terms of providing ideal working environments, Morrell believes the indicators are positive. “Places will only really change when the people in them demand it,” he explains. Employers must send out the right message to their workforces when redesigning their spaces. Employees want to feel cared for, that they belong to a community. Open office layouts foster that sense of community, promoting teamwork and knowledge-sharing. It also makes them feel better about their employers and can aid recruitment and retention.

When drinks giant Diageo GB moved its employees to its new premises, Nikki Cartwright, HR development director, said it literally put smiles on their faces. “For the first month, everyone walked around grinning,” she says. “The level of employee satisfaction has gone up.”

British Council for Offices –

Learning points for HR

– Consult employees, listen to concerns and explain what the redesign is for

– Research what other companies have done, looking for what has and hasn’t worked for them, and what would and wouldn’t work for your organisation

– Implement designs that boost employee productivity and satisfaction, not just those that look good

– Pilot the revamp

– Measure the results with surveys

Providing a showcase for talent and products

– This year’s winner of the British Council for Offices’ (BCO) top award is Pentland International’s HQ. It was designed to be a physical emblem of the organisation’s company ethos. The owner of well-known brands, such as Speedo, Ellesse and Berghaus, Pentland also won the BCO’s London regional and national corporate workplace award.

Based at Lakeside in North London, the company’s HQ was redesigned three years ago when it outgrew the original 1960s building.

After it was revamped, a new structure was erected, and the two now are linked by a bridge spanning a lake. Light, airy and funky, its design comprises a modern mix of chrome, chandeliers and own-brand products, and the chiefly open-plan design allows brand teams to be grouped together. On the ground floor are the cafes, one of which has a patio overlooking the lake. The main dining area provides small, private tables and long canteen tables to encourage socialising. And among the many relaxation areas are a gym, steam room and football pitch.

“We needed an environment in which people could communicate,” says Russell Taylor, Pentland’s group HR director. “Before, it was traditional, with lots of corridors and offices, and people didn’t meet much. We didn’t have a sense of community in the old building.”

Another key driver behind the refurbishment, which cost more than £20m and took three years to complete, was that the HQ could serve as a showcase for the Pentland brands. “We wanted an environment that people could be proud of and that relates to the products the company makes,” Taylor says. “We wanted to stand out and be different, but also to reflect our values and the consumers we are targeting.”

Taylor says the building is excellent for selling Pentland brands to major retailers and now is used as a site for product launches. It’s too early to collect any measurable statistics about the refurb’s overall effect, but he is confident it will improve morale, recruitment, retention, and ultimately, the bottom line.

About Pentland

As well as owning the brands outlined above, the Pentland Group licences other brands such as Lacoste. Pentland employs 2,000 staff worldwide, with 350 at its Lakeside HQ.

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