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Lean Office

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The third annual 'Lean Office' conference was held in London on 4 and 5 March. It discussed new ways of working, looking at their resulting influence within the corporate environment as expressed through its buildings, interiors, furniture, and facility management.

A series of case studies, visits and workshops helped to illustrate how top-down strategic workplace initiatives are being implemented within organisations to foster more effective ways of dealing with progress and change. The conference further explored how such initiatives are being translated into the physical built environment that we have always tended to refer to as 'the office'.

For large, and not-so-large, corporate organisations, the redefinition of work and the workplace is a major issue involving high value commitment in terms of people, property and technology.

The conference attracted a stimulating and eclectic mix of senior managers, facilities managers, designers, design buyers, suppliers, and management consultants - a gathering which, it is to be hoped, will help to dispel the myth that new ways of working mean lower operating costs all round.

The case studies presented represented leading-edge companies which had implemented new workplace techniques as a definite change-management tool to make their companies more effective.

The first illustration of one of these leading-edge companies involved a visit to the new British Airways Waterside building at Heathrow. Here ba has created a massive cultural and change-management building. At a cost of £200 million, it sees the new facility as a manifestation of its corporate culture, bringing together 3000 rising to 4000 staff under one roof within a 97ha public park.

Our guide led us through the cobbled yet glass-topped street which forms the main artery of the building. We stopped at one of the several espresso bars astride a small stream beside the Feng Shui garden. We listened intently to how Norwegian architect, Niels Torp, took inspiration from the English Cotswold village in his design of the street that links six irregular horseshoe-shaped 'houses', or office blocks, each named after a continent.

It was not until some time later that I was reminded of how we use urban metaphor when attempting to describe the design of organisations and their workplaces. Over the two days, reference was made to how the workplace can be likened to a city or town, where circulation areas metamorphose into streets and coffee areas into public squares.

The metaphor at Waterside has been strongly implemented, especially in the use of materials that line the floor and walls of the street. This in itself has given ba some teething problems. The overt nature of the rural street combined with the relaxed behaviour that the space seems to promote, means that those uniformed ba air and cabin crew who do need to visit the building from time to time feel somewhat conspicuous and, bizarrely, out of place. The difficulty that some have in negotiating the cobbled ramps adds to a heightened conspicuousness.

Within the building, ba has consciously avoided any overt references to itself as the world's leading airline, apart from the two huge Boeing 747 landing-gear wheels located near the entrance. It is not a 'branded building' in that sense but the building, with all its metaphorical references, communicates to user and visitor alike a truism: that the building would reflect and fit any major organisation of similar size and stature. There is little within the building that gives a particular sense of the host culture.

The theory at Waterside is that the six 'houses' are not seen as pure stand-alone workplace environments but more as constituent spaces that work in common measure with the function of the street. The building is seen as a catalyst in encouraging staff to interact on a more frequent basis and in a more relaxed way. The intention is that from such serendipitous liaisons creative initiatives may be seeded.

This is the 'function' of the street, and ba has devoted a considerable budget to making a building that breaks the preconceived rules of office design; that you keep to a minimum those areas not strictly workplace, such as circulation areas. Such areas are now considered to be vital as positive spaces for interaction. Whether the making of a cool but ultimately sanitised environment is enough to provide this level of stimulation and creativity which a 'real' piece of civic fragment might provide is debatable.

As an employee at Waterside you don't have to be sitting at one of the many Herman Miller workstations, attention fixed by any one of the 1000 pcs or 700 laptops. A relaxed, chance meeting with a long-lost colleague from the legal department might spark off some interesting ideas which can be discussed further over some frothy coffee at the Pavement Cafe in the Square. You have to break your conversation for a moment as one of the numerous highly polished aluminium cleaning trolleys trundles across the cobbles, pushed by one of the many neatly uniformed cleaning-team operatives who lays out a phalanx of yellow 'perilous - wet floor' warning markers, at which point the village metaphor wanes.

With most of the case studies presented, there seemed to be a constant corporate exigency to include 'art' within the environment, and Waterside was no exception. The benign and passive use of Andy Goldsworthy's slate cairn piece seems melancholic, trapped within the internalised exterior of the street, en route to the staff canteen, wistfully pining through the structural glass assembly that marks the end of the street, yearning to be liberated and rejoined with its cousin, a stone's throw away in the parkland beyond.

