Staff benefits

As the barrier between home and office breaks down, companies are being steered towards offering an alternative working environment – one that offers comfort and flexibility, as well as a certain ambience.

For all the brouhaha surrounding hot-desking, hotelling, and home-working, few large companies have gone the whole hog and abandoned traditional ways of working.

True, open-plan offices may have largely replaced cellular working, even in stuffy professions such as law and accountancy. But a wholehearted embrace of new ways of working is far more talked about than implemented.

Instead, the emphasis is on choice and flexibility to accommodate varied working patterns and, more specifically, on employee choice of adopting a working environment to suit the task in hand.

This trend combines with two other key issues in the office interiors market: a blurring of work and domestic environments, and a keener interest in office ambience as employers realise how design can affect productivity.

“Clients are more interested in what is the most appropriate way of working, not new ways of thinking for the sake of things,” said Jack Pringle of architect Pringle Brandon.

“We’re hearing time and time again: ‘how can staff relate to each other in the best way, but still have the privacy and ability to focus on their work?’ What we’re doing is providing alternative ways of working.

“We want to give clients the space to be wrong about what they think they want, and for it not to hurt them because they can change around cheaply.”

DEGW director Stephen Bradley, director of the Workplace Forum research group set up by the consultancy and its clients, agrees that flexibility of working format is now paramount.

“The problem with hot-desking as a term is that it appears to be an all-or-nothing solution. The story now is of a more sophisticated delineation,” he says. “Blanket hot-desking works with certain types of organisations. It’s a lowest common denominator solution. The approach where multiple solutions are applied is the highest factor approach.”

A key factor in this reassessment of office organisation is technology. Designers have increasing freedom from the wiring and space constraints of technology. The advent of cordless technology and cooler, smaller and slimmer flat-screen technology has helped to reduce reliance on huge desks.

Meetings, movement and ease of communication have become more important than static personal space.

“People are starting to recognise that you don’t have to be at your desk to be working,” says Kathy Tilney of Tilney Shane, who was engaged on the BA Waterside project at Harmondsworth. “People can be sitting in a café having a chat and that’s still work.”

The roles of the traditional meeting room and desk are also being re-thought, with the idea of stand-up meeting areas for short, sharp discussions and stand-up working – adjustable-height desks which give flexibility for sitting and standing working positions.

But, according to Tilney, that’s not to say that the desk is on the scrap heap quite yet.

“The desk is there for a bit longer but in a more flexible way – not L-shaped, but more like tables, and some with wheels,” she says.

Softer shapes are also creeping in, and an increasing appearance of non-office furniture. A recent job by BDG McColl for Arthur

Andersen looked, according to its designer Alex Redgrave, like a Conran restaurant.

“If we’re asking people to work differently let’s change their environment,” he says.

An existential approach

Ambience is increasingly important as the workplace becomes an extension of a company’s core values and branding.

An obvious example is the new offices of Lava Lamp maker Mathmos, where the interior design directly reflects the product – colour-coding each floor to mimic a giant lamp from the outside.

In a more general sense, employers are realising the value of attractive, efficiency-conducive environments to both visitors and staff alike, particularly in the growing call-centre market where, prompted by high training costs, employers use design to help retain staff through pleasant working and leisure facilities.

“More clients are interested in the ‘soft’ issues rather than the ‘hard’ – that it’s not just about the number of desks,” comments Tilney. “They recognise that a quality environment will affect people’s productivity.”

Clients are increasingly asking designers to consider Feng Shui principles in office design, despite a scepticism among many designers and some traditional Feng Shui experts who feel the principles are being debased.

Pringle Brandon is using a Feng Shui auditor to review dealing room designs for two major banks, and British Airways brought in a Feng Shui consultant to assess its new Waterside headquarters.

The credence given to Feng Shui in the West reflects the growing acceptance in society of alternative medicine and practices such as aromatherapy and acupuncture. Along with these is an interest in colour therapy – a practice which colour therapist Mary Louise Lacy claims is being taken up by businesses in the UK.

She advises clients on how to use colour and light in office design to produce optimum workplace environments. Her advice is to only ever work with three colours and to always achieve a balance between cool, calming and more stimulating hues in order to reduce stress.

Employers are, of course, much more likely to take up such ideas if they think they will benefit from them financially.

Derek Clements-Croome, professor of construction management and engineering at Reading University, has been researching the effect of office environments on employee productivity and, like Lacy, is a speaker at a Workplace Comfort Forum seminar on light in the workplace as part of the Design Council’s Design in Business Week at the end of this month.

“If you look at costs in buildings, 90 per cent is on salaries. So you only need 0.1 per cent productivity change and that’s a lot of money,” says Clements-Croome, adding that more companies are now willing to consider how staff are affected by their working environment.

His research, conducted using a stress occupational indicator, identified personal freedom to control environmental conditions as very important to productivity, even if only being able to open windows. Fresh, stimulating decor and layout also helped, as well as lighting as near to the natural light spectrum as possible.

