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The e-commerce sector is thriving, but operators are yet to put the same amount of effort into their own office environments. Pamela Buxton takes a look at the issues specific to branding on-line companies’ interiors

Office design is often the last thing on the minds of start-up companies, especially in the case of the new breed of on-line businesses.

These companies have little need to present a public face to their customers beyond the one on their Internet site and ads. In addition, staff numbers at many successful Internet-based companies are increasing at a phenomenal rate, so the incentive to invest in designing space which they may soon outgrow is pretty small.

It is, therefore, not surprising that few of the new crop of highly successful on-line companies have been near an interior designer, instead opting to move into ready fitted-out offices or simply buy furniture on an ad-hoc basis. Speed, rather than aesthetic considerations, is all-important, according to Richard Westlake, principal of Westlake Innes Jordan Associates.

The group specialises in designing offices for on-line companies in both the UK and mainland Europe, offering design, space-planning, project management and implementation – an all-in-one service Westlake believes gives an edge over other designers or office fit-out teams. “Speed is actually crucial. They don’t want to blow a lot of their capital – our speciality is making them look good, cheaply. We find unusual stuff very quickly, very cheaply and make sure it gets delivered very fast,” he says.

It’s only when the companies are established that they may turn their minds to the design of their offices, rather than their Web pages.

When they do, they are faced with an interesting set of challenges. How far do they seek to express their on-line brand identity in their own offices? How do they compensate for the long-hours required from staff in their working environment? Should the offices reflect the flat management structures and informal attitudes of such businesses? And do they have sufficient space to allow the company to expand?

In many ways, says Peter Champion, director of interior design group First Partnership, the result is an accelerated version of many trends in office designs in general – open-plan, informal, lively, flexible working, hot-desking, good leisure facilities and a rebellion against heavy-handed corporate branding. “These kinds of companies are very keen to avoid traditional hierarchies and keep the [management] pyramid very flat,” says Champion. “We have to work out a way of doing this without creating chaos.” First Partnership, which has just designed new offices for Web portal Excite, predicts that the environments for such companies will increasingly be more personal and comfort-driven, in response to the often long, unsociable hours that the work dictates. And since many on-line businesses begin as an extension of the founders’ hobby, there is a tendency for a much more domestic feel to the offices, which may include cafés and bars.

Accommodating the technology is not as significant a design issue as finding the right expression of the company’s brand – some have dedicated server rooms on-site, others, like Demon, store their servers at a secure off-site location. A much bigger issue is catering for rapid growth, something Excite was well aware of when commissioning its latest offices.

Yahoo is currently searching for new premises – the fourth in as many years – because it has out-grown its offices, but is having trouble finding central London accommodation large enough for all its staff, meeting rooms and chill-out areas.

Cityjobs.com, a Web-based recruitment agency, has experienced similar problems. The agency has plans to join the stock market at a value of £6.7m and will also be looking to move to new office space within the next year due to swift expansion. Its current offices, close to London’s Waterloo station, are open-plan for good communication but are “pretty basic”, according to Jamie Mainwaring, business development manager for media.

He says Cityjobs.com, like Yahoo, has not had any external design input into its offices. “A designer was not used because most Internet start-ups do not list office design as a crucial priority, as opposed to revenue generation. The office environment is crucial to any business. However, this is based on staff morale and atmosphere as against attractive lighting and carpets,” he says. But there are other ways to express the brand: Yahoo hopes its offices do so through their open-plan and informal nature. “One of our priorities is to encourage communication, and to that extent the space and culture is as ‘open’ as possible. This mirrors the communication element in our mission statement to be ‘the only place anyone has to go to get connected to anything or anybody or buy anything’,” says a Yahoo spokeswoman.

However, in-office branding is not always a top priority, especially as many on-line companies rarely come face-to-face with their customers. Confetti.co.uk, one of the many thriving new on-line businesses, is planning to use icons from its screen graphics on the walls, while Excite is limiting itself to a logo in reception and “strong and funky” colours to reflect the on-line brand.

It seems there is plenty of potential for designers to demonstrate what they can do for on-line companies, many of which have not, so far, made office design a high priority.

At the moment, most jobs get picked up by word of mouth, with consultancies like Westlake Innes Jordan Associates the first to admit they are benefitting from the incestuous nature of the on-line business world.

But as the sector matures, perhaps this will change, as companies work harder at developing their brand and providing environments conducive to retaining staff. “Offices for on-line companies have to be custom-made. There’s huge opportunities for designers, but they need to understand the culture,” says Champion.

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