Monday, 20 July 2009 15:55

Time for change

For some, the deep-rooted power of a corporation like Microsoft prompts feelings of intense irritation and mistrust. It’s the curse of providing a product that people need and that is by most standards more efficient than anything else on the market. Customers (not to mention competitors) feel disheartened by a lack of real choice and presume that they are victims of a mounting monopoly. In fact, it’s kind of like shopping at Tesco. You don’t particularly want to, but it is by far the easiest option. And that is where Microsoft’s reputation was when it decided to make a change at its Dutch headquarters.Since heaps of design innovation can be traced back to the Netherlands, it makes sense that Microsoft’s Amsterdam office is the one to trial the new way of working – a radical experiment to show the world that the multinational beast was human, accessible and best of all, a living example of how its products can change the workplace.In essence, we’re talking about a six storey corporate building, 950 employees and no desks. Logistically speaking, it is a recipe for disaster. But Microsoft was intent on a new way of doing things. The latest terminology is ‘non-territorial work’ or ‘activity-based working’. This project goes beyond established ideas of hot-desking because the underpinning philosophy is that employees need not show up at the office at all. Microsoft uses its digital technology so fluently that a person can do their job from home, outside of the office, or in any nook or cranny inbetween. This build project needed to provide real incentive for human interaction and collaboration. It needed to draw people to it.We’ve heard these buzz words before – and we’ve certainly heard companies talk about flexibility and a collaborative culture replacing being glued to a desk for a specific period of time – but we don’t usually see it implemented so drastically, in a company of this scale, or with such militaristic precision.Designer Sevil Peach was on board from the start, directing base build architects Cepezed on changes that would suit the clients’ need for transparency. Rearranging voids and introducing a central staircase made horizontal and vertical connections between the floors. A central courtyard with glazed meeting pods is visible throughout the first floor, the social heart of the building. This communal floor, with its many work and leisure spaces, introduces visitors (there are 500 – 1000 each week) to the way the company operates. Coffee bar, cantina, work carousels, relaxation zones, sleeping pods, meeting rooms, boardrooms, auditoriums and work benches are all available for employees to use.The goal was to encourage movement and a feeling of freedom, says Peach. There is no clock-watching and people are measured by the quality of their output rather than simply showing up and sitting at their desks. If a space isn’t used for an hour, it needs to be cleared for someone else. Managers are encouraged to establish a ‘physical minimum’ with their teams – so one team may decide to work together at a particular table on Mondays, while another team might have a day-long meeting once a month in the cafe. It’s revolutionary in the sense that it demands people let go of their traditional ideas of work.“We approached this whole change, and the building, as a journey,” says Gonnie Been, spokesperson for Microsoft and who was on the steering committee during the design process. “We take steps and then look to see if they are working.” Aside from a reputation overhaul, one of the core ideas was also to implement sustainable growth, she adds. “The move into this building was one of the biggest interventions in order to get the change going. You take people out of their normal comfort zone and put them into a new environment, and chaos is the best way to change patterns.”Chaos indeed – with 950 people milling around and no designated workspace (including the most senior management) – it could seriously backfire. For one, it presents specific human resources and management issues. But, Sevil points out, it’s an evolution. “You can’t just sit back and be comfortable when you’re working on such an experimental environment,” she says. It has shown positive results from anonymous surveys, which is a good thing since the flexibility is essential to sustainable growth in a company of this magnitude. It means less bulk, less furniture, less paper, less stuff. (99% of all Microsoft work processes are paperless and lockers are available if anything needs to be stored.) Clever ways of dividing space visually, using textured panels to control acoustics and carving out a variety of mini-environments suitable to different kinds of work is what the scheme is based on. Each office floor has a designated colour to help with navigation and a series of informal meeting areas, tables and chairs, concentration rooms, booths, soft seating, couches, etc. The idea is that a Microsoft staffer need only ask him or herself what the mood calls for. “Design isn’t a stylistic intervention,” Peach says. “It is actually an enabling process that makes things happen and brings changes to people, which is exactly what they are trying to do.”And ultimately, it is the ideal marketing tool. “We’re not showing you the technology as a demo – you see people using it from human perspective. It’s much stronger,” says Gonnie. “That’s what we’re trying to do here – to create a showcase of how we believe the world of work is going to evolve.”
Published in Projects
Monday, 09 February 2009 14:21

Centre stage

The work of Belfast-based Hackett Hall McKnight does a lot to answer the question of whether great architecture is happening in the far corners of the UK. Having beat stiff London competition for the coveted Young Architect of the Year Award (YAYA), HHM is another reminder that exceptional work is done by architects based outside of London. In fact, one could say that, in terms of architecture, HHM has put Northern Ireland (and Belfast in particular) on the map.