Meanwhile, it was back on the coach to run the gauntlet of the major blue-chip hqs that litter the M4 approach to London. SmithKline Beecham, Seagram, Bull . . . all of them, we imagined, wrestling with and trying to understand what all the fuss is about.

Back in London's Mayfair conference venue, Christie Franchi, of Arthur Andersen's Business Consulting group, gets the afternoon session off to a flying start. Young, bullish and very Californian, she describes herself as Director of Cool Ideas at Andersen's and immediately begins to challenge the preconceptions of work and the workplace.

She illustrated this with the case study for Monster Board, a job-search website and the world's most successful career centre on the Internet with over 2.5 million visitors per month. Monster Board is dependent on recruiting the best people, and these people will invariably be visually sophisticated and very discerning about the environments in which they work, rest and play. The role of the workplace at Monster Board is not only to provide effective settings but also to create the 'Wow! I really want to work here! How can I get a job here?' effect. Monster Board has created an environment that makes people want to get up and come to work in the morning.

Their workplace is by any standard non-conformist. Its kaleidoscope of colour clashing with a riotous assembly of low sofas, bar-room stools, deep armchairs and funky graphics suggested that this was far from any workplace that the collected gathering had ever experienced, more like a scene from one of those early 1970s American tv movies.

Franchi explains that her role at Andersen is to help the 'top execs' to realise change, to realise that they can change their culture, create new businesses and new ways of working. A vital part of this toolkit is space. Space can communicate vision, culture, business essence, brand and working ways.

Architects need not apply. Why not? Architects clearly have the breadth of vision to help organisations envision their future. But somehow they seem able only to communicate strategic expertise when designing the organisational hardware.

Franchi also predicts that, with the onset of the internet and the means to communicate globally within a matter of seconds, the nature of these new workplaces will not necessarily be office building-based but environment and setting-based. This is because organisations are now appreciating that we rely far more on the visual in the way we communicate and understand information; at least 80 per cent of information we process is visual.

The workplace no longer needs to look like an office. It now uses the visual language of the setting more intensely and intelligently as a physical manifestation to communicate those things that are important to organisations.

Before, office space would tend to be developer-driven, offering the most cost-effective package to enable companies to achieve most bums on seats and this was literally the message communicated by the space. Granted, we could all have a bit of fun with the chairman's office, the reception area and maybe the staff restaurant, but the office areas, generally open- plan, were invariably furnished with the same ergonomically tested workstations, the same anti-static carpet tiles, the same lateral filing cabinets; a relentless statement in the cause of organisational efficiency.

The demand now comes from managers and users alike for the organisational environment to be more effective rather than purely efficient. This is leading firms such as Andersen to investigate how space itself might meet this new demand.

Franchi promotes more open spaces and fewer offices, 'especially for the top dogs', more informality, 'cafes and chinos', design for the experiential rather than the multi- functional. She also hints at modified roles for those usual suspects involved in the care-in-the-organisation team. Less facilities manager, more the concierge, space goddess, 'mom'. In essence each organisation needs its cultural caretaker.

Architects are being left behind in this process. There seems to be an opinion forming that the architect is the last person you should consult when trying to re-engineer a company's culture or business. This can be taken two ways. Either, once the brief has been formulated and the type of environment or environments decided upon, it is then time to interview the architect for some ideas on space planning and colours. Or, there is no call on the architect at all.

But surely there is a role for the architect to play at the most strategic level where companies are undergoing change management or just beginning to. Especially in a world that is becoming increasingly more visual in the way that ideas are communicated and understood. The architect has special skills, both cultural and visual, to complement the initial processes required in the field of say, organisational design.

The next speaker was David O' Hanlon from ad agency hhcl & Partners, famous for such campaigns as Tango, Pot Noodle and Egg. He took us through the company's new romping office, in the increasingly trendy environs of NoHo (North of Oxford Street) which includes such mighty neighbours as restaurant Mash.

