Sound surrounds

Workplace branding can improve morale, and it’s all in the detail, says Helen Jones

Branding is as important an element of workplace design as the physical, 3D interiors and the office furniture. Savvy companies are encouraging employees to ‘live’ the corporate brand while at work, in the hope they can both convince customers to do the same and boost staff morale.

The use of 2D graphics is becoming increasingly subtle, and workplace branding can take many forms, from staff uniforms to corporate ‘storytelling’, magazines, humorous graphics and stationery.

Carphone Warehouse, for example, has introduced corporate values on to each business card because, according to chief executive Charles Dunstone, the behaviour of staff plays a major part in the company’s success.

‘We have five fundamental rules everyone has to learn, and they’re on our business cards,’ he says. The last states that the reputation of the entire company is in the hands of every individual. ‘We drum that into people very hard, we’re dependent on every word they say and customers are going to judge us entirely by that,’ Dunstone says.

New staff uniforms are helping British Airways promote its values to employees. It has appointed fashion designer Julien Macdonald to produce a new, sexier corporate look. ‘I want to bring glamour back to travel. That’s what it’s all about. The girls will look very sexy and the men will look like strong heroes. They’ll be the envy of all the other airlines,’ Macdonald says.

Other companies focus on internal communications to extol their corporate philosophies. Guinness asked Interbrand to produce a company book that tells the Guinness story and focuses on employees who have made a pivotal contribution.

e ‘Corporate storytelling helps to engage audiences and provides a new way to express understanding of the brand. The book, we hope, will lead to greater consistency in the way Guinness is portrayed by staff,’ says Interbrand director of verbal identity John Simmonds.

Hi-fi retailer Richer Sounds, by contrast, attempts to reinforce its company brand values in a quarterly magazine The Richer Way, which is packed with competitions, silly photos and information about forthcoming extra-curricular activities.

Some companies even have their own corporate song. PricewaterhouseCoopers has a dirge called Downright Global while IBM’s own song is called Ever Onward. Thankfully, it is not in staff contracts to actually sing them.

However, while employees are expected to act as brand ambassadors, less than half of them do so. Research from MORI indicates that 30 per cent of UK employees are brand neutral or are simply not interested in the ‘brand’ that they work for, while a further 22 per cent are brand saboteurs and work against the brand culture. The remaining 48 per cent are brand champions.

It’s not surprising so few actively promote their brands given the environments in which many of them work. It’s clearly not rocket science that, to get the best out of people, you have to give them a decent environment in which to work.

Carey Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science & Technology says that ‘Dickensian [working] conditions can have a real impact on staff’. But he warns that stylish offices are not necessarily the answer. ‘If the environment looks expensive or glossy or creates a caring image that is at odds with the staff’s own experience, then it can result in feelings of resentment.’

Often, it’s the little details that matter. Fitch creative director Tim Greenhalgh says companies are more serious about the ways in which they can entrench brand values into staff. ‘It sounds very 1984, but it isn’t and it’s the details that count – the sort of flowers you put in reception or the sort of soap in the bathrooms,’ he says.

Similarly detailed, branding consultancy Banc’s offices in London’s Regent Street have black chalkboard walls with white ceilings and window frames. Staff are encouraged to scribble their thoughts and ideas all over the walls.

Chairman Robert Bean says, ‘We chose this design because it was a novel, inexpensive and practical solution. It says that the Banc brand is a combination of deep studious thinking on the one hand and creativity on the other.’

While creative businesses should be expected as a matter of course to reflect their brand values in their environment, it can be more difficult to convey brand messages in a factory or call centre.

BDG McColl joint managing director Phil Hutchinson says, ‘There is growing understanding that brand values extend beyond the reception area and into the employees work area. It is easier to reflect the brand values of creative companies because they want to be seen as young, trendy and innovative, but other types of businesses are starting to do it, too.’

Staff restaurants are increasingly viewed as a way of getting staff to live the brand. BDG McColl worked with defence company MBDA on the redevelopment of its campus-style buildings. ‘We even had an input into what should be served in the staff restaurant – it’s those things that can really make a difference,’ Hutchinson says.

Robert Jones, a consultant at Wolff Olins, agrees. ‘Our whole building has a very calming atmosphere to encourage good thinking. But the restaurant is the social centre of the building and sums up our philosophy, which is about having an appetite for life.’