Published in Projects
Thursday, 22 January 2009 14:40

A fine finnish

Finnish architect Jukka Halminen is refreshingly honest when quizzed on a design detail of this Helsinki office. “I don’t really remember why we used yellow,” he admits, before considering the question and offering an answer: “We just thought it was fun.”
Published in Projects
Tuesday, 17 June 2008 16:41

Nip/ tuck

nipOperating under the moniker OfficeLifting, architects at Berlin-based practice raumteam:92 are responding to that infamous “efficient” German stereotype in kind.Since the 1990s Germany’s capital city has undergone a structural renovation the likes of which no other European city has seen since the end of World War Two. Berlin’s buildings have received enviable architectural treatment at the hands of international talent (in 1999 Sir Norman Foster had converted the former Reichstag into the new German Parliament; it’s glass cupola has since been hailed the “hallmark” of the city) and via more indigenous means.Stephan Braunfels, Axel Schultes and Charlotte Frank, Von Gerkan Marg and Partners, Hans Kollhoff, Josef Paul Kleihues and now raumteam:92 – the subject of this story – have each left a mark on the “new look” Berlin and, arguably, as inhabitants of the city these architects have proved best placed to reshape their home. There is a reason for this: like Germans on the whole, Berliners are internationally renowned for their skills in engineering and design. But unlike their countrymen, Berlin’s avant-garde have had reason to safeguard their city’s identity more than most. In the wake of the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the city’s occupants began a salvage mission; they set about regaining a collective sense of identity. It’s had a profound affect on all Berliners’ ways of working, but raumteam:92 has perhaps epitomised the approach with its innovative form of interior architecture, OfficeLifting. Angelika Zwingel, a project leader at raumteam:92, says the firm coined the phrase to describe its bit-part approach to interior architecture (“you could call it interior design, but we think that’s too generic a term”), a self-styled “integrative design strategy which, with careful means, is aimed simultaneously at designing the spatial company identity and at structural improvements in the actual work environment”. The term was borrowed from the practice of plastic surgery, as recipients of such treatment receive a nip here and a tuck there – just enough to revive weary elements, but not a whole new face. But OfficeLifting is about much more than just semantics. A fundamental aspect of the approach is the use of design to harmonise the formulation of external company branding with internal authenticity – bearing great resemblance to the citywide effort to secure a new identity for Berliners without losing any more of the old one. “During my time in England and the States I encountered a much more developed awareness towards the intrinsic qualities of an intentionally formed space (as opposed to mere ‘hip design’),” says Zwingel, “and there was a greater openness there to provide a reasonable budget to achieve it. Berlin is a great place to watch all sorts of recycling, tuning and the recharching of spaces and objects on a highly individual level, but in the end it all comes down to money and Berlin, or perhaps Germany in general, has certainly not been a place where money was found on the streets and available to spend easily.” Thankfully, expense isn’t an issue when it comes to OfficeLifting. All improvements are bespoke and tailored to budget, and despite the outlay being joyfully inexpensive, it’s clear from raumteam:92’s past projects that the results clients can expect are quite outstanding. In the case of Schröder+Schömbs, a public relations company based in Berlin Mitte, utilising textile partitions enabled the firm flexibility in terms of spatial division. The makeshift walls play confidently with the building’s depth and lighting conditions too, offering a sense of identity to a design that had previously been defined by clutter. Likewise, at Zucker PR, also located in Berlin Mitte, working with a budget Zwingel describes as “minute” proved inspiration on the project rather than the hindrance it might typically have been. The team enjoyed much success through the simple and subtle implementation of plants; the architects hung flower boxes with the help of a carpenter, and stencilled plant-like visuals on the walls, which wove an energising green thread through the Zucker office to “revitalise” its staff. “It is probably not surprising that the two OfficeLiftings we think have been most exceptional were designed for PR agencies,” says Zwingel. “The best clients we’ve worked with have understood the influence of a carefully conceived finish and did not hesitate to invest in thought rather than shiny surfaces. Working with people who are open to experimenting with their space in order to find a strong theme is fundamental in achieving more than a pretty arrangement of elements.”It’s not the first time during our interview that Zwingel has sworn by the benefits of client interaction. She is quick to stress the importance of input from employees too, even citing examples where OfficeLifting projects had failed due to a lack of input from those sources. “We have had projects that didn’t work because we felt that we weren’t able to really incorporate the ideas of the employees,” says Zwingel. “This was either because there weren’t many or the client would tell us what he or she thought employees needed, but that doesn’t work because the client has different needs to the employee. It can be hard work convincing the client that it’s important for us to talk to their employees.” But judging by the results, this collaborative approach has proved invaluable.

