Office furniture is generally not designed to be the hero of a workplace. Desks, meeting tables and chairs are, at best, ergonomic support systems, engineered to blend into the background, so that the spotlight shines on employees, enabling them to be productive, collaborative and happy at work.

The Indian headquarters of global realty services firm Cushman and Wakefield is a compelling exception. Its office interior in Gurugram is an imaginative landscape, spanning 26,000 sq. ft.

Best characterized as a contemporary urban “work-village", the space has multiple work settings for colleagues to cluster together, fostering a sense of community through its design philosophy. From armchairs and sofas, to bar stools and high tables, the office morphs every few metres, changing from an airport lounge to an informal café, to structured but open meeting spaces, and more. These collaboration areas create a sense of fluidity, compared to the static rows of workstations in most offices.

For country head and managing director Anshul Jain, workplace design reflects business strategy. “I take a personal interest in workplace consulting. I like to see how people are actually using their workspaces, how that is impacting their work, and inspiring them. So we asked ourselves a lot of questions such as: What is our office used for? What actually happens in the office? What is our business? Because the office has to very strongly reflect that. For the workplace to succeed, it needs to connect to your business," he states.

This internal cross-examination led to three insights: the need to create a space that fosters networking and relationships between employees, the importance of providing a diversity of spaces for young, millennial employees, and, finally, a space that borrowed from the start-up world. “We compete for talent with the start-up industry. Why are they being disruptive and innovative? Their environment is fun, creative, agile, with space to socialize," Jain points out.

Meetings can take place in a variety of settings, including swings in the cafeteria and high chairs. Photos: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Meetings can take place in a variety of settings, including swings in the cafeteria and high chairs. Photos: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Strategy meets design

Flexibility is at the heart of the office design; 60% of employees do not have a fixed seat. They can choose from any available workstation, or any conducive spot, to make a call, plug in their laptops, or meet with a co-worker. Even the cafeteria is unusual, with its sunken sofa, swings and high tables, suggesting casual dining rather than a sanitized company canteen. These group settings are complemented by a range of options for work done privately, such as phone booths. Many employees chose to work by themselves in open or enclosed spaces, in locations across the office, rather than at their desks.

Steelcase, the furniture company, responded to the brief with furniture concepts that include the 21 “Navi TeamIsland", a desk that allows office workers to both sit and stand at work. Its elevated table, a foot platform and ergonomic high chair promote wellness by making it easy to move between sitting and standing, without adjusting the desk.

Finally, the “media:scape" integrates technology into furniture, enabling team members to come together in front of a screen without having to go into an enclosed meeting room. The format promotes spontaneous, yet structured interaction, occupying less real estate than a meeting room.

All three work settings have high occupancy, even when conventional workstations are half-empty. Jain is relieved that the experiment seems to have paid off. “We must be the first customer to use the Navi desk. We were very nervous because that piece is very expensive. It probably costs twice as much as the same number of workstations or even more. We were experimenting with so many things, but what we found is that everything that we’ve experimented with is being used more than the other (traditional seats)," he states.

The products reflect Steelcase’s ongoing research into workplaces. In a December 2017 report titled “The Creative Shift: How Place + Technology + People Can Help Solve 21st Century Problems", Steelcase researchers outline why, and how, work environments can become more empathetic to employee and organizational needs. “It’s really all about the intersection of the digital and the physical—having the right place and the right technology at the right time," writes James Ludwig, vice-president of global design. “That’s why we’re starting to see movement away from the traditional corporate office towards workplaces that are more like creative studios—a plurality of spaces, each designed to support people and the technologies that can make their work easier."

Yes, the Cushman and Wakefield office comes with a price tag, and may be unaffordable for many. But more than the cost, it reflects the idea that an office can be construed as a modern “work-village", with its own lively landscape, and deliberate contours that shape its communities.

The Work Tour is a series which looks at how people are engaging with office design and how it impacts their productivity and positivity at work.

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