When you walk into an office, you enter the mind of an organization. A majority of corporate office spaces across the country show a similar core configuration: a spread of open or semi-enclosed cubicles in the centre of a large space, with enclosed cabins for senior staff along the peripheries. Very often, this floor plan is repeated on a number of floors, each almost exactly like the other.
Does this mean that all organizations (and teams) that share this arrangement share the same work culture and work process? Unlikely. Common sense suggests that start-ups work differently from entrenched global majors, whose work styles are likely to be very different from firms experiencing intense growing pains.
The “fit” between the arrangement of an office space and the work culture of the organization is, therefore, critical to the work process. It is well known that workplace environments have a significant impact on productivity and could also be linked to employee turnover. It is, hence, logical to expect that human resources (HR) concerns—apart from those to do with operations—would always be at the centre of the office design process. One would, therefore, also expect HR managers to be part of a tight core group that drives a design along with the architect or interior designer. The rationale, however, does not always translate into reality.
Suresh Menon, director, Advanced Infovision Pvt. Ltd, Mumbai, feels that the majority of office-design projects tend to be run by administration heads after top management sets out the basic goals. He is convinced that the specific choices and details of office design have significant HR implications. “Today’s incoming employee is not quick to put down roots in any organization, being always open to a better deal outside. If the office environment does not inspire a sense of belonging, it only makes it easier for him or her to leave,” he says.
Of course, HR may not always be able to give a rich enough brief to the architect. In most cases, this would translate into an office space that is not tailored to the organization’s specific needs.
However, sometimes, as at the 150,000-sq. ft software campus for ValueLabs at Hyderabad, the architect or designer may himself propose a concept that also makes great HR sense.
“At the centre of the design process for this project was a concern for a sense of community that a workplace must build,” says Prem Chandavarkar of Chandavarkar and Thacker Architects Pvt. Ltd, Bangalore, popularly known as CnT, who designed the ValueLabs campus. “The sense of community is crucial to building an organizational culture.”
The ValueLabs building layout is made up of spaces that encourage lingering and catalyse informal encounters. The constraints the design responded to could have easily led to an internally anonymous and externally flashy office block. Fifteen hundred people had to be accommodated on the two-acre site, in a building block that for Vaastu reasons, had to be a perfect cuboid without any indentations or protrusions. And local laws didn’t allow a height greater than 15m.
CnT responded with a design based on insights into the way community formation works in office spaces. It is difficult for an individual to bond with, say, 1,499 others directly. Each person needs to have a small group to bond with. Each group can then interact with other such groups.
Accordingly, CnT spread the facility over four smaller blocks, each housing about 100 people on each of the four floors. Each block has a central sunlit space such as a mini-atrium, around which are organized the informal discussion areas with the conventional furniture.
The four blocks are connected by a generous and inviting public stairway—modelled on the 15th century step-well at Adalaj in Gujarat—which forms a long, sunlit atrium for the entire building. Thus, in a simple manner, a range of informal public spaces has been created from the level of the group of 100 to that of the entire building.
These spaces enable random contact between people from different parts of the building and, therefore, of the organization.
Research shows that this kind of random contact is important for community formation as well as for creativity in teamwork at the workplace. Chandavarkar says he has found the central atrium stairway buzzing with activity at lunchtime, thereby suggesting that the outcome is consistent with the design intent.
The design of the ValueLabs campus shows one way in which HR visions can be integrated into office space design. However, there is also need to explore the linkages between HR issues and office space design in general.
CnT is currently working on a research project with long-time client Mindtree Consulting, to understand how office environments need to respond to the needs, attitudes and perceptions of young people who are fast dominating its demographics.
For the same client, CnT is also grappling with a different design question than at ValueLabs. Mindtree has offices in multiple locations unlike ValueLabs.
The challenge is to ensure a continuity of work culture through office design across the different workplace environments while responding to the specific constraints and possibilities of every location.
Terms such as “organizational culture” or “process” sometimes hide the fact that at the centre of it all is a human being. Design is not important only as a form of defence against employee turnover. The design of office spaces and workplaces can help a person bond with the place, with fellow workers and with the organization. By enabling concentration, communication and comfort, it can also help individuals and teams do their jobs more effectively and with more pleasure than pressure.
There is proof that a number of organizations are waking up to the importance of relationship between design and productivity. But, till more of them literally make the connection between HR and office design projects—by educating and integrating HR managers into the design process all the way down to the last detail—the swanky office will continue to massage the wrong ego.
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