BRITAIN'S MOST CREATIVE OFFICES - The UK has moved into the premier league in developing working environments that foster innovation and creativity. Jeremy Myerson takes a stroll through flexible space to visit the latest office cafes.
From the patronising paternalism of Port Sunlight to the modern miseries of sick-building syndrome, Britain's workplaces have never quite got it right. Over the past century, we've treated employees like children (herding them into planned pseudo-utopias) and robots (fitting them as replaceable cogs into huge administrative machines). We have rarely treated them as individuals capable of independent and creative thought. Little wonder the 'thank God it's Friday' mentality still rules.
Despite flatter hierarchies, nods towards empowerment and all the other human resources buzzwords that abound, most companies still manage to miss the point about what is really required to allow more collaborative, cognitive and creative patterns to flourish in the office. The Dickensian workhouse may have gone, but given our determination to step up levels of management control with each new influx of office technology, it has largely been replaced by an equally authoritarian model. Management obsessions with structure and process have resulted in environments that are difficult and unhealthy to work in - let alone be creative.
There are, however, exceptions to the rule. There is a new wave of organisations interested in investing in workplaces that attend to personal communication and social dynamics, which foster innovation and creativity. As you might expect, they include advertising agencies and design-led manufacturers, but they extend also to accountancies, airlines and government agencies.
What these workplaces have in common is the desire to radically redefine the white-collar work experience. That means environments which introduce physical metaphors from the outside world - cafes, clubs, streets, olive groves, palm trees - into the formerly hermetically sealed world of the office. It means a new vocabulary of 'hotelling', 'hot-desking' and 'teamspace'; new types of buildings, architect-commissioned or converted; and a new design language of brighter colours, more domesticated furnishings and open-plan vistas uninterrupted by long, sterile corridors of closed doors.
Many of these environments are so new that the jury is still out on whether employees really feel more creative and productive working in them. But early feedback (user surveys are very much part of the new culture) is positive. Above and on the next two pages are snapshots of six of the most creative workplaces in Britain, chosen for the overt way in which they use the physical environment as a lever to manage organisational culture, and to reflect the variety of different companies engaged in exploring new ways of working. Britain is not alone in this movement, although it has climbed from the ranks of Reggie Perrin into the property premier league in the race to develop more creative offices which will foster innovation and notch up higher levels of productivity. A number of flagship projects in the UK, led by British Airways at Waterside, have attracted international attention. But Waterside and similar schemes, such as the £254 million Abbey Wood complex near Bristol for the Ministry of Defence, have largely taken their ideas from Scandinavia, a pioneer of democratic workplace design. It was there the idea of the internal 'street' was developed in 1988 for Scandinavian Airline Systems. Other northern European countries have also been progressive, Holland in particular.
At Tilburg, for example, Interpolis, the Dutch insurer, has built one of Europe's most spectacular offices. Each of the company's flexible team spaces has its own identity, dramatically visualised by a cafe at the entrance to each floor, designed as if in different world cities, from Rio to Barcelona. The undisputed leader in the field, however, is North America, where wild ideas about work are flourishing. For example, Monsanto, the US life science company, uses the metaphor of a ranch - where the 'meadow', 'porch' and 'parlour' are key spaces - to express a sense of neighbourhood. The idea of community is taken further at the Canadian headquarters of Nortel, the telecommunications company, where a giant 1960s factory has been converted into an adaptable workplace 'city' with overhead signs and banners, and streets and alleys surfaced in concrete and stone.
What happens first in the States almost inevitably affects Britain, whether consumer trend or management fad. But if we look beyond the wide open spaces of office 'meadows' or futuristic bustle of workplace 'streets' currently being developed by 'fast companies' on both sides of the Atlantic, the truly creative office of tomorrow might not be a physical location at all but a virtual one, accessed from a range of remote locations by a ubiquitously mobile workforce using the latest technology from their homes, their cars or their local park.
Or it might be an entirely social and recreational centre where no work is carried out at all - the cybercafes and soft seating having totally overwhelmed that nasty old 20th century hangover about having to do some work in the office. The office might become a setting to recharge the batteries socially or spiritually, to meet colleagues and enjoy yourself, with the real work done on the move or at home - in the folds, tucks and corners of the day, not through the day itself. Until technology allows us to entirely uncouple work from the workplace, we'll go on trying to make our places of work more comfortable, congenial and creative, just to get by. The offices shown here are a step in the right direction.
ARTHUR ANDERSEN, LONDON
This office for 170 staff in the business consulting division of Arthur Andersen, the international accountancy firm, presents in one smart scheme many of the hottest buzz-concepts of late-'90s flexible working. There is colour: BDG McColl, the design firm, has created red meeting rooms to energise and green meeting rooms to stimulate creativity, based on the ideas of Edward de Bono, the lateral thinking guru. There is domesticity: informal domestic furniture contrasts with the formal as you move through the space. There is metaphor: a reception area hub has been planned as a cafe with simple metal tables and chairs, while fish tanks and visuals of palm trees create a Zen environment for quiet work. There is mobility: in a teamwork area dubbed 'Chaos', staff can reconfigure mobile furniture to suit the task at hand. The objective of all this is described as 'brain aerobics' - the sheer variety of work settings aids the learning organisation.
Even if you don't buy this management mantra, it is still a thoughtful and pleasant enough workplace, with curved storage walls and 'hot-desk' benches which suggest fluidity and motion - just in case you think your job isn't going anywhere.
