When banking and financial services group UBS occupied its new London headquarters last autumn, the process wasn’t so much an office move but a full-scale migration, with some 5,600 employees moving in over 12 weekends in a carefully planned manoeuvre. By each Monday morning, everything had to be functioning perfectly, from the mission-critical trading floors to the office space for its wealth and asset management businesses. So no pressure then for designer TP Bennett, which worked for some nine years on the fit out – at 65,000sq m the largest the practice has ever undertaken.
Everything about this project has been on a grand scale. The workplace is a steel-clad “groundscraper”, designed by Make at 5 Broadgate to accommodate 120m x 60m trading floors and bring together all of UBS’s London staff from four different offices. The building’s uncompromising external expression can divide opinion. The interior, however, is far easier to admire. TP Bennett and UBS together visited the group’s offices around the world as well as the practice’s other flagship projects – not just for financial clients but in other sectors too. “We spent a lot of time really understanding the client and getting under their skin,” says TP Bennett associate director Rob Smith, who describes the job as “about eight projects in one”.
As well as creating a single workplace for the UBS staff, TP Bennett’s brief was to design an interior that embodied the Swiss bank’s core values. With buzzwords including truth, clarity, and performance, the emphasis was on a high quality interior that was restrained, robust and timeless rather than ostentatious or faddish. While the new offices allowed UBS to embrace agile working practices for the first time, this wasn’t the main ambition initially but gradually became a priority as the project progressed.
Flexibility was essential, according to UBS development director Nigel Morley, with the new offices needing to be able to cater for future, as yet unseen, changes in workplace practice. It also had to provide the optimum working environment for all employees. “As banks we’re competing with all the tech businesses. To attract the talent we need to provide all the right staff and business amenities,” he says.
Designers took cues from Make’s base build, and worked hard to avoid a jarring line between that and the rest of the fit out, and to ensure consistency throughout. A ground floor lobby features amenities such as a drop-in technology help desk, cafe and concierge, as well as a prominent oak-clad auditorium. There are views up through to the first floor, where there is a 330-seater staff restaurant, a gym – a first for UBS in London – and a medical suite. Levels 2-5 are trading floors. Above this are seven more levels, including two for meeting and client hospitality with associated terraces, as well as general office accommodation.
TP Bennett piloted a 4,200sq m trial workspace to investigate the best arrangement for the office floors. The final design is organised around a central “street” that runs the length of the floor, linking the two cores and animating the workplace throughout the deep plan.
“We came up with a very simple idea of treating it like a town with a main street, vending areas and circulation,” says TP Bennett principal director Mark Davies. “We wanted to create a townscape that helped people move through the spaces and the floors.”
Alongside this street is a strip of alternative working areas including alcoves (Vitra), booths and standing-height tables for small team meetings (Bene), acoustic wing-back chairs (BuzziSpace) and vending areas. Further comfortable breakout-type seating is located near the entrances to each floor. This main street thoroughfare is bisected by a run of more formal enclosed meeting rooms.
These two axes help to break up the large floorplate into smaller, more human-scale neighbourhoods of desks by Task, all adjustable for sitting or standing work positions. These are calculated on a desk-to-staff rate of 1:1.2, with each employee allocated a locker and one linear metre of cabinet filing. Staff choose their working space and log on using a cloud computing system. A map at the entrance to each floor shows which desks are free or in use and can be searched to locate a particular person.
Aesthetically, this solution is a world away from the more informal workplaces in some other sectors. This is very much a grown‑up, professional office for serious work, not a place for beanbags, big kitchen tables, and ping-pong. Not only is there a clear-desk policy, there’s no clutter anywhere else in this highly ordered workplace. Even planting is incorporated into the top of the Bisley lockers.
In keeping with the UBS brand and the highly engineered nature of the building, the palette is overwhelmingly natural (stone, timber) and neutral (white, greys, black), supplemented by “pops” of colour in breakout furniture, across cupboard tops and in signage, colour-coded to delineate the different floors. This is conceived, says Davies, like a garden with different hues to help break down the space. LED lighting is used throughout, supplied by Future Designs.
Already the working culture is changing, according to UBS’s Morley. “It’s more collaborative. People interface with others much more readily. It’s very easy to sit down to work together if that’s what you need to do,” he says.
The trading floors required a different treatment. A small number of individual offices and meetings are arranged at the perimeter but the vast majority of the floor is given to rows of trading desks designed by SBFI. Each trader – together with their many screens and computers – occupies a fixed, approximately 7sq m position and some 750 traders can be accommodated on each floor. The 3.5m floor-to-ceiling heights, which are significantly higher than the 2.8m seen elsewhere, allow the integrated cooling system and lighting to be accommodated within the vaulted ceiling without compromising the quality of the space.
The seventh and eighth-floor client hospitality and conference/meeting rooms have an altogether different aesthetic, more akin to upmarket hospitality venues, with private dining rooms opening on to Japanese-style terraces. Walnut joinery at the entrances sets a well-crafted tone, enhanced by works from the UBS art collection. Perhaps the most show-stopping element is the helical walnut staircase between the two levels,its contours emphasised by a circular pool of walnut flooring at the base. “It’s a respectful clash,” says Davies of the change of ambience. “We wanted the unexpected – it’s a bit of theatre.”
The UBS project was already well advanced before the rising prominence of wellness in the workplace. But the scheme nonetheless embraces many of these principles – incorporating health facilities, a gym, and its encouragement of walking between floors via the “StepJockey” app.
Following a smooth migration, all the staff are now installed and adapting to the new ways of working. Both client and designer are happy. “It’s working. It’s really satisfying to see all the different settings being used as intended,” says TP Bennett’s Smith as he surveys the workplace in use.
“We’ve had very positive feedback,” adds UBS’s Morley. “We may well have put our colleagues around the world under pressure.”
The sleek, grown-up interior of the Swiss bank’s London HQ reflects the firm’s values to its wealthy clients