UK: Relocation - The company character revealed in design.

UK: Relocation - The company character revealed in design. - If you want to change your company's culture and structure first take a look at the physical layout of your offices.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

If you want to change your company's culture and structure first take a look at the physical layout of your offices.

When solicitors Frere Cholmeley decided to move from the Lincoln's Inn Fields offices they had inhabited since the middle of the last century they wanted something special. Having acquired space in the former Guildhall School of Music and Drama, not far from the River Thames, they gave their interior designer, the Thomas Saunders Partnership, an unusual brief.

The new offices, said Frere, should be "professional, enigmatic, quirky, elegant, serious, mysterious". "We've always been seen by our clients as being a different kind of law firm," says Christopher Digby-Bell, Frere's business development partner. "We wanted therefore to avoid a design that was bland or ordinary. We're not seen as a firm of grey men in grey suits."

What the firm got was a building that met all its criteria. The reception area is certainly quirky - a "splash" of black granite crosses the floor making it look for all the world as though some clerk had spilled an enormous bottle of ink over it - and the staff restaurant might reasonably be described as enigmatic: the way to the bar is lit by a line of aircraft landing lights. The elegance appears in the private offices which have pure white walls and enormous windows, and in the client meeting rooms which look as if they might have been transported intact from the inner sanctum of a seriously rich merchant bank.

The offices are, in fact, probably as perfect a reflection of the partnership's culture and business as one could get - its predominant business is corporate and commercial work, but it has an active showbiz department, too.

About a mile down the road, at London Bridge, where another firm of solicitors, Berwin Leighton, has just finished the refurbishment of its offices, the contrast could not be more stark. Berwin has adopted what one might call a "modern traditional" approach - cherry wood panelling as far as the eye can see. It is elegant and professional, but in a conventional, lawyerly way with not a quirk or an enigma in sight. To the untrained eye the accent at Berwin Leighton would seem to be on making effective use of rather limited space, which would certainly meet with the approval of its clients, since Berwin is one of the leading firms of property solicitors in the country.

Partners and non-partners at the firm get the same rather small offices. Giving people small rooms is deliberate says Oonagh Harpur, Berwin Leighton's principal executive. "In some City law firms the cost of space can be as much as one-third of total costs. Small rooms mean major savings. This is good for the partnership and good for the clients. We have not economised in space for client meetings or staff facilities. In this way we can occupy a landmark building at sensible cost."

If offices reflect an organisation's culture, then they become particularly interesting when the company itself is undergoing radical change. When Robert Horton became chairman of BP in 1990 (he was deposed in a boardroom coup two years later) one of his first actions was to launch Project 1990, an attempt to change the management culture of BP. While all this was going on BP was preparing to move its corporate headquarters a few hundred yards from the 35-storey Britannic House, near the Barbican, to a magnificent Lutyens building, Number One, Finsbury Circus. "We were taking the corporate centre and putting it into a building which really ought to reflect what we'd just said about the way we wanted to do things in future," says Stuart Wilkinson, the manager in charge of the relocation exercise.

Horton had come to hate the hierarchical and bureaucratic ethos that dominated the old BP and wanted to introduce leaner, looser styles of management control. He believed the physical layout of the Finsbury Circus office would be a major contributory factor.

We were trying to reflect two aspects," says Wilkinson. "One was a flatter, less hierarchical society and, two, a more open arrangement of inter-changing information and being more aware of what's going on around you inside the company. That really means that you do two things: first, you don't give everybody an office in which they can shut the door and pretend there's no-one else around, and, second, you keep the place as open-plan as possible."

A few people did get their own offices at Finsbury Circus but strictly on the basis of need rather than status. There are still some people who complain that the open-plan layout means they can't think and that the noise level is too high, but Wilkinson says that some of those who were most against the change have now conceded that their departments are now working much better.

Having flattened the hierarchies, BP is now wondering whether people need to come to Finsbury Circus at all. "One of the things we hoped people would do was think more broadly about how they do their work and whether it's essential to come and sit in an office in central London every day in order to do it," says Wilkinson. "If you need to do a lot of report reading or report writing and you're going to do that all day, then why come to work?"

While companies such as BP are exploring the possibility of employee's homes becoming satellite offices, computer company IBM has taken the whole argument a stage further. It has surveyed the use of its offices in the UK and found that the ratio of "bums" to "seats" is very low. IBM reckons that its marketing people use their bit of office space between 20% and 50% of the time.

