Workplace design: how office space is becoming fun again
Taking Google's lead, the office as a playground is back in fashion, but if ditching formality suits your business and means contented staff, what's not to like? asks Tim Smedley
Walking up to the Manchester offices of Melbourne, an IT server hosting company, my expectations are not high. Dreary business park office buildings slouch amid a forest of To Let signs. Entering the foyer, only one level is occupied: the fourth floor. I take the lift. But as the door slides open, everything is not as it first appeared.
Oversized flowers, like props from the Wizard of Oz, look out. Two staff are animatedly playing on an arcade machine. Passing through another door, I am in an indoor garden, a small path winding through grass upon which more "workers" are sat cross-legged, playing on an old Nintendo.
I stagger on past a living room with an open fireplace, leather chairs and chandelier; a Mad Men-style meeting room replete with early 1960s furniture. A frame of pool is in full swing. A cupboard door opens into a Narnian winter. And amid all this, people are sat at desks … doing work.
The idea of the fun, playground-style workplace is synonymous with Google – its offices flashing beacons of colour in the otherwise drab world of work, sporting indoor ski-lifts, tropical jungle huts and slides between floors. Other young companies of the Noughties followed suit, such as Innocent Drinks – its London office clad with AstroTurf, park benches and towering plants, peopled by barefooted staff in threequarter length shorts. But then the recession came, and the fun ended.
Or so it seemed. For the green shoots of AstroTurf are sprouting among a new breed of firms. Melbourne is run by 29-year-old entrepreneur Daniel Keighron-Foster and has a modest 27 employees. Founding the company at university in 2000, 11 years later and with a £3m turnover he decided it was time for an office befitting his firm's ethos. Taking just three months from the ideas stage (a staff meeting down the pub) to completion last December, Keighron-Foster explains, "I've never had a job, so I run Melbourne in the way I would want a job to be, were I to get one. I always wanted to make an office that people really feel comfortable with and feel like it's theirs, not just a sterile work environment that they can't wait to leave."
While it may seem a frivolous expense, Keighron-Foster argues otherwise: "The idea is to make it impossible for someone to want to leave. If you look at the costs of bringing on a new person, recruitment, months before they're fully productive … I would say the additional cost of the office is easily outweighed."
As for the cold, hard numbers, he says: "We reckon we've spent about 30% more because of all the additional detail, which is about £130,000 as opposed to the £100,000 we would have spent." Much of the furniture was sourced from local antique shops and eBay, at prices similar to, or below, standard office furniture.
Added to that are the productivity benefits of having happy staff, an increase in prospective clients wanting to visit, and attracting new employees: "We have a competitor – a much bigger company – who are the antithesis of us, very suit and tie. If we advertise a position we tend to get four or five of their staff applying for it. That says it all to me."
Playing games consoles and relaxing on beanbags is the reward for hard work rather than a replacement for it, says Keighron-Foster, but they can do so as they wish. "We don't monitor people, they are completely left up to their own judgment. Because we don't clockwatch, I like to think it's more in our favour in terms of the amount we get out of people. [But] if somebody's taking the piss, their team-mates will tell them about it."
As he says this, we hear the crack of someone breaking off a game of pool in the background and a cue ball rolls to a clonk against the glass wall of our meeting room. It is 3pm.
Richard Kauntze, chief executive of the British Council for Offices (BCO), a commentator on workplace design, believes that we're witnessing a trend: "Clearly the flagship examples, such as Google, have led the way, but we're now seeing very young companies, often led by very young people, reinforcing the desire for a workspace that is less conventional."
The reason for this, he argues, goes right to the heart of how we choose to live and work in the 21st century. "When I started in the late 1980s the office was very detached from home, it was a very formal, hierarchical space with cellular offices. Jumping forward 20 years, people in their late teens and early 20s have grown up with technology from birth, they don't have this division between work and home; they are used to doing work-like activities at home."
As for the cost, Kauntze says, "About 85% of business cost is people, 15% is property. So if your people benefit from the value of that much smaller cost, the 15% property, it makes sense."
Research tends to back this up. Ambius, an interior design company, reported in 2009 that 62% of US workers said they would be more motivated if their employers made an effort to improve workplace surroundings, and 25% found their workplace to be "gloomy or depressing".
The Ambius study also references a PhD thesis at the University of Exeter that found enriched work environments improve productivity by around 15%. Not just that, but giving office workers a say in the design of their workspace upped productivity by 30%.
