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Calling for better design

Call-centres are seen as the sweatshops of Europe, but thoughtful design is helping break down monotony and stress BY ZIONA STRELITZ

The call-centre phenomenon has sprung up this decade. This business platform accounted for some 1.6 per cent of employment activity in the uk in 1997, a figure estimated to rise to 2.2 per cent by 2000.

When this mode of transacting business started, it was characterised by low operating margins in both wages and premises. The early call-centre accommodation reflected this. When my company, zza, visited some of the first wave of call-centres in the course of occupier research in the early 90s, the prevailing ethos was 'lean and mean'. Physically this was expressed as deep space, low external awareness, poor lighting, small individual footprints at the workstation, a low level of staff amenity, little stimulation or animation at the workplace, and a very explicit basis for supervision - with supervisors often seated on a raised platform, literally in an overseeing capacity. This is the basis for the widely held public perception of call-centres as modern sweatshops.

This approach was weak on several counts. For a start, though call-centre staff are not in visual contact with customers, they are customer-facing. How they feel about their employment will influence how they project their organisation over the telephone.

Secondly, call-centres tend to attract others in their wake, resulting in competitive local labour markets. An open-ended wage spiral would defeat the cost-competitive plank of the call-centre business platform. Effective accommodation is a means of attracting and retaining staff.

Call-centre work is also stressful. This applies to in-bound calls, where stress is associated either with the boredom of repetitive customer inquiries or the aggravation of customers with problems or complaints. Stress is also a characteristic of outbound calls which are typically made to drum up unsolicited business, and therefore subject to a high level of rejected advances.

Agreed guidance on what makes a good call-centre has been lacking. The predicament of those procuring or delivering call-centres is the speed of business requirement to go live in new or expanded space. Typically this precludes scope for reflective research on existing premises to inform the brief for subsequent centres.

The pace is exemplified by the experience of First Direct. The business was launched in 1989 from leased space at the Arlington Centre in Leeds. In 1994 the business expanded to a 15,000m2 facility it developed for itself at neighbouring Stourton. In 1996-7 this was expanded to another 7000m2 in a linked new building on site. At the same time, work started on a new 18,500m2 centre at Hamilton near Glasgow. By 1998 the Stourton Centre was being further expanded. Inevitably, such pressure of growth produces a reactive impetus.

Research rationale

bt has a strong commercial interests in the field of call-centres: in running its own call-centres to service existing business in providing third-party call-centre services for other organisations; and in rolling out call-centres for other companies to operate themselves.

Given its stake, bt responded to the lack of consensus in what makes good call-centre accommodation by commissioning zza to undertake comparative research on premises practice among leading call-centre operators in the uk.

Andrew Jenkins, who is responsible for call-centre accommodation at uk Property, recognised the lack of consistency and agreement on relevant accommodation standards.

'bt is a leading supplier and operator in the call-centre field,' he said. 'We wanted to typify existing and best practice, identify alternative approaches to call-centre design, and develop an appreciation of how these apply in operators' varying business circumstances.'

About the study

zza undertook research visits to 20 call-centres which were selected as having well-known operators and/or were based in buildings by notable designers. The sample included two bt centres - one office-based, one bespoke, and several linked examples where the same operator had delivered an earlier centre and a successive centre - ibm, Kwik-Fit Insurance, Direct Line and First Direct. This indicated how these operators' respective objectives for call-centre accommodation were evolving.

The sample covered key sectors using call-centres. The research focused on relevant aspects of call-centre design and locational and operational issues: access, human resources and competitive levers in recruitment and staff retention.

The evidence demonstrates operators' resounding faith in the benefits of good call-centre accommodation. The field included very high standards of provision and, irrespective of the standard to which successive call- centres had been executed, the intention in the case of follow-up centres was always an enhancement of previous standards. Relative to the early 90s, there has been a step change in the approach of leading operators, reflected in facilities that have already been built. The key to this upward trend is the view that better accommodation assists in staff recruitment, staff retention and productivity. Better accommodation does not necessarily equate with more expensive specification. This is good news for designers: there is a live market that is receptive to good, thoughtful call-centre design.