Published in Projects
Wednesday, 09 May 2007 23:00

Syringe benefits

Syringe benifitsWords by Michael Willoughby British firm Scott Brownrigg Interior Design has created the new offices for medical company BD in Oxford. Michael Willoughby went to experience the organised randomness

The people from BD, an American medical instrument and drug manufacturer, were scoping out a refurbished 19th-century asylum when they saw what is their current home over the way in Oxford’s Science Park.

A certain amount of insanity is to be expected the day I visit the company’s new HQ, since it is Red Nose Day. I am told that the UK division of the New York-based company’s 130 employees have officially moved into the pristine building., but the place seems empty – the ophthalmic department, for instance, currently consists of one man.

So instead of the madcap jollity I was expecting (Peter Thomas, designer with Scott Brownrigg, was scared that men dressed as chickens would haunt the official photographs he’d commissioned today), I see an electronic mouse in a ball whirring its way through the building, an empty, impromptu barber’s chair surrounded by charity hair clippings and Thomas’ crazy-angled corridors and archways covered in blue film. Views through the nearly deserted first-floor training area look like a blue take on Superman’s Kryptonite cave. The feel is more David Lynch than Children in Need.

But there is method in at least Thomas’ apparent madness: the angles at which the internal architecture is constructed mirror those at which the wings project from the main building. The angles from the plan end up in the elevation. This crystallinity is echoed everywhere, from the reception desk in the lobby to the countertops in the staff restaurant, made of cement and recycled glass composite respectively. It is almost as though the building was a chemical that had grown itself in a test tube. Science is the art of discovering the rules to what might look random to a casual observer, and Scott Brownrigg’s architecture seems to pay homage to this. Occasional meeting points, peopled with some of the last century’s best furniture, pop up throughout the building, particularly on the ground floor. Jouissance is not to be confused with haphazardness.

What there is is a looseness and limberness – a spontaneity – that has, it seems, played to BD’s advantage, helping it to become a Fortune 500 company. The same people appear on different teams in different “businesses” within the company and in different regions. If it’s confusing to the outsider, perhaps that is not surprising. Each employee (or “associate”) is regarded as unique. The best line I can get on it is from Tim Daley, business director for Western Europe, which is that the company is a matrix.

Randomness is – literally – celebrated in the company. The CEO is known to stand on a T-junction in the Manhattan HQ and chat to employees as they walk past.

Facilities manager Tony Ford says the same thing has begun to happen here since the overhaul. “I saw a facilities guy from Europe I hadn’t seen since November. There was another guy from San Diego. We were able to get together spontaneously without worrying about booking a meeting room or ordering tea and coffee. You can’t buy that kind of thing.”

What did that mean for Peter Thomas? Logistics had to be carefully worked out with HR to keep teams sensibly together. It was a challenge, but also an opportunity: the move took place over several months and was organised by a series of committees and task forces comprised of employees. Sometimes the head of the task force was an obvious choice – like the training task force – but in other cases, the group was set up specifically for the move. For example, the aesthetics task force was comprised of a guy from marketing, a guy from graphics and Tim Daley, chosen because he had a feel for or an interest in design.

The news of the move was put together by another “impromptu” task force – the “communications, relocation and associate engagement task force”, who produced a monthly newsletter called “On the Move – your dedicated source of news and information on the Oxford office relocation”. The purpose of this was not just to update people on progress and keep them keen, but to gee them up when they needed to do something, like dispose of the 1km long line of boxes full of crapola – over 60 per cent of stuff that the company had collected in a 25-year residency in its former home – that consultants McDermott Associates said they could probably do without. The feeling behind what they called the “Late Spring Clean”, which took place in the summer, reminds one of a family moving house, or pupils and teachers breaking the school down together on the last day of term. Everyone was, it seems, expected to do their bit.

In short, the emphasis at BD is on the fact that the organisation is the associates as opposed to it being management that directs the employees. As little as possible is taken from outside the company even when that involves appointing associates to roles one would normally give to consultants of one kind or another. For example, the photos that line the walls were taken by a man from the graphics department who is a keen photographer and was sent into the city to take a variety of types of photograph. When the aesthetics task force settled on “abstract” he was then dispatched to take more of that type.

And, while still a consultant, Peter Thomas, the task force and the committee leaders worked tremendously closely together throughout the process. “I think Peter and I are more or less friends, now,” Daley says. “Probably because we spent so much time together.”