So, could we finally be seeing the end of cramped banks of grey desks oppressively lit by flickering fluorescent lights? Will our workplaces increasingly be filled with sensory delights?
Stuart Jefferson, senior designer at office design company Morgan Lovell, thinks it is possible: "Previously it was almost exclusively advertising and marketing companies who had funky offices. Now I've seen it spread to software developers, games houses, even banks – Macquarie Bank in Sydney is one of the best examples of a new way of working, with collaborative spaces and booths. The whole work-life-home scenario is becoming more blurred."
One of Jefferson's projects was Rackspace, another young IT company in Hayes, west London. US headquartered with 4,500 employees worldwide and a London office of around 800, it is growing fast – due to the demand for cloud computing services. The US HQ is a veritable concrete playground with slides between floors, and the UK wanted in on the action.
A building was found, a staff group formed to filter ideas, and Jefferson and his team got to work. Finished in early 2011, the four-story building with a central atrium also themes each floor as if it were the room of a house: ground floor "garage" with permanently parked Union Jack Mini and mock bare-brick walls; living room floor with leather sofas and mock fireplace; garden level with AstroTurf, paving slabs, swing seats and decking. An Austin Powers Britishness is hammed up by a "Downing Street" boardroom boasting a shiny number 10 door and bespoke wrought-iron railings, with red telephone boxes nearby. And, of course, there's the requisite games room with table tennis, arcade machines, driving games with bucket seats and steering wheel …
"It's a fun place," says US managing director, Taylor Rhodes, when I ask him what it's all for. "But at the end of the day this is a return on investment. We feel that if we create the right work environment it will translate into people wanting to come here and feel good about where they work. That will translate into better customer service."
Ironically for a company where employees are called "Rackers", Rackspace is keen to distance its inspiration from Google and its googlers. "The notion of a Silicon Valley tech company where there's ping-pong and football tables and beanbags?" Rhodes responds. "You could draw some conclusions and say this looks and feels a lot like that, too. It's not like we tried to do that purposefully. But what those companies discovered is that employees really want a functional place, that is comfortable, where they can be themselves … People want to live at work."
The costs of the Rackspace office fit-out seems eye-watering at around £2.5m. However, according to Jefferson, for a project of this size (around 100,000 sq ft) that is modest; the more traditional offices with expensive wood veneers and integrated electronics are where the big-money jobs are. These young, predominantly IT-based companies are rather the fruit of ideas sown by the Silicon Valley beanbags decades ago. The original intent was not bling, merely a desire to bring a playfulness and informality into the workplace to help deal with the stresses.
That Google took that idea and pimped it to the max made such offices appear the plaything of mega-companies with mega-wealth. But what this new wave of companies is showing is that, with a bit of ingenuity and imagination, the original ethos is accessible to much smaller companies, too.
However, Kauntze offers a wise word of caution. This ain't a revolution quite yet. "Games rooms, helter-skelters and the like, are tricky for some businesses – you can imagine the headlines if the public sector decided to let employees have a beanbag and pool tables to play on. There is a received wisdom – which may be unfounded and unfair – that it is frivolous and a waste of time. But if it suits the nature of the business, is seen to improve the business, employees like it, and it's a quick win … then why not?"
On the slide?
The ubiquitous feature of the "wacky workplace" is undoubtedly the slide. Google has one, Rackspace's US HQ has one, even the Sheffield council-backed Electric Works has one: the fun and curly alternative to those boring zig-zaggy things we call stairs, allowing a descent of 85ft in just 7 seconds (ascents take considerably longer).
It is the short-cut to "fun"; the short hand that says, "we are ker-ray-zee!". Or perhaps, says Richard Kauntze, chief executive of the British Council for Offices, it isn't. "They are the current zeitgeist. But slides, when the history of the office is written, may get a limited mention."
Indeed, recent research by property company Goodman into what workers want found only 3% thought that slides between floors were the future (12% preferred sleep pods, and 38% just wanted a better coffee machine). Similarly, when Rackspace designed its UK office – its four floors and central atrium just crying out for a slide – when asked, employees said they didn't want one.
Much to project leader (and "Racker") Jamie Kinch's surprise: "Rackers said it was really cool, but they'd rather see the money invested in other things. I was shocked. But they preferred to invest in technology in the meeting rooms for video conferencing. Sometimes you can kid yourselves into thinking they just want all this flash stuff, but getting the basics working well is important too." The stairs it is, then.
This article appeared in Guardian Online.