Taking off with a space-age office
When a company swaps its decades-old office for three new ones, and when the new workplaces resemble a cross between a spaceship and a car showroom, it is a sure sign of a bigger organizational shift than just a change in address and the purchase of new furniture. A new workplace almost always illustrates an accompanying shift in strategic business intent.
Take Siemens’ new corporate headquarters in Mumbai’s centrally located Worli area, and its offices in the Kharghar and Kalwa suburbs. Having jettisoned its long-standing 3-acre flagship property, also in Worli, the engineering and technology multinational relocated its 800 employees to the three new spaces: 180 people moved to Worli, 250 to Kharghar and the rest to Kalwa in June.
Quite sensibly, the company seized the relocation opportunity to adopt a new look for the Kharghar and Worli offices. A new fitout for the Kalwa facility is expected to follow suit shortly.
At the Worli headquarters, the surfaces are white and gleaming. Meeting rooms are glass-walled and pod-like. Clusters of vibrant sofas and large open-plan desks are animated by energetic swoops and swirls in the ceiling and flooring design. In other words, the creative flourishes mimic the aerodynamic energy of a spaceship and the brightly lit interiors of a car showroom. Perhaps a slightly sterile colour and material palette, but the visual shortcomings are offset by a spacious floor plan, with much more generous legroom than most offices in India.
Siemens’ relocation was prompted by both financial and strategic considerations. First, the financials. In September, the company sold its Worli property for Rs610 crore to a real estate developer. “We downsized the corporate headquarters terrifically, made it smaller, and we have moved nearly everything to the suburbs, where we have lower operating expenses. So this makes great business sense,” says Sunil Mathur, managing director and chief executive officer of the Indian arm of Siemens.
Major real estate relocation of this kind can be catastrophic for employee attrition rates, but the company strove to limit the inconvenience to employees by being as flexible as possible on choice of relocation, between the three offices.
“Of course physical proximity would have been good, but having this constraint of having three offices, we designed it in such a way that we are able to provide the right space for the right people taking into account job role, function and department. We also did a thorough study of all 800 employees and mapped them on a map of where they stay and where their office should be. Every department head took that responsibility of locating people as near as possible to their homes and tried to minimize the distribution in a way that least impacts them, in terms of travel time. Ninety-three per cent of employees were favourably impacted in terms of commute,” says Ramesh Shankar, head of human resources, adding that reduced travel time and greater digital connectivity have enhanced productivity.
The company’s work policies also help it retain its attractiveness as an employer. Office hours are 8am- 5pm, to help employees beat the traffic both ways. It also offers an in-house bus service to all three offices that is used by 80% of its employees, plying 25-30 buses both ways in the mornings and evenings as well as a transit shuttle service in the afternoon connecting all three facilities.
For Mathur, the new Worli office plays an important strategic role by enabling radical corporate reinvention. “We are moving from being a classical industrial company to being a company that is demonstrating digital solutions for our customer. We will (continue to) deliver motors and gears, but what we are also delivering are digital solutions, how to make our customers much more competitive. When you have to be digital, you have to be agile...and you want to create an environment where it is possible to take those quick decisions,” he emphasizes.
An open-plan workplace, without boundaries, enables greater face-to-face proximity and quicker problem resolutions, says Mathur. “For the first time, we are now no longer sitting in our silos. I am regularly ambushed by colleagues looking for a few minutes to talk,” he laughs.
The office’s contemporary look is complemented by progressive work practices that promote individual flexibility. With desk-sharing and no fixed seating, any employee can sit wherever he/she chooses. The boundaries between desks have been almost entirely eliminated; only four persons— the chief executive officer (CEO), the chief financial officer (CFO), the company secretary and the head of legal—have enclosed cabins to themselves. Employees are also encouraged to work from home as the company provides internet dongles and routers, and a reimbursement plan.
Employees agree on the benefits of an open-plan design. “Everything is open, even conference rooms, they don’t have any kinds of shields. There is nothing to hide.… You can just go and sit out there on the colourful sofas and work, which was something very unheard of, something which you have never done in the past,” notes Beryl Lupez, a human resources manager.
Proximity has ensured that the number of face-to-face meetings has shot up. “I strongly believe that structure determines behaviour. In the old office, we were on different floors. I can tell you honestly that the interaction between functions was not as much as it is today. If I take an example between communications office and HR, today possibly we meet each other almost four times a day,” says Shankar.
“We don’t look at the calendar really, we look at people. The calendar and telephone culture has gone down (with face-to-face-meetings),” adds Amanpreet Singh, manager, corporate strategy. He believes the office’s space-age look helps to mentally reposition the Siemens brand. “You don’t have to be Google to be cool, Siemens can be cool itself. We actually work as if we are in a start-up. We are a really agile team, with no hierarchy.”
Although open-plan workplaces have triggered a backlash, with many critics citing the detrimental effects of limited privacy, Siemens appears to have avoided these landmines. The workspace is punctuated with spots for quiet or solo work and phone booths for calls. Well-spaced desks prevent overcrowding, and the ambient sound levels are low.
Few tools of modern work life express a company’s intangible assets better than its office. As the Siemens HQ illustrates, a well-planned workplace can nourish individual energy, build organizational capital, narrate corporate brand values and even sustain the environment.
Blend virtual and physical
Getting employees to collaborate is an old management challenge. Despite a plethora of tools, even big firms can struggle to find platforms to enable team members to connect with each other. Siemens’ reliance on Circuit, an online collaborative platform, highlights some key lessons for modern workplaces.
First, offices need to make virtual collaboration seamless. Siemens employees around the world can connect with any colleague, using the Circuit app on their cellphones, desktops or laptops. “Circuit is how we do our meetings. It is a phone call, video-conference call, FaceTime call, all in one. And it is not just for group meetings. Even if my boss and I are having a one-on-one, if we are sharing slides, it is easier to do the meeting on Circuit, where our cursors are pointing in the same direction,” says Ramya Rajagopalan, India head, communications.
Second, managers must find the right balance between virtual and physical collaboration, and provide space for real-world engagement. “I do a monthly leadership meeting, about 15 of us, on Circuit every month. Once in three months, I make sure to do it face-to-face,” says human resources head Ramesh Shankar. For, managers at Siemens realize you can never take away connectivity you get from in-person meetings.
Finally, the trinity of workplace drivers—design, technology and policies—should be aligned, to encourage individual agility and flexibility. “We made our work-from-home policy very simple. If your manager agrees, you can,” says Shankar.