Role call

Ringing up for an insurance quote? Calling to book a holiday? Chances are you’re through to the workplace phenomenon of the decade, the call centre.

Following the US trend, call centres took root five to ten years ago and have caught on to such an extent that in the UK they employ more than the direct labour force in coal, steel and car manufacture put together. By 2001, they are expected to employ two per cent of the UK workforce. But as more are set up, sector experts are already predicting their decline, at least in their traditional mega-shed format.

For detractors who view call centres as contemporary sweatshops with telephones replacing factory machinery and electronic call-monitoring instead of foremen, this may not be a bad thing. The call centre sector has its share of poor, cramped premises like any other workplace and, with the honourable exception of Orange’s 7.5m call centre at Darlington designed by Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners, is not noted for its architectural flair.

“It’s an emerging [building] type which hasn’t hit the big time yet,” says Simon Beames, project architect for Nicholas Grimshaw on Orange.

Yet design is critical for a sector where the quality of environment is crucial to keep staff from moving to other call centres, especially in the competitive call centre heartlands of the north of England and Northern Ireland.

Managers keen to avoid excessive staff training costs are increasingly willing to listen to advice from the clutch of designers and architects who have built up a call centre specialism.

Call centres are curious hybrids. They need designs with deep floor plans to accommodate large teams and an ambience that is stimulating for workers carrying out repetitive phone work, but also with areas of calm and relaxation.

Facilities such as health clubs, restaurants and occasionally crêches are all the more important because call centres are generally located in out-of-town business parks.

These needs are set against two other key call centre factors that explain the mundane environments: speed and flexibility. Clients are more likely to adapt a speculatively built mega-shed or commission their own fast-track design-and-build one rather than invest in an architect-designed call centre that could become obsolete.

“With call centres, it’s a juggling act between where the building can be situated, the type of person the company needs for the operation and how much money you can justify spending on building it,” says Beames. “Few young companies are prepared to invest in their own [centre].”

If they do develop their own, it must be capable of a swift conversion to other uses such as an industrial building or conventional office: flexibility is generally the key word in the brief.

“With technology moving on, there is a view that it [the call centre] is a short-term phenomenon and over the next five to ten years it’ll be done in a different way,” says Aukett Associates divisional director Stuart McLarty, who has designed call centres for AVCO and One to One.

Interior design solutions make the most of colour to stimulate interest within the environment, often in informal “break-out” areas where employees get away from their phones. “In break-out areas you can bring in softer materials, timbers and furnishings,” says McLarty.

While signage design is not seen as a major issue, other devices are used to create ambience. Banners are popular to delineate different teams within the expanses of desks, along with the freedom to personalise the space. At Guardian Direct’s call centre in Colchester, designed with furniture company Kinnarps and awarded Call Centre Focus magazine’s 1998 Call Centre of the year, teams are encouraged to decorate the walls however they want.

Curvaceous shapes for break-out areas are also popular, as are design features appealing to other senses. At Thomas Cook’s Falkirk centre, BDG McColl created a “sensorama” – a bridge over a trickling stream from reception where employees experience holiday sounds and smells to get them in the right frame of mind for dealing with calls from people wishing to book holidays. Palm trees and a Mediterranean-style café complete the colourful environment.

At Orange, Beames says that views to and from the restaurant and kitchens via a glazed wall have been particularly successful in animating the environment for staff.

Aukett’s McLarty defends the nature of the team-driven call centre working environment. “People say it’s like battery hens but when you see the people in there, they enjoy it. They do work together – they’re social animals,” he says.

As a building type, the call centre is attracting interest from the British Council of Offices, which is thinking of studying them more closely. Workplace specialist and architect DEGW is embarking on a research study to investigate what future form call centres may take. DEGW already has several call centres under its belt and is working on projects for Prudential, Capital One and Bank One.

DEGW director Ken Giannini says call centre clients are now looking for alternatives to the “pretty dire” early models, such as the purpose-built out-of-town tin shed with its heavily serviced deep floor plans, high ceilings, little natural light and huge car-parking needs.

“Every organisation we’re talking to is thinking ‘we want to do something better or different’… Call centres have gone through several generations in a very short time,” he says.

Giannini expects call centres to be renamed customer contact centres, with other forms of communication added to the telephone: the Internet – at the moment only 5 per cent of call centres use it – e-mail, fax and also live, person-to-person contact.

