Once upon a time in Backbay in south Mumbai, at the heritage corporate headquarters of India’s largest household and consumer care products company by revenue, the elevator doorman did his best to discourage the company’s foot soldiers from sharing the elevator with the chairman.
Today, at Hindustan Unilever Ltd’s (HUL) new corporate office in Andheri, the doorman is an anachronism. The senior executive floor is scarcely different from other floors, and employees literally cut across all levels as they traverse the facility’s voluminous length and breadth.
Click here to view a slideshow of images of the new HUL office
Since 2005, the company has changed its mission statement, name and logo in an effort to project a unified, contemporary identity. Its new facility, on an existing 12.6-acre site in northern Mumbai, arguably delivers this message more convincingly than any other communication vehicle.
The success of the campus’ design goes beyond visual aesthetics. The office is certainly well decorated, with an intelligent, sophisticated interior design scheme that is tailored to suit a variety of spaces and activities. However, its bigger achievement is its ability to bind people and spaces, knitting together the intangible and the tangible. Intangible values such as collaboration, openness, work-life balance and well-being are actively promoted by tangible architectural elements, employee amenities and technology.
Visitors and employees enter the campus through an elegant, hotel-like reception, dubbed the Drum for its cylindrical shape. The Drum has dedicated meeting spaces, where business can be conducted securely with business associates such as suppliers and agencies. Employees then walk over to the Street—a dramatic, five-storeyed, 72,000 sq. ft atrium.
The light-filled Street is an expanded circulation space, with multiple kiosks for employees to confer or unwind over an HUL beverage or snack. Kedar Bhat / Mint
The Street represents the core of the campus’ design philosophy, which is aligned to its “Vitality” mission statement, and is about “putting people at its centre”, says Leena Nair, executive director, human resources, HUL. All office blocks, including technical research centres, open out on to the Street, which is lined with HUL brands, including a Lakme beauty salon, a Bru café, a Swirls ice-cream parlour, a Kissan juice counter, a convenience store, as well as third-party services such as ATM machines, a florist and a bookstore.
Light-filled and airy, the Street is also a transition space linking departments across the company, a hub for casual interactions between teams, and a platform for employees to experience HUL’s brands. All employees can enjoy the Street’s daylight in its kiosks, run into colleagues on its multi-level bridges or discuss work in an overlooking Brand Verandah—informal clusters of armchairs and tables outside the formal workstation zones.
Other on-campus amenities include a recreation centre with multiple sports offerings such as squash, badminton and a gym, an occupational health and safety centre with full-time doctors and nurses, and a daycare centre run by The Little Company, a daycare specialist. Designed for children from six months to six years, the centre has dedicated areas for outdoor play, free play, structured activities, reading, meals and afternoon naps. An 87,000 sq. ft training centre, with residential accommodation for 120 people, is scheduled for completion by the end of the year.
CEO with a vision for space
Of course, a design solution is only as good as its brief. Doug Baillie, former CEO of HUL and currently president of the firm’s Western Europe operations, conceived of this facility in 2006 specifically to unite disparate strands of the company, as he felt this would benefit the business. “The synergy in bringing all parts of the business together is not just about people, but about processes. It is important for R&D (research and development) and marketing to sit near each other,” says R.K. Mutreja, head, projects.
Familiar with the “street” concept used at the British Airways headquarters in London, Baillie was convinced of its merits as an architectural device to foster collaboration, and was deeply involved in the office’s space plan. Kiran Kapadia, founder of architectural practice Kapadia Associates, describes Baillie’s inclusive outlook: “He insisted that all employees park their cars in the basement and walk into the Drum and the Street every day”, rather than having separate routes to their floors from the basement, which could minimize interaction.
The current management team, tasked with building the facility after Baillie moved to Unilever Europe in 2008, ensured that the facility kept pace with changing work patterns, installing a campus-wide Wi-Fi network, videoconferencing facilities, formal and informal meeting spaces. “Today work is not a place you go to, work is an activity you can carry out anywhere,” says Mutreja. “People work in teams and come to work to collaborate, so we have created situations where people will just happen to meet, in chance encounters, to strengthen bonds.”
That vision was translated into successful design by the selection of qualified partners. In addition to architects, interior designers and landscape designers, HUL engaged specialist space planners DEGW to devise an open-plan environment that was comfortable, noise-free, and adaptable to changes in team size and configuration. So the workstations use light, portable desks, low-height partitions and storage units, rather than bulky panel systems.
Improved business vitality
“It’s an office which is iconic, futuristic, connected, modern—exactly the sort of brand values that I would like HUL to be associated with,” says Nair, adding that “we are starting on this journey in this new office with a lot of hope and faith that we will scale new heights”.
The campus is certainly a landmark for corporate office design in India. Only a handful of companies (such as Apollo Tyres in Gurgaon) have implemented schemes with a similar emphasis on public spaces, and almost none on this scale, as such spaces are often considered energy- or space-inefficient. However, such schemes have been around for decades elsewhere—most visibly in Scandinavian Airlines’ Stockholm office, designed 22 years ago in 1988, where Jan Carlzon, then the company’s CEO, used the ‘street’ as an effective design element to unify the company and attract young talent. By comparison, corporate India has been relatively sluggish in creating world-class architecture.
All the more reason to applaud HUL’s imaginative use of its assets.
Architects: Kapadia Associates, Mumbai
Interior designers: Designphase, Singapore
Space planners: DEGW, Australia/Singapore
Landscape designers: Sitetectonix, Singapore
Client: Hindustan Unilever Ltd
Built-up area: 783,200 sq. ft
Location: Andheri, Mumbai
Construction start date: October 2007
Occupation date: January 2010
Accommodates: 1,700 people
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