Inside Business: A good day at the office?

Companies are coming round to the idea that attractive working environments benefit the business. Roger Trapp reports
On 15 October, the Institute of Child Health in central London will host a reception to unveil officially the Wellcome Trust Building. Barely noticeable from the outside because it is hidden by a typical Sixties block, the building represents both an ingenious use of limited space and a means of achieving new methods of working.

The project - which actually involves a couple of extensions to existing buildings and modifications to a library as well as the construction of the new building - is the brain-child of Professor Roland Levinsky, who took over as the institute's dean several years ago. Dedicating himself to improving the quality of work carried out at what is the research wing of the Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital, he started by modifying laboratories, before coming up with a vision of a space where people would work better through being encouraged to meet and share information - a philosophy demonstrated by, among others, the Glaxo Wellcome Medicines Research Centre in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, opened in 1995.

Central to this idea are an adaptable lecture room that is also used by the University College, London, the hospital to which the institute is now physically as well as organisationally linked and "the winter garden", a recreational area lit by natural light and featuring a fountain, which is designed to encourage colleagues to sit and talk. It is supposed to be a space where "casual conversations which probably start the greatest things will happen".

But - with the help of the architects ORMS, a firm that has long been interested in matching its buildings to the type of work that will be done in them - the same thinking has been applied to the working areas. Using a lot of glass, they have created airy accommodation that is in great contrast to the dark corridors close by and have kept to a minimum the number of separate offices.

The development of the building comes at a time when interest in the effect of the environment on work is growing way beyond what colours are most appropriate for office interiors. With team working finally seeming to be a concept that is here to stay, managers and architects are increasingly trying to come up with premises that help put the theory into practice rather than get in the way.

British Airways - which, as its recent cabin crew dispute demonstrates, is seeking to transform working practices - is making significant strides towards acquiring the sorts of buildings that match its executives' ideas. Chief executive Robert Ayling has long been convinced that premises have a profound effect on how people work, and is following up the creation of a specially designed Heathrow Airport base for its flying staff with the building of a pounds 200m corporate office complex at nearby Harmondsworth to house commercial, financial and strategic personnel. From December, the first of 2,500 employees, including Mr Ayling, will move into the offices in the midst of what is said to be the largest public park and nature reserve to be created in the London area this century.

Because of the fundamental changes in working practices with which the move is allied, the company has spent time introducing employees to both the physical building and to the concepts underlying it. For example, staff will not have set working areas, but - thanks to state-of-the-art technology will be able to make telephone calls or use computers wherever is appropriate at a given time. At the same time, they are being equipped with superior restaurant facilities as well as excellent leisure facilities aimed at contributing to employees' physical well-being.

Chris Byron, director of the project, is adamant that there is a business case for it all. He sees both tangible and intangible advantages. In the first category he puts the likelihood of less sick leave and lower staff turnover. Moreover, he reckons that employees are going to feel good about the place and are thus probably going to be less inclined to use up valuable time going off-site for meetings than to invite the people with whom they deal to the complex. In the second he puts his conviction that the building is essential for producing the changing work habits that are seen as vital to the continued success of the company. Having the people who need to communicate with each other in a place where they might meet casually can have a great effect on speed to market. "By creating this we'll be able to develop product changes quicker," he says.

And this is a remarkably similar claim to the one made by a professor at the Institute of Child Health who said that the extension that was one of the early stages of the development work had "definitely contributed to the success" of his team's research. He was confident that the physical environment was a significant aid to improving morale and creating an atmosphere that made top people want to work there.