That being so, IBM is "hot desking" several of its offices. Instead of having their own desks, many now share a communal working space. They do not have their own desk, computer terminal and telephone, but they do have the right to make use of any desk that is free during visits to the office. The most advanced example is at the new Bedfont Lakes marketing centre near Heathrow Airport.

Marketing executive Bernard Kiernan was one of the first hot-deskers and thinks the system works very well but sees the potential for hiccups. "If you come in when there are more people scheduled in than there are desks available what can happen is that you go to a desk, log on and assume ownership of the desk. You then disappear for three or four hours. You come back to find someone else has logged you off. At the moment we're OK because we've got some slack in space, but come March when the rest of the people arrive that situation could be aggravated." A large slice of Bedfont Lakes is actually given over to group areas such as restaurants where colleagues (and clients) can mix informally. Just a few miles north of Bedfont Lakes, at Stockley Park near Uxbridge, Glaxo, the pharmaceutical company, uses its restaurant space as a way of making sure that the occupants of the three buildings on site mix with one another.

Like BP, Glaxo was going through a culture change when it moved there two years ago. It was becoming less hierarchical. But having three separate buildings on the one site posed the problem that their inhabitants might stick to their own building, never mixing with others. So instead of having one large restaurant for the whole site they built three, one in each building, and themed each one differently in the hope that staff would communicate by using them all.

The company, which won the 1992 Office of the Year Award for accommodation provided in an existing building, also put heavily-used facilities in individual buildings. "We've got a small shop which we put in one building, then we put automatic telling machines for money in another. We've managed the situation so that if people want services they have to go about the place to see the other buildings and the other people as well."

FLEXIBLE WORKSPACE

Nobody at management consultants Dent Lee Witte (DLW) has their own office. DLW advises companies on change management and its directors thought they ought to practise what they preached. The right workplace facilitates change, says DLW; the wrong one impedes it.

The consultancy is totally non-hierarchical so the directors, like Richard Lee, get the title but nothing else - certainly no separate office. "It can't be justified," says Lee. "The space I need is space to keep things in, space to use a telephone, space to write a report, space to have meetings. As long as I can do those four tasks I'm quite happy. I think it makes a statement about the kind of participation we have. Having space is not a macho, bureaucratic or hierarchical thing, nor a reward."

At Easter 1991 DLW moved from its Hammersmith offices to Riverside Three, the HQ of prize-winning architect Sir Norman Foster. Although the shell and the internal specifications were first rate, DLW customised it for its own needs. "That meant giving people a lot of flexibility - social areas, resting areas, thinking areas and studying areas," says Lee.

The main work area is made up of six workbenches accommodating about six people each. People sit at whichever desk is free.

This isn't quite the office version of musical chairs it might sound. On the other hand, says Lee, if you took a time-lapsed photograph of Riverside Three over three months nobody would have stayed in the same position over that period. Occasionally someone will become too attached to what they regard as their own space. "We give them a nudge if it gets too much."

Lee describes Riverside Three as a club. "It suits us as a concept. We're a collection of people with quite flexible working styles. We see it as being a flexible workspace that people are pleased to come back to for a whole variety of purposes."

DESIGNER ADVICE

Architect Kathy Tilney, who specialises in interior design, says one of the biggest problems with clients who want new or re-designed offices is their tendency to "play safe".

"Most people don't like change. If you are trying to introduce them to a new method of doing something there will, in the first instance, be quite a lot of resistance. You've got to get a balance between involving people, carrying them with you so that they understand what you're trying to achieve and actually making them part of the decision-making process."

It is essential to get the backing of top management, says Tilney, but, surprisingly perhaps, the top people are often disinclined to get involved.

"If you're moving their offices, nine times out of 10 they don't want to know. They're not interested. As long as their little bit is OK they're not that bothered about the rest - as long as it's within budget and they can fit them into the building. Then you've got to be careful that the people at the bottom don't feel that it's all this new stuff being imposed on them without their knowledge or their being involved. It's got nothing to do with design; it's communications."

One of the biggest jobs the designer faces is actually eliciting from clients how their organisations work. They need factual data. How many visitors? How much space per person? Few clients actually have such information to hand, so design briefs tend to be open-ended and woolly, says Tilney.

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