Sometimes the most old-fashioned solutions solve the most new-age problems. Such as the artfully crafted staircase at global reinsurance company Swiss Re’s new Bengaluru facility, which it occupied in July. Easily accessible, and spacious enough for a group conversation, the staircase does more than just connect the office’s four floors. It helps keep employees fit, active and engaged with each other, throughout the workday. The staircase’s central location serves as an ideal venue for collaboration zones, according to the employees. Semi-enclosed meeting pods, relaxing lounge chairs and high-tables with bar-stools are sprinkled around the staircase on every floor, enabling employees to interact with each other, eschewing lifts.

Working together

For Swiss Re, employee fitness reflects corporate strategic intent. “Our mission is to make the world more resilient. We apply our research on resilience to our workspaces," says Sonal Tivarekar, head of strategic initiatives. Long-standing research shows that modern-day sedentary lifestyles are highly correlated with chronic diseases, hence the ‘walkable’ workplace. The facility’s other wellness measures include an expansive gym and height-adjustable sit and stand desks.

Whilst the wellness-oriented office is eye-catching, there is something more significant going on: the business of collaboration. “The Bengaluru Global Business Solutions Centre is a microcosm of the Swiss Re group, running across the value of our functions. It is the perfect opportunity to leverage cross-functional group collaboration. Teams can interact and learn from each other, can move across different roles within Bengaluru itself. And this collaboration model needs an enabling workplace," explains Amit Kalra, managing director and head-global services, Bengaluru.

Getting people to work together is usually harder than it sounds, and Kalra’s statement captures an often-overlooked workplace success mantra: the need to align HR policies, with workplace design, technological infrastructure, workplace practices and corporate values and culture. Swiss Re seems to score highly on all five.

Abstract art dots the passages at Swiss Re. Photo: Jithendra M/Mint
Abstract art dots the passages at Swiss Re. Photo: Jithendra M/Mint

The five point plan

First, human resource policies. The company prides itself on ‘Own The Way You Work’, a global program that facilitates employees to customize their hours and ways of working, by providing a mechanism for them to have a conversation with their bosses about work hours, location and individual style. For example Sarim Iman, senior analyst, property and specialty underwriting, was able to come in as early as 6am and leave by 3pm during the month of Ramadan. “The program gave me the flexibility to make those dynamic adjustment to personal priorities, as well as having professional priorities. My teammates backed me up in case something urgent came up," he says. Iman also occasionally worked from home on the days where he had urgent household chores, or was recovering from a major surgery.

“The core emphasis is on that everyone has their own working style. Some require a lot of interaction with their colleagues, others are independent. We are interested in the outcome, not whether I’m in office for seven hours or 10 hours," says Kalra.

Second, workplace design. Flexibility in work styles is supported by flexibility in physical workplace. The agile open-plan office has no fixed seats—and no cabins at all. Floors are divided into home bases. Each base has a set of workstations, quiet rooms, meeting rooms and lockers. Business units are assigned to specific home bases, but these serve as psychological anchors, rather than fixed moorings—team-members can choose to wander around, and they do.

Sceptics might wonder how open-plan spaces will work for high-end knowledge workers such as mathematicians or data scientists; jobs which require concentration and solitude. Yet Iman clarifies the benefits of being able to walk across the floor to talk to a colleague, unhindered by partitions. “It is true that underwriting involved statistical and mathematical approaches which need privacy. But then those numbers also have to be sort of moderated with judgment and guidance, and that typically comes with experience, with discussions with multiple people, both internal and external stakeholders," he says.

Third, tech infrastructure. Digital apps are arguably the new workstation, or in other words, the permanent workplace infrastructure that welcomes employees to work everyday. Swiss Re’s inhouse apps allow employees to order food, book a spot on the shuttle to the metro station and more.

Photo: Jithendra M/Mint
Photo: Jithendra M/Mint

Fourth, work practices. The most well-planned facility will stumble if team leaders do not evolve norms for the most important aspects of any workplace: teams. Keeping teams united is hard enough in a traditional workplace. This task is magnified when they are physically scattered. Managers such as Deepti Misal, team leader, technical accounting, property and casualty business management, prepared her team for agile working. “We started holding meeting on calls and Skype, in the previous location itself. Now we alternate between huddles over Skype and face to face meetings. We also have a scheduled weekly lunch, as well as fun activities. With digital connectivity, I don’t feel that we’re missing the togetherness or the collaboration that we need. Absolutely not," she emphasizes.

Finally, institionalized trust, in the form of corporate values and work culture. Successful design is only as authentic as the work culture in which it is embedded. “Own The Way You Work", for example, requires trust. For Kalra, Swiss Re’s corporate culture is inherently “employee-centred, trying to empower and provide flexibility, minimize bureaucracy and remove hierarchies." Without this outlook, these initiatives would have certainly floundered.

Swiss Re has other virtues—pleasing aesthetics, green aspirations, and a focussed, although slightly too abstract art collection. Yet its biggest contribution to the discourse on design is the conversation it is fostering about how we work. Step by step, day by day.

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