O'Hanlon describes his company as 'professional radicals' and sees advertising and communication agencies as the vanguard in the design of the new workplace. He delivers an eloquent explanation of the French military term, 'avant garde'. The first line of attack in battle was led by the 'slightly crazy' in order to soften up the enemy and make things easier for the rest to follow. This is the role of those agencies which have always tended to pioneer the 'avant garde' in terms of workplace initiatives usually later taken up by the blue chips.

Together with architect Buschow Henley, hhcl developed its romping office (Radical Office Mobility Programme), where 90 per cent of staff do not have a personalised workstation at all. Instead, they are encouraged to be nomadic and seek out their most appropriate work setting on the day, on the hour, on the minute. This might be a padded office offering complete acoustic privacy or a transparent glass box complete with opening skylight for those periods of the day requiring 'blue sky vision'.

Many meetings are either held 'on the hoof' or in a meeting room without chairs - 'cuts down the bullshit'. romping is only possible with the aid of very sophisticated it back-up which includes portable hands-free mobile digital phones, issued to all staff, plus a rigorous logging-on procedure to access the networked pcs. Personal belongings are kept in lockers, and paper-mail delivery points are strategically located to promote interaction between staff and clients alike. (Clients are also encouraged to romp.)

If Waterside is the village street, hhcl is the casbah, where the 'street' merges into the melee that is the workplace - a frenetic collection of people, stalls, kiosks and technology. The detailing of the elements is also raw, using materials such as galvanised sheet and shuttering ply. This seems to be a conscious attempt to manifest the ethos of hhcl within the very fabric of the interior.

O'Hanlon, a heady mix of philosophy graduate and chartered accountant, retains some connection with the ground, albeit not with both feet, as he recounts the basic initiatives to achieve a successful project. Number one goal is 'getting the financial director on board'. Once you have buy- in from the fd, convince him not to set a budget. Treat the project as a business proposition, not a fit-out, the objective of which is to increase profits. Determine the behavioural outcomes you want and then get your design team. As in a business proposal, market the scheme first by piloting and championing it within 40 per cent of the organisation; that is, don't try and build the lot in one hit but 'dot' the scheme around the building to get buy-in from as many as possible.

Does it work? Well, with hhcl's average age of 26, I'm definitely too old to work there, but O'Hanlon quotes a 15 per cent increase in company effectiveness since the introduction of romping.

During the final session we were told to split off into groups, with each group asked to prepare three questions for our panel of experts. The most popular question was 'do we need headquarters buildings?'

As with the presentations made by the advertising agencies hhcl and St Luke's, the very notion of what a headquarters building does for a company was raised in relation to the growing influence of home, remote and tele- working. The hq could be seen as a dwindling edifice that, in essence, becomes the corporate-spiritual home. A home that provides corporate sustenance and replenishment. A place for colleagues, clients and suppliers to meet and exchange ideas. The location of this hq facility is now liberated by virtue of not having to accommodate parking for 3000 cars, most of them arriving and departing at peak times.

The fragmentation of the corporate superblock as displayed at Waterside was, until very recently, thought of as complete anathema, but the continued growth in the mergers of large competing companies in an effort to compete on a more global scale is leading to a more fragmented type of organisation.

As the tree grows, so it divides to maintain the balance and suppleness to withstand the occasional storm. The same will apply to organisations. It's already happening. This fragmentation, aided by the expansion of it, will give parts of the organisation more freedom to locate to areas that are centres of excellence to enable them, especially those in the retail and service sectors, to tap in to local markets.

What then is the future of organisations and their realisation within the built environment? Do we continue on the path of the corporate superblock played out as city fragment, abstracted as Waterside is, into a neo-medieval 'Pleasantville' where any genuine aspect of human interaction and behaviour is emasculated in an effort to bring about a slice of corporate utopia?

Or should we question our acceptance of what we have come to define as our working life and our occupation of such an outmoded building type as the office? Maybe a rejuvenated city plays host to complex relationships of organisational sub-cultures that subvert the essence of corporate life as we know it. Tango and Pot Noodle meets Herman Miller - what a contest!

In terms of the future ways of working? It's here now and it's more Blade Runner than Pleasantville.

Geoff Strange is an architect with Bisset Adams

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