And Ford, who himself has a 20-year design background, had an overwhelming input into the process of designing his areas, adding, for example, a drop-down kerb in the goods delivery point and ensuring that the circulation of drop-offs and pick-ups was kept away from the client-facing front of the building. So adjacencies were not the only rules that Thomas had to work to. Despite the fact that BD wanted a fair amount of cellular offices, it also wanted everyone to have a view of the outside or at least access to daylight. This was accomplished by keeping the walls of the cellular offices as glassy as possible. Lines of offices in the previous building frequently had blinds pulled and doors locked by absent employees, making the space dark for the remainders.

Another rule was that the more permanent the staff (the less the travelling), the better the view they should have. Therefore, the marketing and sales staff have the plum vista of the manicured Science Park gardens and the fountains while the CEO has a view of the car park.

“You could argue that he is keeping an eye on who is arriving. Possibly.” Thomas says, charitably, of the less than glorious position. But it was the glory of the grounds – of the view of the setting – that attracted the firm to the spot in the first place. Grasses and bushes are meticulously shaped and curved like the surrounding Cotswold hills, to provide a smooth and subtle backdrop to the life of the company inside. One side has the view of a fragment of a French formal garden, the other a high fountain. The glass walls of the building allow the light and the subtle colours to stream in and Thomas was extremely keen to get the “outside in”, echoing the colours of the vegetation on the inside and the lines of the terrace leading to the fountain in the atrium.

“The whole inside is very neutral, balanced by measured splashes of the strong orange and blue,” he says. But glass has a downside. The atrium, welcoming to visitors with its meeting areas and high ceiling, is also a terrific noise generator. Thomas had to keep the offices away from the perimeter. At least the atrium was not filled with the sound of glass breaking – the chandelier hanging high in the space was to be supplied by a local glass blower, but Thomas and facilities manager Tony Ford decided that he wasn’t convincing enough. “What with the air channel through the atrium and the tension of the wires, I was thinking: ‘Glass balls – shatter – crash!’” Ford says.

Thankfully Thomas solved the problem of what became known throughout Scott Brownrigg as “Pete’s Balls” by finding a specialist – Bocci. The final solution is inspiring, capturing and emphasising the lightness of the place. Tim Daley says the staff has responded extremely well to the change of environment. “Everybody is extremely pleased with it,” he says. The whole tone has dramatically shifted to a much more motivated feel. They can’t believe they are in the building.” It sounds like a step up. The old building had served its purpose. “There was a toilet downstairs that was full of marketing material,” says Ford. “It hadn’t been used for five years. You couldn’t get in. No one knew what was there, though.”

And customers are happier, too. The north wing – orange rather than blue to capture the warmth (BD’s logo is orange and blue) – contains training labs like showrooms where BD can demonstrate its products and teach clinicians how to use them. The orange is matched with white fittings and muted, corrugated, silver door panels. “I can’t resist running my fingers over them when I walk past,” says Thomas, doing so and making a buzzing noise.

There are also a couple of rooms with one-way mirrors in which customers can discuss the products without feeling the supplier’s presence. “It allows us to reach out to the clinicians in the surrounding area. They have access to products they didn’t have before,” Daley says. BD is even inviting organisations that want to have their own meetings into the building creating valuable sales relationships.

Thomas seems to have been truly inspired by the height of the building, putting the cafe and gym on the third floor no matter what it might mean for the difficulty of deliveries. “The idea was to draw people up into the building,” he says. Again, it’s the voice of a leading company that wants its people to talk.

And at £3.5m, what of the economics? Daley says the firm is able to save money because it doesn’t have to book outside meeting rooms and catering. And meetings are taking place that wouldn’t before. There are new people appearing. “You’re running into people you didn’t know worked here!” he says.

Happy bosses, happy architect – even the receptionist and security guy are smiling good humouredly with each other as I wait for the cab and vying with the other to take a load of copy paper to the third floor.

“Great building,” says another employee, as Thomas and I introduce ourselves. Everyone likes it here. You wouldn’t have to be mad not to like working here, but it would help.

Published in Projects
Monday, 01 January 2007 00:00

A Box with a Soft Centre

walkerWalker & Martin’s headquarters for British car-leasing company Lex is a refurbished building in Stockport that celebrates interaction in the workplace, and it’s making people very happy The building chosen for the new headquarters of car-leasing firm Lex was a former training base for police dogs in Stockport, outside Manchester. Not the most auspicious of surroundings for an HBOS-owned company vying for “world-class” status. But David Walker, of London-based architecture practice Walker & Martin, had a vision to convert the neglected, 8,360sq m building into a dynamic and colourful workplace promoting communication and well-being.