He also anticipates three new formats for such facilities in addition to the continued development of more large purpose-built centres with generous staff recreation facilities.

The first is small call centres in the high street. These would have customer cafés and Internet facilities, plus some staff at high street level. There would also be staff in a backstage or upper-level customer care centre dealing with phone and e-mail enquiries. They could also incorporate a touch-down business centre for the company’s own staff who may usually work from home or at other office locations.

Second, Giannini expects the development of call centre villages with several companies operating with shared staff recreation facilities, a model DEGW has already considered.

At a time when brownfield and urban regeneration is being encouraged by planners over out-of-town greenfield development, Giannini expects more re-use of old buildings for call centres. DEGW is converting a Boots printworks in Nottingham into a 23 000m2 call centre and headquarters for Capital One.

“Call centres are suited to strange looking structures with big floorplates like a factory, or a large school… the ideal scenario is the top floor of a retail mall,” says Giannini.

BDG McColl associate director David Kramer also senses changes in the market, in particular a move away from the huge out-of-town model in order to attract a high calibre workforce.

“One way of holding on to staff is with an environment that’s stimulating, exciting and fun to be in,” he says. “These things will become more important but there’s also a trend towards de-centralising. One of our clients is putting small call centres back into central London.”

There is a school of thought that call centres might in the future be located in cheaper employment areas outside the UK, perhaps in the developing world. This scenario would really test the flexibility of call centre buildings, as owners adapt or sell them for new uses.

In such a fast-changing market, designing for unknown future market conditions is tough. “You’re trying to be future-proof but how do you do it?” says BDP Associate Colin Chestnutt. “Technology changes so quickly that you can’t predict [what will happen in the future].”

Prudential Assurance, Beacon House,Clarendon Dock, Belfast

Client: Prudential Assurance

Budget: 4m

Interior design: Building Design

Partnership

Project manager, quantity surveyor, planning supervisor: Watts & Partners

M&E engineer: Philip Downie & Associates

Completed: March 1999

BDP aimed to create a working environment which would help Prudential retain its call centre staff. The building is situated in a fit-out of a shell and core building in Belfast’s Clarendon Dock. Five hundred staff will eventually be accommodated within the 4840m2 Beacon House, arranged on five levels overlooking Clarendon Dock.

‘Our task was to use the design of the environment to give the Prudential an edge in this very competitive market,’ says BDP associate Colin Chestnutt. ‘It’s a reasonably contemporary environment with plenty of break-out areas and plenty of areas for social interaction.’

Call staff are arranged in clusters of four and six within teams of ten and 20. To compensate for the density – 6m2 per employee – BDP designed break-out areas with more domestic-style furniture and vending machines intended to give staff a change of environment for short breaks away from the calls.

A displacement air system eliminated the need for a suspended ceiling. BDP made the most of it: they sought to give an impression of airiness by up-lighting the flat-slab ceiling, which is animated by fabric sails supplied by Architen for acoustic absorption. These sail features are larger on the double-height fourth floor and individually illuminated for further impact.

Stairwells, joinery and elliptical pods housing office machinery and staff lockers on each floor are brightly coloured in contrast to the neutral palette in the desk area. Panels in the cellular meeting rooms are similarly bold and can be glimpsed through semi-translucent Optima partitioning facing on the corridor.

Staff facilities include a restaurant with a terrace overlooking the dock, a gym, and a shop.

British Gas Services National Central Heating Office, Stockport

Client: British Gas Services

Budget:1.2m

Architects, M & E engineers, construction managers- BDG McColl

Completed: August 1998

The tight timescale for British Gas’ National Central Heating Office in Stockport is typical of the call centre genre. Commissioned in March last year, BDG McColl had until the end of August to complete the 1. 2m project and just 14 weeks of site construction.

To make the project even more of a challenge, the size of the 16 basic teleworking teams was enlarged from eight to ten just four weeks before completion, prompting a redesign of the layout.

BDG McColl’s task was to accommodate create an NCHO to consolidate sales and customer services operations that were previously on seven different sites (CHECKING). The new 2090m2 call centre location was a former maintenance garage and archive store built 12 years ago.

Optimising the high ceilings in the building’s maintenance bays, BDG McColl introduced a mezzanine area facing on to a break-out area where staff can relax or hold informal meetings in Jacobsen café chairs.

