Within these walls

A downturn may seem the wrong time to be thinking about wallpaper, but an office revamp can be good for business.

Decorating your office is probably the last thing on your mind as you try to trim the budget for a hard year ahead. But just as you may have plenty of arguments to hand to persuade clients to increase their marketing spend in a downturn, there are also reasons to brighten your working environment.

Polly Ernest, managing director of project management company The Handling Partnership, says: “I think appearance is more crucial when times are hard and competition greater. In difficult times clients can afford to be fussy and if they don’t think your premises are up to scratch the work may go elsewhere.”

Based in a converted barn in Shropshire, which has been restored through a national regeneration programme for old farm buildings, the interior of THP’s building has been designed to reflect the company’s brand identity – young and fun.

The interior follows a circus theme, with “big top” tenting over the reception. The company colours – red, blue and yellow – are a recurring motif. Filing cabinets are spray-painted in these colours, as are the innovative storage cubes for files, which can be tacked together in any configuration. “We frequently manage 100 campaigns at once, and we wanted this ability to be reflected in the design of our office. It’s vital to our brand,” Ernest explains.

As there are no shops in the immediate vicinity, a large staff kitchen has been designed with a central wooden table. THP provides free lunches for staff and all food is organic. “This has improved morale and compensates for the lack of shopping,” says Ernest, who used local company Bridget Ford Interiors to design the office.

She adds: “It would have been stupid to move to a new building without generating a working atmosphere that would allow staff not only to feel comfortable but which would also spark their creativity.”

Although it may seem reminiscent of Changing Rooms – and THP certainly had a larger budget than Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen is ever given – many city-centre agencies could learn from the approach taken by this out-of-town company. In designing its working environment, THP has managed to strengthen its brand and improve facilities for its employees. All of this will have a positive knock-on effect on the way the agency works.

These are two key elements picked up on by Damian Mould, chief executive of integrated London agency Slice. He says: “The relationship between working environment and brand values is very important. Clients make judgements about the kind of company you are and the way you work as soon as they walk through the door, and staff pick up cues as to how they are expected to behave and how much you value them from the space in which you put them and the facilities to which they have access.”

However, Mould cautions against going over the top and says it’s crucial to keep function to the fore. He explains: “There is definitely a link between environment and staff retention, but design choices are decisions about the things that support the practical process and tools of your work. Marketing is about communication, so you need great IT, places where staff can get together in different-sized groups, quiet areas and well-organised information systems. No amount of fish tanks will make up for deficiencies in any of these areas.”

Take a look inside

Two years ago the Bankside Group, a consortium of seven agencies, took over an old hop-storage building near London Bridge. Director Tim Routledge agrees that it’s important not to be ostentatious. He is almost evangelical about his company’s approach to office design, which he says illustrates how interiors can change the way people work.

Bankside’s office is open-plan, with the businesses separated by glass partitions. Routledge explains: “We’ve all worked for big agencies and understood clients’ frustrations at finding the right people to deal with, so we have based Bankside on a consortium idea, with each agency having about seven staff. The glass partitions encourage the agencies to communicate and work together on projects.”

Reinforcing this transparent image, Bankside has no fancy reception area, so prevalent in many large agencies. Routledge says: “There is no reception. Clients simply walk into the office and what they see is what they get. A reception with a huge atrium and café may be impressive, but it can give clients the impression that this is what they’re paying for. It can also cover up a less impressive back office and we wanted to get away from this kind of big agency spin.”

Bankside’s main interior design innovation is its meeting rooms, all three of which can open into one when necessary. Each reflects a cornerstone of the company’s philosophy: substance, imagination and passion. Acting on an idea from Abi Goldfinch, who runs Bankside’s design agency Lion, and who has a keen interest in aromatherapy, the consortium based each room on a smell which reflected its main element. The substance room, where the company’s strategic thinking takes place, smells of chocolate and has a brown interior with images of chocolate muffins on the walls. The imagination room, the creative centre, is scented with vanilla and decorated in cream with Danish pastries. Finally, the passion room, where branding is developed, is adorned with jelly beans and smells of rose. Routledge calls it “experiential immersion” and says staff and clients love it.

Bankside’s office was designed without the aid of an interior design agency. Routledge says: “We knew what we wanted and invited students from a local interior design college to come up with ideas.” This cost Bankside nothing and the whole project cost about &£30,000, which is fairly modest considering what was achieved. However, Routledge warns against a DIY approach. “It’s always good to consult experts who have experience designing environments in which people work,” he says.

Using an interior design agency will certainly increase the cost, but maybe not as dramatically as you would think. Lewis PR recently moved into new offices in Millbank Tower. It spent &£350,000 on the design and refit, but only &£10,000 of that was spent on consultancy. Like Bankside and THP, Lewis wanted to give its new offices a personality that reflected the brand. Some of the staff’s favourite words – “mullet”, “lard” and various coarser terms – are displayed prominently. Business development director and head of IT Morgan McLintic says: “We wanted to form a tangible creative culture to make it obvious that we take what we do seriously, but not ourselves. We’ve tried to create a ‘newsroom’ of atmosphere, avoiding the ‘cubeville’ approach by breaking down barriers to allow people to communicate more effectively.”

