The corner office on the eighth floor of Axis Bank’s new corporate office in Worli, Mumbai, doesn’t appear particularly radical. Less than 200 sq. ft in area, it is small, with just enough space for a desk, a round discussion table, a few chairs and a cabinet. The office space is spare, decorated only with the obligatory family photographs, Ganesha idols, a few books, commemorative plates and artefacts. Its inhabitant is Shikha Sharma, the managing director and CEO of Axis Bank, India’s third largest private bank. The understated aesthetics reinforce my perception of Sharma as a quiet, soft-spoken business leader who believes “that you don’t talk (about an accomplishment) before you’ve done it".

Flat structures: (from right) The spaces that have been freed by keeping cabins compact have been devoted to common areas; staffers get more space for meetings and discussions. Photos: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Economies of scale

The management had planned to construct a new office building, but soon after joining the bank, Sharma realized “that we didn’t have the luxury to wait to build our own office because we were just too inefficiently structured physically". Employees were strewn across 13 premises in downtown Mumbai, which made meeting-and-greeting employees “an absolute nightmare", says Sharma. So Axis Bank purchased an office building nearing completion in post-industrial Worli.

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The office design follows global best practices in ways that few home-grown companies have the desire, or the courage, to emulate. The eight-storey building has an impressive footprint—each floor is 32,000-35,000 sq. ft. Managing such large-scale floor plates can be tricky; such offices often suffer from visual monotony, with unending rows of workstations, cabins and corridors. Architecture firm Space Matrix responded to Sharma’s brief of “collaboration, flattened hierarchies and openness" by cleverly tackling the expansive scale. Cabins are placed away from windows, towards the central core of the building, so that natural light reaches more employees seated at open-plan workstations. Each floor has “networking hubs"—essentially, open meeting areas—strategically placed between workstation zones to encourage communication between co-workers. A hefty 35% of total square footage is devoted to common areas, and shared amenities include training rooms, a gym, library, canteen and terrace garden.

(from right) CEO Shikha Sharma’s office space is less than 200 sq. ft and is divided into two sections—her personal space and a meeting room; and Ganesha idols dot her private cabin. Photos: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Sharma’s own cabins as well as those of her colleagues seemingly reflect her ambitions for the bank, as well as her personality. The workplace is radical in its subtle approach to scale: Architectural scale has been used to reinforce a management message.

Scale is a fascinating word because it is one of the few technical terms to straddle the language of business and the language of architecture. CEOs and architects usually have entirely different concerns, and employ entirely different vocabularies. But the concept of scale unites their thinking—physical, real estate scale can be a powerful expression of a company’s economic scale (actual or desired).

Making the work flow

At Axis House, the office space in its totality is unusually egalitarian. All directors on the senior executive floor have equal, pocket-sized cabins, just marginally larger than those of their junior colleagues elsewhere in the building. All employees—regardless of stature—sit on the same ergonomic Liberty Chair by American manufacturer Humanscale. Priced at approximately 45,000, it is an expensive proposition by Indian standards to acquire for all staff members. Such equality is rare in corporate hierarchies, especially in large organizations. For Sharma, it was a deliberate design principle. “We wanted same-sized cabins, with the same tables and chairs for everybody to demonstrate flatness and reduce the impact of hierarchy," she says.

Second, it is unusually sensible. The space freed up by keeping cabins compact has been devoted to common areas. A variety of different “work settings" have been created by intelligently modulating the generous scale of the 10,500-sq. ft senior executive wing, facilitating different sorts of conversations between co-workers—formal and informal, structured and spontaneous.

There are three “lounge meeting rooms", where Sharma and her colleagues can hold informal interactions, such as our conversation. Formal discussions which require presentations take place in “structured" meeting rooms, as Sharma refers to them, or in the company boardroom.

For casual, spontaneous chats with colleagues or visitors, Sharma can choose one of the many clusters of chairs that are grouped, restaurant-style, in the transition spaces between cabins and meeting rooms. Thus, there are four different “work settings" just on one floor, all of which are equally open to Sharma and her colleagues.

The workflow-oriented layout reflects a senior manager’s average working day: Sharma says her day is spent between “meetings, presentations and travelling, not in her cabin". The most appropriate design solution: a space-efficient, shared suite of meeting rooms, tailored for diverse discussions. The layout also promotes collaboration, meeting Sharma’s stated goal of making the bank “more team-oriented".

Six months into the new office, Sharma notes its positive effects. Executive committee meetings have become “deeper, intense and more open", she says, adding, “It is very interesting how a simple physical change can make such a huge difference."

Sharma states that her ambitions for the bank are “to build on its strengths so we can continue to scale" and “to create a great generation of leaders". Her nuanced interpretation of scale, as judged by her office space, suggests she is on course to meet her goals.

Aparna Piramal Raje, a director of BP Ergo, meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspaces and working styles.

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