Teams are arranged across the open-plan space in two clusters of four desks with two more desks on the end, all from British Gas’ existing furniture. Orientation is helped by signs above teams denoting their geographical remit and through the use of colour. A strong yellow/gold denotes circulation space – BDG McColl used it to indicate the stairs up to the mezzanine space and in ceiling fins above routes through the space. Red walls denote meeting rooms. These are combined with new carpets in heather (offices) and burnt plum (circulation spaces)

Jazzy banners and huge palm trees are noticeably absent, unlike in so many other call centres.

“We went for simplicity. The colours do what they had to do – they weren’t introduced just for any old reason,” explains associate director David Knott.

Raised floors accommodate the wealth of servicing required in call centres, including the essential cooling system. Cool air rises through the 586 circular floor grills and displaces warm air on its way out via the extractor units. Acoustic tiles on the ceiling above the desks help control noise levels.

Completed a week early, the call centre environment became the envy of employees in the adjacent British Gas offices. BDG McColl has been retained to improve them and the staff restaurant and also expand the call centre to accommodate 22 teams.

AVCO Business Centre, Doxford, Sunderland

Client: AVCO Trust

Architect, interior designer, structural engineer, space-planner, landscape architect: Aukett Associates

M & E consultants: Rybka Battle

Project cost: 2.79m

Completed: summer 1998

While many call centres veer towards industrial sheds there are some which are more akin to traditional offices. This is true of Aukett Associates’ call centre for finance company AVCO Trust, situated on the Doxford International business park on the outskirts of Sunderland.

Aukett, already working on a speculative building for developer Akeler, was able to tailor the design when Akeler signed up AVCO for the site.

AVCO insisted on higher ceilings (3m floor to ceiling height rather than 2.7m) for the offices to allow clear vision across the floors.

Completed in 12 months, the largely open-plan offices accommodate 300 agents on two levels within a steel-framed, brick-clad building.

Aukett mocked up four desking options and the client chose furniture by Ergonom. Desks are arranged in clusters of 12 with break-out areas accommodating 75 people with drinks facilities and seating. These are characterised by warm colours compared with the restrained colour palette of the desk area.

If the call centre is no longer needed, Aukett is confident the AVCO Business Centre can easily convert to general office use.

Aukett, which also designed call centres for One to One, is now working on proposals for two more call centres, one possibly at Doxford and another in Newcastle.

British Gas Services National Central Heating Office, Stockport

Client: British Gas Services

Budget: 1.2m

Architects, M&E engineers, construction managers: BDG McColl

Completed: August 1998

The tight timescale for British Gas’ National Central Heating Office in Stockport is typical of the call centre genre. Commissioned in March last year, BDG McColl had until the end of August to complete the 1.2m project and just 14 weeks of site construction.

To make the project even more of a challenge, the size of the 16 basic teleworking teams was enlarged from eight to ten just four weeks before completion, prompting a redesign of the layout. BDG McColl’s task was to accommodate an NCHO to consolidate sales and customer services operations. These departments were previously on a number of different sites. The location for the new 2090m2 call centre was originally a maintenance garage and archive store built 12 years ago.

Optimising the high ceilings in the building’s maintenance bays, BDG McColl introduced a mezzanine area facing on to a break-out area where staff can relax or hold informal meetings in Jacobsen café chairs.

Teams are arranged across the open-plan space in two clusters of four desks with two more desks on the end, all from British Gas’ existing furniture. Orientation is helped by signs above teams denoting their geographical remit and through the use of colour. A strong yellow/gold denotes circulation space – BDG McColl used it to indicate the stairs up to the mezzanine space and in ceiling fins above routes through the space. Red walls denote meeting rooms. These are combined with new carpets in heather (offices) and burnt plum (circulation spaces).

Jazzy banners and huge palm trees are noticeably absent, unlike so many other call centres.

‘We went for simplicity. The colours do what they had to do – they weren’t introduced just for any old reason,’ explains associate director David Knott.

Raised floors accommodate the wealth of servicing required in call centres, including the essential cooling system. Cool air rises through the 586 circular floor grills and displaces warm air on its way out via the extractor units. Acoustic tiles on the ceiling above the desks help control noise levels.

Completed a week early, the call centre environment became the envy of employees in the adjacent British Gas offices. BDG McColl has been retained to improve them and the staff restaurant, and also expand the call centre to accommodate 22 teams.

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