Redgrave thinks designers need to contemplate such issues more intelligently, and to consider peripheral factors such as the effect of office food and dress codes on office efficiency.

“One area that designers haven’t recognised is the importance of colour and light on the human being. There’s very little understanding of the psychology of colours,” says Redgrave.

As for the future of offices, DEGW’s Bradley predicts that designers will be increasingly dealing with a blurring between work and leisure life, as work takes place within the home and leisure at work.

“More and more we’ll have to design workplaces which provide a longer period of support to people working in a more flexible way… The trend is that homes are accommodating work, but the converse is that there will be a more social approach to working,” says Bradley.


Client: Mathmos

Budget: 350 000

Opened: August 199Architect: HM2 (Andrew Hanson,

Richard Webb) working with the

Mathmos in-house design team

Contractor: Sherlock Interiors

A former blind warehouse in Old Street on the edge of London’s Clerkenwell has now become the new home of lamp manufacturer Mathmos, creator of the famous Lava Lamp.

Mathmos needed more office space to handle its rapidly expanding turnover and turned to HM2, the new small projects division of Harper Mackay, to create five floors of accommodation totalling 980m2.

Completed in just 12 weeks, the offices are characterised by their bold use of colour – on the inside identifying each floor, and from the outside giving the Grade II listed building the appearance of a giant Mathmos lamp.

‘We didn’t have a very big budget so we wanted to create something that would really hit you between the eyes. Colour was the best way to do it,’ explains architect Andrew Hanson.

HM2 colour-coded the four floors of offices above the showroom using areas of Dalsouple rubber flooring stretching out from the entrance to each level, across the otherwise grey-carpeted floor.

Where the rubber meets the wall, its colour is matched in a panel of paint incorporating the floor number. On the ceiling, the same colour is used on each level. Illuminated by cold cathode ray uplighters for maximum external impact at night, the colour contrasts with the façade, painted grey with silver paint on the cast iron columns.

HM2’s biggest problem was achieving an exact colour match between the rubber and both egg-shell and water-based paints.

Mathmos’ 30 staff are arranged over the five floors, with management on the top level, design on the third and general administration on the second and first. The showroom staff are on the ground floor where Mathmos’ range of lamps are displayed along with two characters from Mathmos’ website, Mathmos Man and Collectable Collette. The basement is reserved for training.

British Airways

Client: British Airways

Cost: 200m

Opened: July

Architect: Niels Torp Architects MNAL supported by RHWL

Interior design and space planning: Niels Torp Architects MNAL

Brief taker/space planning consultancy: Tilney Shane, Alexi Marmot, Adrian Leeman

Project management: Mace

Designing a new headquarters for British Airways has been a huge task spanning more than eight years for Oslo practice Niels Torp Architects.

Briefed to accommodate nearly 3000 staff with a churn rate of 30 per cent (the percentage of staff to relocate within the building each year), Niels Torp had to come up with a flexible headquarters that would be able to support new working methods and also reflect the company’s wish to present itself as a global, yet caring organisation.

Niels Torp’s approach was to create a more human scale for the development by breaking down the 50 000m2 of office facilities into six, four-storey U-shaped buildings of between 7000m2 and 10 000m2 each.

This division also fulfils the brief for self sufficient buildings that can be let separately.

These are linked by the core of the complex: a 175m x 12m glazed internal mall with coffee bars, shops, kiosks and banking facilities, with access to further staff amenities such as training facilities, staff restaurant and an auditorium.

The site, a former gravel and waste tip, has been landscaped to provide office workers with pleasant views of lakes and parkland.

Each office building or ‘house’ is branded with the name of a continent and a different accent colour used to highlight the solid elements of the interior. Banners decorated with graphics from BA’s tail fin designs hang in each lobby.

Space is broken down further by halving the floorplates to create a dozen fairly manageable buildings. Niels Torp senior project leader Oyvind Neslein explains that the architect, which worked with Tilney Shane on the space planning, wanted to keep the space light and airy, but needed to create specific areas for groups of six to eight – BA’s optimum size for efficient team working.

The solution was the use of low-level partitions with either fully- or semi-translucent tops or trellises to divide the teams, creating a half- open-plan, half-divided office. Partitions are slightly higher along the corridors and deliberately wide to create a buffer area between workers and passing traffic.

Niels Torp has included room in the design for expansion between the teams, which are seated at workstations custom-designed by the architect with Herman Miller. To accommodate the high churn rate, filing systems can be detached and trolleyed to their new location.

While intended to embrace new working methods including hot-desking and shared work space, Niels Torp has also devised a design guide for BA for traditional cellular offices.

The practice’s use of ‘sound human logic’ towards the design got the thumb’s up from BA’s Feng Shui consultant: Neslein said the two different approaches ended up on the same wavelength.

The internal mall, where staff are often seen with mobiles or laptops, is also conceived as part of the working environment, according to Neslein, providing opportunity for chance and planned meetings away from desk areas. ‘We’ve designed an environment for them that should enhance creative thinking – a laboratory for change,’ he says.

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