Scope for offices

Most call-centre activity is undertaken in office-based accommodation - and much of this occurs in centres of under twenty operators as part of a larger and more comprehensive business function. However, office buildings also cater for much larger numbers, for example, bt at Dundee has capacity for 540 agent workstations, Cellnet in Leeds has 150 advisor positions per wing, totalling 450 positions in the three of the six wings that accommodate this function - two symmetrical wings per floor in the overall building of 6000m2 .

Our research included numerous effective examples of office-based call- centres. In addition to the advantage of being able to use speculatively developed space, office premises are more easily re-let - a widespread concern among operators - and the overall standard that can be achieved balances well against the investment involved. For larger operations based in office buildings and hence with large runs of space, the spatial quality of the operational area is improved where floor to ceiling heights are above institutional standards.

A business park like Doxford International has attracted a wide range of call-centres ranging from 3000m2 for Avco Trust to 950 work positions in two separate buildings totalling 9,500m2 for Barclaycall. Here Akeler offers good spatial quality with an emphasis on uninterrupted space. The generic design developed by Aukett Associates involves ceiling heights above the institutional norm.

Across the sample of office-based call-centres, we observed considerable scope for better attention to lighting, storage, interior animation and display. Not all these aspects require costly interventions, which increases the relevance of the office-based model. There is scope for designers to make office-based call-centres both more effective and more appealing,

Distinguished by their large floorplates and sectional heights, the bespoke call-centres provide big operational areas plus cost-effective staff amenity and support. The shell is typically a modified industrial shed, with a range of investment in fit-out to office standard - except for ceilings, although in some cases, as in Grimshaw's centre for Orange at Darlington, and ibm's call-centre in Dublin, considerable attention has been placed on the ceiling as a source of filtered natural light as well as an extensive plane of visual interest.

Although the larger tracts of space encompassed by the bespoke centres are more challenging to deliver well, the results can be more exciting and inspiring when the execution is good, with resultant recruitment and motivational value.

The big question relates to size. Call-centres use teams of 11-15 people and most operations comprise multiples of these teams reporting through team leaders upwards through the structure to call-centre managers. A large call-centre, e.g. BT's 648 agent positions at Doncaster, is based on seven call-centres organisationally, each with a manager, and reporting to one call-centre director, all accommodated within a single volume of space on a floorplate of 12,000m2.

The gains of placing such numbers in a single expanse are questionable. We concluded that a spatially discrete operational zone of 200-250 desk positions is a sensible maximum, with two such zones sharing centrally located support facilities within one building envelope. This is large enough to generate 'the buzz' that staff reportedly find stimulating, as well as providing a cost-effective base for good support facilities. At the same time, it limits the immediate visual, social and acoustic field within the operational area, resulting in a buffered zone of comfortable human scale. In such a configuration the support facilities - visible from the operational areas - offer visual and functional contrast to the agents seated at the work positions which enhances their variety of experience when seated, standing and walking about.

Displacement ventilation is appropriate in these solutions. The acoustic challenge is addressed by the limited scale, divided configuration of the operational areas, use of absorptive finishes, and, not least, proper use of headsets! The real servicing challenge is lighting: providing for glare and brightness control, task effectiveness and a quality feel. At the scale suggested, it is feasible to provide for external awareness which is an important motivator to highly desk-bound staff, without losing the control of brightness and glare that is required because of the intensive use of vdu's.

The most successful lighting examples are a combination of up and down lighting, with integrated uplighting illuminating ceiling surfaces, and care to avoid pools of shadow which are depressing, as demonstrated in the excellent lighting effect that has been achieved at bt in Gosforth through artificial illumination. Given the large runs of space involved in bespoke centres, visual interest on the ceiling plane achieved by means of coffers, apertures and lighting contributes to a stimulating and pleasing environment. Caution is required over top lighting and on high level/clerestory windows as likely sources of excessive brightness/glare.

We concluded from our research that size, configuration as well as good judgement in the selection of individual fit-out elements make a significant difference in the result achieved.

Office-based solutions are more forgiving than the bespoke call-centres, and easier for achieving reliable, if not charismatic, results. It takes more investment and better design ability to make the fit-out succeed in a bespoke call-centre than in an office shell, because the bespoke centres with their bigger floorplates and/or greater sectional heights are more extreme and hence more challenging settings.

