Insurance giant Aon’s new Gensler-designed headquarters sees the company adopting TMT-style agile working practices, says James McLachlan
Of all the towers that have sprouted up in London over the last three years or so, the Leadenhall building by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSHP) is perhaps the most considerate. Its tapering form leans away from St Pauls famous dome while at ground level the building’s mass is hoisted up on gargantuan X-braces allowing the street to breathe.
The practice is set to move in later this year so for the moment the most significant tenant is insurance giant Aon, which has relocated seven of its divisions, including its global headquarters, across eleven floors of RSHP’s towering wedge on a 20-year lease. The Secretary of State for business, innovation and skills, Sajid Javid officially opened the office last week.
Neighbouring the Lloyds building, the epicentre of London’s powerful insurance market, is precisely where you would expect to find a company of Aon’s stature. However, chief executive officer David Ledger and chair of the steering group that guided the company to its new home reveals that 20 Fenchurch Street was also under consideration. What swung the pendulum in favour of Leadenhall was the opportunity for Aon to have its own entrance, unusual in a speculative office build, which chimed with the company’s desire to unify its hitherto separate strands.
Architects Gensler, a global practice specialising in workplace design, was tasked with moulding the interior to suit the 2,000 Aon employees moving in. In a conservative sector, the aim was to foster the collaborative, communicative ethos of cutting edge tech companies such as Google.
And though Aon’s office is bereft of slides, ping-pong tables and other ephemera associated with Palo Alto, it is nonetheless quietly radical. Instead of dedicated desks, teams sit in dedicated zones while a mixture of co-working booths and reconfigurable private meeting rooms – from one person to 12 – support the open plan floor plate.
Each floor has what Gensler associate Matt Jackson calls a ‘huddle room’ – essentially a meeting room with amphitheatre style seating where staff are briefed on the day’s activities. In the standard office space, the ratio of desks to people is 8 to 10, which made some employees uneasy. To prove the strategy’s viability, sensors monitoring occupancy rates were installed in each desk.‘The most it ever reached was 74 per cent occupancy,’ says Ledger.
Aon’s office is bereft of slides, ping-pong tables and other ephemera associated with Palo Alto
Gensler has identified and embraced Leadenhall’s strengths.The main fifth floor reception, for example, is connected to a client lounge overlooking the Lloyds building by a long wide corridor allowing an uninterrupted view of Roger’s High-tech masterpiece that both celebrates and reinforces Aon’s corporate identity. Visiting clients are carefully funneled into a spine of 35 meeting rooms adjacent to the reception or entertained in a business lounge that resembles a hunting lodge. ‘It was important to delineate between client facing space and the offices,’ says Jackson.
Elsewhere in the design, the engineering prowess of the base build takes centre stage. A muscular, battleship-grey steel support crashing through the staff canteen with unapologetic force, a case in point. Further evidence of the marriage between fit-out and base-build comes in the somewhat unlikely form of a ‘garage door’ that folds up to reveal a fully equipped media lounge.‘The finishes deliberately echo the industrial aesthetic of the Leadenhall,’ says Jackson.
Apart from the splashes of red in client meeting rooms (Aon’s corporate colour), aesthetically this is a pretty low-key fit out with the onus on functionality. ‘We are not Google or Yahoo,’ says Ledger. ‘But this is our interpretation of that idea.’
Aon’s office is some way removed from a Google office, but if you were looking for proof that workplaces of Silicon Valley and Shoreditch were influencing white-collar working culture this is a good example. Aon has successfully mutated the design DNA of those world leading tech companies into a format more palatable for a 350-year-old industry built on tradition and stability. It hasn’t been an easy transition. Ledger recalls one member of staff being so overwhelmed by the new open-plan setup, they walked out of the office after an hour.
‘The biggest challenge has been convincing those members of staff on the verge of a promotion (and consequently their own private office) that this was a good idea,’ he says. ‘But we fundamentally believe it will make our business better.’
Aon’s new Gensler-designed headquarters
Source: Tim Soar
Interior design Gensler
Structural engineer Arup
Sustainability consultant ChapmanBDSP
Project management CBRE
Cost consultant Capita
Start on site November 2012
Completion October 2015
Gross internal floor area 17,652m²