Fast Track: 'Boring places breed boring thoughts and boring people'

You spend half your waking hours there, so is your office an inspiratio nal environment or a gloomy grotto? By Helen Jones
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The Independent Culture
What sort of environment do you work in - a shabby office with mismatching 1970s furniture, grey paintwork and fluorescent lighting, or a funky open-plan "village" decorated in vibrant reds and blues with stripped maple flooring, in which you sit anywhere, armed only with your laptop computer and mobile phone?

Depressingly, the answer for many is the former, and it can have a huge impact on the quality of your work. Management guru Charles Handy says "boring places breed boring thoughts and boring people", while "spaces with quality and style encourage quality and style in their inhabitants".

Jeremy Myerson, professor of contemporary design at De Montfort University and author of New Workspace, New Culture, says "your environment is very important and determines how you feel about your work and your employer. It can raise or depress morale and can, in some specific ways, have a major impact on how well the organisation functions."

Myerson and the book's co-author, Gavin Turner, have defined four basic office types - depending on whether a company is a monolith, makeshift, a moderniser or a mould-breaker.

Monoliths are usually found in the public sector, and are defined by their hierarchical structure; senior managers hide in their own offices and spend hours in formal meetings or issuing edicts to staff lower down the chain.

"Many civil servants still work in squat, characterless buildings in rows of rabbit hutches on either side of dismal central corridors, amid a miscellany of outdated and inflexible furniture, fluorescent lighting glare and worn carpet tiles," says Myerson.

One such is Sarah Stevens (not her real name), who is a fast-track graduate in the Civil Service. "I work in what looks like a fairly grand building from the outside but inside it is hideous, with regulation-issue school- lavatory-green paint and polystyrene ceiling tiles that keep falling down. It is pretty dispiriting and I'm always very envious when I visit friends who work in light, airy places in the City."

"Makeshift" work environments are also often in the public sector, although there are plenty of private companies that rigidly stick to the formula.

"The makeshift organisation is typically far down in a vicious spiral of decay. The buildings will be dated and shabby, with departments dotted around several cramped floors or various different buildings, and the furniture will be tatty - an unwitting exhibition of 30 years or more of office furniture," Myerson explains.

Andy Carter (not his real name) works for a publisher of magazines in Soho and says: "The offices are positively Dickensian. We are crammed into a space that is too small, it is boiling in the summer, cold in winter and we've had Rentokil in to spray the carpets because people complained they were getting bitten. It's all very haphazard.

"Meanwhile, the top management has plush offices on the fifth floor - at least we assume they are plush but don't know for certain, because none of us has ever been up there."

He adds that, while he is working in a creative industry, the surroundings are not conducive to creativity and that most of the staff feel resentful about their working conditions.

However, some employers are attempting to make changes. These are dubbed "modernisers" by Myerson. These employers usually relocate or completely refurbish their existing accommodation, and if they relocate out of town they then often provide basic facilities for shopping, banking and sports.

"A lot of thought will have gone into the design of the building, with high quality furniture, imaginative colour schemes and atrium cafes to encourage cross-fertilisation between departments," Myerson says.

Procter & Gamble's corporate headquarters for health and beauty at Brooklands in Surrey has a "town square" glass atrium, which acts as a focus for the company. "It's always fairly buzzy and gives you a chance to get away from your desk and talk to others," says one employee.

British Airways' new pounds 200m headquarters demonstrates the company's attempt to make major cultural changes. Running between the complex's buildings there is a covered street, complete with trees flown in from Florida, a lake, bridges and even a library.

However, despite the best efforts of modernisers, not all staff are happy with the end results. "Some senior managers still cling to power, status symbols and secrecy, and junior staff remain suspicious and don't really understand how they are really expected to behave away from the drab predictability of the old office," says Myerson.

One employee of a major corporation that recently moved into swish new offices says: "I really like the central atrium area and sometimes go there to discuss work with colleagues, but our boss seems to think we are just skiving off - I think he really hates the new set-up because he feels in some way that it undermines his authority."

At the other end of the scale from the monoliths are the bosses who have implemented radical changes - the "mould-breakers". "They are rewriting the rules of office design and are even using a striking or wacky workplace as a powerful marketing tool for the organisation," Myerson says.

Unsurprisingly, many of these mould-breakers are advertising, design and media companies. St Luke's, an advertising agency, has some of the most unusual offices around. Staff have no desks to call their own but sit anywhere and use computers dotted around the building when necessary. Personal belongings are kept in lockers and all employees carry mobile phones. There is a deep-red room nicknamed the "Womb", where staff can work quietly, as well as a "chill out" room for relaxing. Staff even take it in turns to decide what colour to paint the reception area. Each client has its own room as a source of inspiration - the Boots 17 room is decorated as a teenager's bedroom, complete with bunk beds, pink duvets and posters of Leonardo Di-Caprio, while the Eurostar room is kitted out with train seats.

"The themed rooms act as a source of inspiration for clients. The time clients have to think creatively is minimal. We are opening their minds to new ways of thinking," says David Abraham, the marketing director.

However, he is at pains to point out that St Luke's is not "some sort of hippie organisation. We have serious clients and do not pitch for accounts worth less than pounds 5 million."

Another ad agency, HHCL & Partners, has also dispensed with desks for staff and plush offices for executives in favour of a "sit where you like" approach. HHCL calls this "Romping" - radical office mobility programme. A spokesman for the agency says that while outsiders may see it as wacky, it is highly effective. "We were already 20 per cent more efficient in terms of using office space than is the norm and we are now 30 per cent more efficient on top of that, which has an impact on the bottom line," he says.

'New Workspace, New Culture' (Gower, pounds 35) by Gavin Turner and Jeremy Myerson will be published next month.

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