Beanbags in the boardroom and table football on the terrace may not feature in your average contractor’s head office, but a more open attitude to work and the working environment can make for happier and more productive people.
Less traditional offices seem to be becoming more fashionable. Not that a builder needs to go so far as to have socks hanging from the ceiling and a ‘soft room’ instead of a boardroom, as in an advertising agency on London’s Brick Lane, but there is no doubt that the space around you affects how people work.
Simons Group chief executive Paul Hodgkinson says that his firm is keen to work collaboratively.
He moved the firm from eight offices to one location in Lincoln two years ago. “We decided we wanted to be very collaborative all in one location,” he says. He was keen for people to exchange information in an open manner.
“Moving led us to use the space in a different way and we have what we call a ‘knowledge café’. It might sound a bit corny but we are a business that works by collecting and sharing knowledge and information about projects, suppliers, assets and how you apply this.”
A cautious start
Alyson Pellowe, founder of HR consultancy People Vision, says that if you want to move towards a different style of working you have to tread carefully.
“The one thing is that everyone likes to work in different ways. The culture needs to be ready – the senior manager also needs to sit on beanbags if that is what you are going to do.
The CEO might think it’s radical but then it all flops if the board doesn’t buy in,” she says.
Ms Pellowe says that getting people to work more creatively and communicate better will pay back. “Benefits are increased morale and efficiency and it could help with competitive advantage, attracting the right staff – people will selfselect whether they will want to work there. That means lower recruitment fees and better staff morale.”
You might expect an architecture firm to have more creative offices than a contractor, but Rob Charlton, chief executive at Newcastle-based space architecture, says that simply getting people away from their desks can help creative thinking. The firm moved to new offices about a year ago with breakout areas, bean bags, a library and Pilates classes among other things.
“You do your best thinking away from your desk. So rather than people being in front of a computer we are giving people that space. There are lots of different things, but we have to work as well,” Mr Charlton says.
He also encourages contributions from everyone in the business. “We have a structure but I am keen not to be introduced socially as the boss. I provide an overview but it doesn’t mean I am more important than the cleaner, we just have different roles,” he says.
He is keen to point out that his firm’s way of working isn’t the only way. “I never think it’s the way to be for everyone, I would never preach to the rest of the industry. It’s what works for you,” he says.
If you don’t have the luxury of new offices or a lot of open space, there are other ways to work more creatively. Wates Group asks its junior members of staff to input into the way the company works.
“The junior board was set up about four years ago,” says Judith Bufton, Wates’ head of leadership and development.
“They have formal meetings and will have special projects or ideas it wants to work on. Some really good ideas have come from it. It’s a very people-focused culture. It’s a communication vehicle and it helps shape company policy,” she says.
Ms Bufton adds that getting less experienced people to contribute to how the company works helps to develop them and may improve retention.
Wates also runs a leadership development programme where managers spend a week in the Lake District and spend part of the time resolving an issue such as providing recruitment guidelines or how to improve recycling.
Staff attend the course knowing that in six months’ time they will be presenting to a board member, which encourages them to perform well.
For Simons Group, the café gets people to communicate better, says Mr Hodgkinson. “It is a space for people to eat, you can catch up and find out what is going on.
“It encourages people to keep talking to each other, bump into each other. It’s designed in a way that reflects the business. It all makes for better business.”
IDEAS ON THE MOVE
Alyson Pellowe suggests some ways to get people away from their desks and thinking more sharply.
Glassboards that you can write on can act as a real life blog or a forum for ideas and you have to physically get up and write on it.
Shorter meetings – if you have them around a tall coffee table they will be quicker and more punchy because it’s a less comfortable space.
Hotdesking can help cross-pollination of ideas that may force you to speak to the person opposite and learn about what they are doing.
It’s about being allowed to say what you think and create ideas. Innovation can be celebrated. For example, one of my clients collects all ideas in a kind of database. The ones that are the quick wins get implemented and the others may go to a steering group for a decision. Staff get rewarded for those that are implemented either by recognition or financially. If you want innovation there has to be an incentive.
If you can convince people to have a day or half a day out of the office it is so refreshing. People don’t do it because they are too busy.