It is lunchtime on a weekday. At beverage company Coca-Cola’s Indian headquarters in Gurugram, a game of office cricket unfolds in an open area of the office, near a cluster of workstations. With a Herman Miller chair as a wicket, a group of co-workers bat, bowl and field with practiced ease and spontaneous laughter. These are the fringe benefits of working in an asymmetrical building with odd-shaped corners: it may not be entirely efficient from a space-planning point of view, but its angularity offers welcome extra legroom for sports-minded employees.
The cricket match captures the sense of liveliness and camaraderie that the company’s senior management hoped to unleash when they moved into the facility in late 2015. “We were moving from a 19-year-old office which was reflective of a typical consumer goods industry office, a hierarchy-driven organization. The new office became a change element. We had an opportunity to bring a massive cultural shift,” says Sameer Wadhawan, vice-president, human resources (HR) and services, India and South-West Asia.
Change is here
The Coca-Cola office is animated by two design elements. Most visibly, by its brand’s cheerful spirit and red colour, expressed creatively across all vertical surfaces through graphic design. Empty Coke cartons make a divider, doors are decorated with coke bottle cut-outs and heritage coke branding is displayed across the space. More interestingly, by its multiple collaborative spaces—a defining feature of the office landscape and an expression of new ways of working.
The company’s design brief specified greater collaboration between its 250 employees as a strategic priority. “We were looking for an adequate balance of ‘me’ space, where I can think, reflect and do serious work, and ‘we’ spaces, where I can go and collaborate,” says Wadhawan.
The proof is in the floor plan. Conventional workspaces for individual work, such as cabins and workstations, occupy as much real estate as collaborative spaces, which include meeting rooms, informal collaborative spaces, the cafeteria and coffee lounge. The number of cabins has been reduced from 50-60 earlier to less than a dozen, and restricted to the senior leadership team. Other senior members work off open-plan desks, alongside junior colleagues.
Walk and talk
A more open environment has transformed everyday behaviour, says Wadhawan. “We don’t use phones. If I need to talk to somebody, I can just walk across and talk. If I want to use more collaborative spaces, I step out of my office, sit in the café and have a formal discussion. If I want to really do some sort of reflective thinking, I can go to silent rooms. It’s changing the way people are using their work tools. Now, we know that if you have a call on a mobile phone, you step into a silent room, and take your call. People use more headphones at work.” Greater cross-functional communication is a direct benefit, he says.
Shivani Dhar, brand manager, Limca, at Coca-Cola, agrees. It is easier to “reach out to people and build relations, because that’s how most of the work happens. I end up learning what someone else is doing, even if it’s not my brand. It’s a lot easier for me to go and talk to people and figure out what’s happening. So it helps to be in an office designed in a way that facilitates that.”
These observations are validated through long-standing research on the benefits of proximity. As mentioned in my book, Working Out Of The Box: 40 Stories Of Leading CEOs, “Thomas Allen, a management professor at the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Sloan School of Management, discovered an interesting relationship between people, communication and physical distances, which is now called the Allen curve (this highlights that physical proximity and communication are highly correlated).”
Contemporary researchers have found that the Allen curve holds true for both face-to-face and digital communications—in other words, even digital communication is faster between people who work close to each other.
Multiple work settings
In conventional offices, meetings were often convened in bosses’ cabins. Contemporary offices offer more options. In fact, diversity in work settings is key to making employees happier about being out in the open. At Coca-Cola, co-workers adopt personal favourite spaces to work. “I have my favourite corner. It’s got these two cushioned lounge chairs, it’s got nice sunlight and it’s accessible to the beverage counter. And there is a plug point out there. When I just need an hour of peace to finish that presentation or to work on something, that’s convenient,” says Dhar.
For Arashdeep Singh Sehjal, senior brand manager Coca-Cola trademark, the informal workspaces support different kinds of exchanges. “You don’t always need a 1-hour conversation, sometimes it is only a 10-minute status check, which you can easily do sitting with multiple people. So these spaces help,” he says.
Pooja Bansal, the principal designer at Design Domain, the interior firm that worked on the Coca-Cola office, reaffirms: “I’ve been to Coca-Cola frequently. People are always on their collaboration spaces, and less on their desks, with not more than 50% people at desk, and just as many people in the collaboration spaces..”
Without sufficient planning or foresight, collaborative workspaces can be uncomfortable, intrusive and unproductive. Yet in a country where office interior design is generally dominated by headcount or cost-per-square foot dictums, the ratio of collaborative spaces to individual workspaces is generous. Cheers to that.