Wolff Olins has recently been involved in the branding of a new office development called Chiswick Park. ‘It could just have been another business park, but Chiswick Park used the brand idea “enjoy work”,’ says Jones. ‘If people enjoy work, they do better work, and if they do better work, you have a better business.’

This sense of fun at work is reflected in sculptures dotted around the building, regular social events that take place and free doughnuts handed out in the mornings. The fun even extends to graphics around the building, says Jones. ‘Tucked away inside one of the bike sheds that are in Chiswick Park is a notice that said “sssh, bikes asleep”. It showed real attention to detail,’ he says.

Jones gives Winston Churchill the last word: ‘[Churchill] once said, “We shape our buildings, thereafter, they shape us”.’

Gill Parker details some of the ideologies and terminology behind the modern work experience

Flexible working, relocation, hot-desking – many recent workplace innovations have been condemned as passing fads, introduced by overzealous designers. But fads that persist become trends, and trends represent evolution in design. And if, as we know, businesses are constantly changing, then so must the environments that support them.

So what drives the introduction of new concepts in workplace design? New technolo

gy plays a major role. Smaller, lighter IT equipment with increased bandwidths enables companies to have a more mobile workforce, which has all the attractions of reduced space costs. But the reality is that mobile workforces need supporting in other ways that also cost money. As Professor Richard Scase in his book Living in the Corporate Zoo explains: ‘Companies are finding that their core workers, upon whom they rely for the delivery of innovative, competitive products, attach mounting importance to where they live. They expect quality of life, good local amenities and “buzz”.’

Flexible working

To some, flexible working means the ability to work in different locations, across different sites at any time. To others, it is simply flexible timekeeping. In reality, core hours are still maintained by the vast majority of workers, and the need or desire for involvement and interaction still brings people back to a central base. The blurring of the boundaries between work and social life continues, as people work longer hours, but how tolerant is the management e e of different hours? People still need to be at work before 9am the following morning, so hours are becoming longer, not necessarily more flexible. Chris Ridgewell, director at flexible working consultancy WiseWork, says the ‘work-life balance isn’t just about working fewer hours, about families and childcare. It’s about working smarter. On a personal level it is about being fresh enough to give all you need to both your work and the rest of your life.’

The possibility for flexible working appears endless – so why aren’t we all doing it? Probably because the basic premise of business is that you have to work when your clients do – so if everyone were to work different hours across the seven days of the week, it is predictable that those at the bottom of the business chain would end up working far longer hours to be able to interact with as many clients as possible. Fortunately that hasn’t happened, and for most people, weekends are still sacrosanct.


Buzzwords are often applied to more transient workplace trends. But this does not mean the theories or messages behind them are wrong, just that plain language is always easier for the client to understand and stands the test of time better. Grown men and women shudder at the term ‘hot desking’, but are quite relaxed at working at ‘unassigned desking’.

Terms such as water cooler conversations, dens, and chaos zones all fall into the bracket of ‘management speak’ that most workers don’t feel comfortable with, even if they enjoy using the spaces designed to house these activities. To them, they are simply getting on with the job in hand. And just because it is the ‘latest thinking’ doesn’t mean it is right for all clients. Careful evaluation of working methods and needs is essential before applying any changes to the environment. For the hundreds of clients who open their design brief documents with the claim ‘open plan will never work for us’, some are right.


Within the IT industry, mobility represents access to information on the move, while within the office furniture industry, it’s chairs and tables on wheels. Interest in the personalisation of spaces did lead office furniture manufacturers to revert to systems with thousands of component options and extras that were a nightmare to control, long after the designer and the furniture deal had left the scene. But more recently, designers have regained control of this.


A further trend is that of relocating support staff away from prime central locations. Organisations such as JP Morgan Chase and American Express realised the value in this many years ago, and others are following. But, despite the increase in flexible working and the ability to work remotely and independently for many, central HQ will not disappear.

Designing office environments is as much about creating spaces to bring people together as it is designing for IT access and privacy. The growing realisation of the value of staff interaction means that offices, whether as large as IT company Veritas’ three-building campus in Reading or as small as Ogilvy’s central London Touchdown point, will remain. And within them, the variety of different spaces that promote interaction and a sense of belonging will be as prolific as ever. How else will designers continue to fulfil their creative potential, and confound their critics?

Gill Parker is joint managing director of retail and workplace interiors group BDG McColl

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