The centre of the two-storey, square building is an organic blob structure (originally heart-shaped in the first sketches) – “irrational, not of the office,” says Walker – which is demarcated by rounded wooden batons that are lit at intervals by ceiling-mounted spotlights. Strip lights on the ceiling radiate outwards from the structure (like a “sacred heart” icon). It contains a coffee machine, bike and coat stores, a first aid room, showers, bathrooms and a massage room that even offers hot stone therapy. Inside the central hub, there is proof that the company has started to take care of its people. Walker says he wanted to make every one of the nearly 900 employees in the building feel special in some way. “Even if they aren’t near the window they have something nice to look at.”

The shape of the central structure is echoed in the column that supports the parapet over the main entrance. Walker thinks his decision to put the entrance at the corner was a key reason his firm was chosen for the project. Everyone else put it dead centre. But he decided that this would lead visitors and employees too quickly into the core of things. The entrance foyer also had to be large enough to drive a car in and park it. With corporate accounts for several hundred cars at a time in the offing, manufacturers vie to have their vehicle parked next to the receptionist. Moving away from the central area on the ground floor are the informal shared spaces, in what Walker calls the “hotel lobby” section. These are themed and differentiated by types of chairs, given pet names by the staff. A table surrounded by 16 white Panton chairs is known as the “breakfast briefing table”; two low, glass tables with four, two-seater Aalvar Alto chairs are known as the “zebra chairs”. A tall, non-prickly cactus completes the scene: Vegas comes to Stockport.

People can quite easily grab a coffee from the cafe on the ground floor – which also has seating in the form of Bombo stools – and then sit in one of these areas. “The space flows,” says Walker. Full floor-height windows give views out to the surrounding trees. At the periphery of the ground floor next to the cafe are more formal meeting rooms for the clients that form the basis of the firm’s business. There are also dedicated training rooms.

Interim facilities manager Carol Edwards confirms that the change has worked well for the business. At the previous site, the company was spread over seven wings, and some departments were split down the middle. “There were areas you just didn’t go to,” she says. The business’ rapid growth had overfilled the building – lunchrooms were converted into office space, followed by, more damagingly, the disappearance of all the meeting rooms. “People were very unhappy about it,” she adds.

It sounds like the wellbeing of Lex’s employees was not a high priority at the time. And in a company like this – where large sections of the office are, in effect, a customer care call centre, huge swathes are engaged in claims solutions, and banks of others support these people’s IT, HR and other needs – staff satisfaction was never likely to be very high. But it is clear that Lex has made a decision, helped and inspired by Walker, to treat its employees as valued and irreplaceable individuals.

“When we arrived, it’s fair to say their design pedigree was zero,” says Walker. The coup that he achieved was to convince the company that people circulating and drinking coffee in designer chairs was a good thing. “We wanted to celebrate random interactions. We wanted people to be able to sit by the coffee machine and not feel naughty.”

Occupants are enthusiastic about their new home. HR administrator Kate Malcolmson says the location is a great selling point for hiring and maintaining the right people. “The building is colourful and bright, and the open-plan office and good layout improves communication. It’s ten times better than our last place.”

Even the more demanding residents are converts. Dianne Haskins, who works in telecommunications support, says that although at first she was happier in the older building – as someone who spends her life being pursued by people to fix problems, she feels a bit exposed in the middle of the room and “doesn’t get any peace” – she “can’t fault the building itself”, and particularly likes the break-out and cafe areas.

The project came in pretty much on budget, according to Walker, at around £5 million. With furniture, fees and alterations to the roof, the sum reached £7m. Since the building was a shell when they moved in, £3m of that was spent on mechanical and electrical engineering. It was tight though – the light housings in the coffers were intended to be sharp, black squares floating in the recess, but the budget didn’t stretch to these lights and contractors were charged with making something similar from scratch. The design they came up with achieved the desired effect anyway, says Walker. The coffers in which they are set also have a magical effect on the potentially disastrous acoustics, meaning that administrative staff can work next to call centre staff without being disturbed by the noise.

Walker believes passionately in the mission to connect people within a workplace – work, he feels, is as vital to our spiritual wellbeing as anything else in our lives. So he has connected the ground and first floors with two hugely wide spiral staircases with concrete steps. In this sandwich-shaped space, there is a real visual connection between upper and lower floors. At the top of these staircases, there are light cones with double-lined clear polythene skylights, enabling light to reach every part of the building. The conical section and the lightweight skylight material actually prevent the ceiling from caving in.

So is Lex a convert to the Walker & Martin way? Apparently so. Extra tables have been placed in the ground floor cafe and the upper floor meeting room is to be converted into a less formal brainstorming area. Thanks to the new vision, communication and interaction have won the day.

Published in Projects

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