What to look for

So if you’re using the experts, how can you stay within budget and make sure they do what’s right for your company? First, make sure the agency you choose really gets to know your company and that it’s not just a cosmetic exercise. Only by understanding your brand and the way you work can the agency produce an appropriate environment and construct a comprehensive plan. Also, a good agency will look at what your building can offer, and at elements such as your lease. Gill Parker, joint managing director of award-winning workplace designer BDG McColl, says: “Understanding your clients’ vision and brand values is essential, but you also need to take into account factors which appear simple but are often missed, such as building leases. A short lease means you can come up with a design which has more of an immediate impact if the company will be moving on within, say, a couple of years.”

Barrie Legg, design director at Conran’s interior design arm, agrees: “Flexibility must be built into a long lease, allowing the company to evolve within the design. Each building has its own rhythm with respect to available light, ceiling height, noise level and so on, and it’s important to establish this rhythm at the outset as it will affect the way a company operates.” Legg also talks about assessing the way a company “works and breathes throughout the year” in the sense of how office design should take into account busy and quieter periods – something that can be difficult to recognise from the inside.

Finally, forget about trends. “Hot-desking” and “chill-out zones” may be the phrases of the moment, but unless the way your company works demands this and your staff really want it, it’s not advisable. Parker says: “Enforcing a system because it’s trendy doesn’t work, and if you’re out to save money by cutting office space through hot-desking, you’re not taking into account the extra outlay which will go on supporting off-site facilities such as laptops.”

Call centre design

Call centres have a reputation for being unpleasant places to work. Sandra Warham, training director at creative marketing solutions company Somersault, offers ten tips on how best to set up a call centre for the benefit of both staff and business. Part of Warham’s work is to provide consultancy for customers’ call centres, and in this role she has advised companies including WorldCom and travel portal Openroads.com in the training of call centre staff and the setting-up of office facilities.

– Keep people in small teams. This generates a more supportive atmosphere. If each team has its own personal area it counteracts the battery-farm atmosphere of many call centres.

– Move things around. Generating a feeling of change and adaptability gives staff a “different outlook”.

– Wide open spaces. Don’t cram people in. Give each member of staff plenty of room so they feel like they have their own domain.

– Talk to a face. Encourage personal effects such as photos near workstations – people make better calls if they are looking at a face, as opposed to a computer screen.

– The right lighting. Lighting affects the mood – if it’s too bright, people feel under pressure and exposed, but if it’s too dark work slows down and people can become depressed. Also, try to ensure that as much natural light as possible reaches people’s workstations.

– Work and play. If you give staff perks such as free Internet access, try locating them outside the work area. This way staff can check personal e-mails, for instance, outside their direct working environment, keeping the two separate.

– Food as the fuel of work. A refectory or café in the building makes life easier for staff. If the food is fresh, healthy or even organic you are looking after the whole person… not just the work person.

– Look after the body. Train employees to sit in the correct way at their desks. Voice trainers can advise on posture, how to relax at the desk as well as voice and throat training to ensure the best performance from staff and their comfort at work.

– Decoration. Make sure the offices look nice. Consult employees on colour schemes and make sure office space is clean, tidy and appropriate to your corporate style.

– Reading material. Provide free newspapers and magazines in the office. Your employees will keep up to date with current affairs and will associate work with information provision.

Five-star offices

Here are five examples of marketing and communications companies which have pushed office design to the limit:

– Banc – black is the new black. Refurbished early last year, this company claims to be the only black office in London. All the walls are blackboards, on which staff can scrawl. Ceilings and window frames are in bright white for contrast.

– Rocket – the walls are alive. London creative media agency Rocket has recently introduced a curved lenticular wall into a meeting room – the first time the technology has been used for the wall of an office. The wall contains tiles in a design based on synapses and neurons of the brain firing off, which create a moving wallpaper effect as you move around the room. They are supported by a programmed wave of LED lighting. The desired effect, using technology from Hive, is to stimulate thought processes.

– Bankside Group – on the nose. This communication, marketing and design consortium has three meeting rooms, each with a different smell, to represent strategy (chocolate), creativity (vanilla) or brand development (rose).

– St Luke’s Communications – no possessions. A pioneer of hot-desking, this ad agency has no offices, no secretaries, no diaries and open computer access to everything. Space is given over to brand rooms, which are nerve centres named after and inspired by client brands. Each employee – or rather co-owner – has their own specially designed mobile phone to enable them to work anywhere they want.

– Citrus Publishing – meet the staff. Not only does the scent of lemon greet you when you enter this contract publisher’s office, but the walls are adorned with pictures of every staff member, each wearing black while striking a pose in a “citrus-coloured” bucket chair.

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