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The eclectic athlete

Rajiv Mehta, a young leader himself, has created an office space based on his understanding of what his young team wants
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First Published: Sun, Oct 07 2012. 09 14 PM IST
Rajiv Mehta’s cabin has fluid lines and informal furniture. Photo: Jagadeesh NV/Mint
Rajiv Mehta’s cabin has fluid lines and informal furniture. Photo: Jagadeesh NV/Mint
Updated: Sun, Oct 07 2012. 09 21 PM IST
When some chief executives want to interact with their colleagues, they casually saunter around the office. Others prefer a more purposeful stride. Rajiv Mehta, 34, takes an entirely different route. The managing director of the Indian subsidiary of sports apparel brand Puma slides—literally. The fastest route between Mehta’s rooftop cabin and that of his colleagues’ is a red, fibre-reinforced plastic, Puma-branded slide.
The slide was an afterthought, explains Mehta. The office occupies several floors in a compact commercial building in Bangalore’s Indiranagar. During the office interior fit-out, Mehta was allocated the top-most cabin, situated on the building’s terrace roof, alongside the company’s cafeteria. Colleagues predicted that he would squander time and energy running up and down the stairs, as most of his day is spent in meeting colleagues, so he asked if the space could accommodate a slide. An existing architectural void in the space allowed a slide to be constructed without any structural change to the building interior. The slide is now used regularly by Mehta and his team.
Office as living room
Of things young and bright:Mehta slides down from his rooftop cabin to meet his colleagues.
The slide is just one of the more unusual elements in Mehta’s personal workspace. Mehta’s cabin is a large space with two flowing desks and an equally fluid bookshelf. The desks are for him and “his boss from Germany, who visits a few times a year and likes to sit in my cabin”, he clarifies, adding that the amorphous lines were conceived by him and Puma’s in-house architect, Payal Phadnis, to contrast with the rectangular geometry of the room.
A curated assortment of furniture and furnishings decorate the room, built around the theme of “a little bit of modern and a little bit of retro”, says Mehta. There are leather rugs, a vintage-looking chest of drawers for papers, a hand-drawn cart serving as a magazine stand and a custom-made sofa, all sporting the brand’s red and white colours. Slogans and visuals endorse sport; Mehta himself runs a few kilometres every morning. A particularly witty artwork by American artist Joey Roth captures typical office personality-types in the form of shapes.
Mehta says he likes assembling pieces from different sources, including relatively unknown designers and artists. As a result, the workspace almost resembles a living room or study—informal and personalized. The offices of those running small creative businesses often adopt this design approach; it is far less visible in the larger cabins of more corporate marketers, such as Puma.
Office as brand ambassador
Graphics like this one liven up the walls at work.
The rest of the office is equally distinctive, reflecting Puma’s athletic youth culture. Next to the slide is a rock-climbing wall and a punching bag. Conference room tables are derived from sports tables such as those for billiards and foosball. Hand-painted graffiti and cartoon art liven up the walls, with witty references to pop culture, such as “Mere pass PuMa hai”. Workstations are open and stylized, with custom-designed task lighting.
The goal was to bring the brand philosophy into the workspace, says Mehta. “We call ourselves the DJ who fuses sports and lifestyle very well. Joy and energy are very important elements of our work culture.” With a limited budget, the team relied on in-house expertise for the décor.
Office as hang-out zone
Puma employees can relax after work over a game of table tennis, among the leisure options on offer.
This philosophy extends to after-hours benefits too—employees can relax after work over a foosball table, in the cafeteria or in front of the gaming station. The company orders snacks for those working late. For Mehta, providing an energizing work environment is part of a broader talent attraction and retention strategy. Since most employees are single and less than 30 years old, he says they appreciate being able to hang out at the office with their colleagues after work.
The workplace’s pronounced emphasis on leisure and recreation prompts an obvious question—does anyone actually get any work done? Mehta acknowledges that there are inefficiencies, such as elongated lunch or coffee breaks, unlike in the Western world, where “1 hour means 1 hour, you’ll get back to work; coffee break means 5 minutes, and you’ll get back to work”. He strives to ensure that Puma’s informal work culture is balanced with a regular schedule of meetings where deliverables and timelines are monitored.
The office is open-plan and lively; sports tables have been converted into conference tables, like this pool table.
The design of the office underlines other aspects of managing a younger workforce, which is prepared to work hard, and in return, expects “fairness and respect for one’s individuality. I cannot demean them, they need affirmation,” says Mehta. It is a give-and-take approach, and entails balancing power with persuasion.
There are other challenges of working with a more wired generation—attention spans are often shorter, especially in meetings. But equally, young people can be quicker at processing information and making decisions, notices Mehta.
Office of the future?
A vintage-looking cart in Mehta’s cabin, used as a magazine rack.
Vibrant, lively, casual and recreational—is Puma’s workspace an indication of a future direction for Indian workspaces?
Its approach is more likely to be echoed in creative organizations such as advertising agencies, rather than mainstream marketers.
Mehta is clearly younger than most chief executives, and has also been in the job for longer than most chief executives—for seven years, starting 2005, when Puma sales in India were negligible. Youth and job longevity is an unusual combination, and helps to explain how his team and he have translated the Puma sporting spirit into spatial design.
Now, Puma is no longer the start-up it was when Mehta joined them. Although Mehta says he cannot share sales figures, he says the brand has a 25% share of the Rs.2,000 crore sports footwear, apparel and accessories market.
His aim is to establish Puma as a leading apparel brand, especially given that competitors Reebok and Adidas are embroiled in an ongoing controversy relating to accounting fraud at Reebok’s Indian subsidiary.
As the company expands its business and its headcount, it will be interesting to see whether its workspace retains its physical elements, and its quirky sense of humour.
Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles.
Photographs by Jagadeesh NV/Mint
Write to Aparna at businessoflife@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, Oct 07 2012. 09 14 PM IST