Example bupa

bupa's call-centre in Staines, Middlesex is on an edge-of-town business/industrial estate. The setting itself is prosaic, as is the two-storey 4000m2 brick- faced office building accommodating about 550 workstations.

What distinguishes the accommodation is its internal configuration. This locates the primary social zone in a double-volume space along the central axis of the building between four operational areas of comfortable social scale; two on the ground and two on the first floors. This approach breaks down the bulk of the operation to provide discrete social and spatial units based on the key business activities. Given the finished sectional heights on the floors (about 2.5m), the insertion of the atrium has resulted in floorplates that are better proportioned and of superior spatial quality than would have been the case had each floor been a continuous expanse. The naturally top-lit atrium accommodates a conveniently accessed social facility for all staff, as well as visual punctuation of the core business activity.

bupa's call-centre is also distinguished by the quality of the fit-out itself which was designed by Gibberds. This involves good furniture and effective space planning, which seats staff at relatively high density without a sense of regimentation. The use of curves in the work-surfaces and screens as well as on the circulation routes, and the effective use of colour against white wall surfaces, helps to avert a rigid feel. Extensive use of interior plants assists in screening, further reduces the linear tendency, and introduces a natural effect.

Imaginative support spaces directly off the operational zones provide visual interest and stimulation. They include:

the light and airy double-volume dining/break-out space, directly visible from all the operational areas through its clear glazed enclosure, fitted out with attractive natural finishes

the 'Calming' and 'Recharge' rooms - the former to provide psychological relief to agents who may be upset by stressful calls, the latter to relieve staff who may feel sluggish from a run of monotonous work. The deployment of colour in these rooms was guided by the effects of certain colours on emotion

high-quality meeting and presentation spaces for staff training and presentations to corporate customers

a simple, crisp entrance and reception area.

Example Orange

Orange's call-centre at Darlington is a bespoke facility conceived in a building shell that is conceptually a warehouse, and with the client intention of being able to revert the building to a distribution use if necessary. The building, designed by Grimshaw and Partners, is one of a number of buildings operated by Orange.

The Orange building is similar to bupa's in also having its operational area divided into two symmetrical wings, one on either side of a support zone on the central axis. The key difference is that the bupa operational space is two-storey, with a double-volume support zone, whereas the Orange operational space is double-volume, with a two-storey support zone. In both buildings, the enclosing panels on the central support zone are clear- glazed, allowing views in and through the support zones from the operational areas.

The benefits of this configuration at Orange are:

breaking down the bulk of the call-centre operation into two discrete spatial units of 250 workstations per wing

reducing the depth of the operational areas and the distance to the perimeter and social support zone - more an issue of social, management and physical scale than a lighting benefit, as the operational zones at Orange are themselves top lit by filtered natural light

providing conveniently accessed social/breakout facilities, meeting rooms and informal meeting areas, as well as visual punctuation at the centre - between the two operational zones and visible from them

a very legible spatial hierarchy of meeting and breakout facilities, offering scope for variation in staff experience and choice of setting when staff are not seated at their workstations.

The fit-out is distinguished by:

good quality furniture and effective space planning, which accommodates staff at relatively high density without a sense of crowding

reliance on natural finishes - timber, glazing, metal, cloth - to achieve a consistent, soft feel of high quality

effective use of colour in the furniture, with screens in three blocks of colour per wing, graduating from brighter through paler orange to yellow.

The support spaces are stimulating and elegant, contributing to visual interest and vitality:

the restaurant, fully glazed smoking room, and open coffee bar on the upper level, promote a stylish 'young' feel

the glazed enclosure to the computer room on the ground floor of the support zone both expresses the role of technology as integral to the business, and offers views through to the operational zone on the opposite side

attractive graphic lettering on the glazed meeting pods is used to express corporate messages such as 'chat, chat, chat' in an interesting and appealing way

dramatic uplighters with fabric 'petals' on steel columns generate a soft and varied light in the double volume overhead

round fabric pads filter daylight through the apertures situated in the roof

the crisp, open entrance area, with its bright orange and yellow mural, warm timber floor, and absence of other elements - no reception desk or seating - makes a clean, clutter-free statement, consistent with the rest of the centre.

Ziona Strelitz is principal of ZZA

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