CLASS OF THE FUTURE SCOTTISH ENTERPRISE, GLASGOW
Not all the most creative offices are in the private sector. Public sector organisations are waking up to the power of environment in changing culture.
The 'Office of the Future' planned for Scottish Enterprise by DEGW, the consultants, plucked 70 staff from across the organisation, put them in five teams and situated them in converted shop premises. The idea was to create a flexible workplace with the chameleon qualities of a primary school classroom, where activities change frequently and space can be reconfigured accordingly. Staff can relax in a cafe area with sofas, flowers and goldfish bowls, or work in a touchdown area, or book into an 'office hotel' with its own concierge. The results of this club-like pilot plan have been dramatic. Public sector workers pegged in terms of pay are particularly open to the perks of a better workplace, and the Scottish Enterprise teams particularly welcomed the freedom of movement and improved communication and productivity. The scheme has been visited by over 200 companies and is seen as a model for changing the way civil servants work.
BRITISH AIRWAYS, WATERSIDE, HEATHROW
Baroness Thatcher may have covered BA's offending 'Citizen of the World' tailfin with her hanky, but she wouldn't find anything in her handbag big enough to cover this 35,000sq ft office complex near Heathrow, which also bears hallmarks of the airline's controversial new corporate identity.
At a cost of £200 million, Waterside trumpets its global credentials with a Norwegian architect (Niels Torp), American office furniture, and a design based on six horseshoe-shaped, geographically themed buildings or 'houses' along a central, glass-covered street. The 175-metre street is an active work environment where people gravitate, collaborate, meet, greet and eat. It features a cafe, espresso bar, supermarket, florist and library, and ends at a circular restaurant with views over gardens, lakes and Japanese bridges. A balcony overlooks an 'olive grove' - a place for quiet contemplation where mobile phones are to be switched off. This work-anywhere environment, freeing the BA employee (there are 2,500 in the building) from the desk with the use of advanced cordless technology, is the clearest demonstration yet of BA's commitment to culture change.
ST LUKE'S ADVERTISING AGENCY, LONDON
More scruffy than smart, more relaxed than regimented, the slightly down-at-heel feel of the London office of the St Luke's advertising agency has achieved spectacular results. From its start as an employee buy-out in 1995, the agency (St Luke is the patron saint of artists and craftsmen) set out to be different. Its warehouse-style workplace near Euston Station is adorned with signs bearing slogans such as 'Profit is like health - necessary, but not the reason why we live.' St Luke's co-operative culture is expressed in many ways, including an all-day refectory, a totally silent 'chill-out' room, pleasantly battered furniture in open areas, and 'brand rooms' dedicated to various clients of the agency. Each brand room takes on the character of the product or the service being advertised. Go into the Boots No 7 brand room and it's decked out like a teenage girl's bedroom; the Eurostar room is modelled after a first-class railway carriage; the Radio One room is a black booth for a disc jockey, with music posters, and so on. In this electronically sophisticated non-territorial office, the three things people have as their own are a locker, a satchel and a mobile phone. They don't have their own desks; they just work wherever they want to in the building. The environment is a lever to enable the creative teams to produce advertising in a new way. As the agency explains: 'If you change the way you work, you will change the way you think.'
ROVER DESIGN AND ENGINEERING CENTRE, WARWICKSHIRE
If your idea of the place where cars are designed and engineered conjures up images of garage forecourts or factory assembly lines, Rover's plush new design centre will revise that in an instant. Built on the company's 900-acre testing site in Warwickshire by the Weedon Partnership, architects, it unites for the first time all of Rover's designers and engineers under one roof and significantly reduces lead time from concept to manufacture in developing new cars. The glass-and-steel environment is laid out around a spectacular internal street that incorporates a cafe and informal meeting areas (with seating taken from the cars) and is wide enough to move large, unpowered vehicles from the workshops to other parts of the complex. To the west and north of the street are design studios and project teamspace for engineers, where a curious harmony exists between slick dockable corporate workstations and prototype car parts lying around the place. All 1,500 staff in the £30 million building work in open plan, except for the managing director and design studio director. Despite the under-wraps hype that surrounds development of new models, it remains open and appealing.
DYSON APPLIANCES R&D CENTRE, MALMESBURY, WILTSHIRE
The remarkable rise of James Dyson's manufacturing company over the past five years is given added frisson due to the unorthodox methods he had adopted in the workplace. The maker of Britain's best-selling vacuum cleaner, accounting for a third of the total market by volume and half the market by value, has little patience with corporate convention. Suits, ties, hierarchies, status, memos, corporate track records, factory caterers, plush private offices: these have no place in Dyson's world. High-cholesterol catering is not on the menu. From the outset, he brought in Mediterranean-style food from a local shop. Since his start with a dozen people in a coachhouse behind his Bath home in 1993, he has stuck to his formula of openness, teamwork, youth and creativity in creating a £300 million company with 800 staff. Dyson describes his workplace as one in which 'there are no department boundaries, or borders, or walls, fences, ditches, moats, ha-has or minefields. Freedom of movement and of expression is total.
I hope in this way to make everyone design conscious and to feel encouraged to make creative contributions'. His new £20 million research and development centre, designed by architect Chris Wilkinson, is an open, flexible, stand-alone glass box reached via a bridge over bed-of-light sculptures. Every member of staff has the same expensive designer chair, in keeping with the idea that a good environment will help to develop exceptional products.