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Aditya Bagri’s (in red T-shirt) workspace is a compact, windowless office in the basement of a south Delhi mall. (Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint)
Aditya Bagri’s (in red T-shirt) workspace is a compact, windowless office in the basement of a south Delhi mall. (Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint)

Opinion | The perks of an open basement office

Bagrry’s Aditya Bagri says his workspace ensures faster decision-making, more collaboration and better talent—all of which helps him run his family business like a startup

I am in an unusual location for a chief executive’s workplace: an open-plan basement office, in a mall in south Delhi’s Vasant Kunj neighbourhood. Both the office layout and its location speak volumes about Aditya Bagri, its occupant and group director of Bagrry’s India Ltd, a company best known for its oats and muesli breakfast cereals.

Bagri joined the family business as a 23-year-old in 2012. By 2015, he felt it was time to relocate the company’s premises in the industrial area of Lawrence Road. “That facility was extremely spacious. Each division had a floor by itself and people would just not interact with each other, so we decided we needed a more collaborative workspace," says Bagri, who runs the consumer-facing company with Shyam Bagri, his father and company chairperson. The family also has a long-established refined flour business, which is operated under a separate entity.

The 50-person corporate office in Delhi is lean, comprising accounts, finance, sales, marketing and human resource (HR). “In an FMCG organization, you don’t need too much headcount at the H.O. level, it’s more at plant and pre-sales," he says. It is also basic—there are no windows. “We have tried to brighten it up with lighting, green plants and light shades in the interiors."

As with the case with many organizations today, particularly startups and multinationals, Bagri eliminated private cabins for all senior management, except the chief financial officer (CFO) and the chairperson who have cabins. His own desk, while shielded from the rest of the office by a glass partition, is open, uncluttered and situated next to his father’s desk.

There are meeting rooms close by for private discussions, but Bagri spends most of his time on the floor, with the amount of time spent at his desk reducing significantly.

Three fold transformation

Bagri and his workspace are poster-children for expressing the idea that good workplace design means good business. The move has been transformational in three ways, he says.

First, the location. Being in a mall allows Bagri and his team to stay on top of retail trends and understand the market pulse. “We get light, intel on what’s happening in retail because we have a massive Big Bazaar in the building. There is also a fair amount of food and beverage in the mall," he says.

One of the biggest attractions was being able to install a Bagrry’s Health Café on the ground floor, just above the corporate office. The proprietary kiosk sells nutritious food items and beverages and serves as a hub for new launches and experimentation, selling products such as bran-fortified bagels and flavoured makhana (fox nut).

The mall also provides a change of scene during the workday, such as an amphitheatre outside, which is “very nice in the winters. We’ve had some of our team meetings there," says Bagri.

The second impact is the transformation of the work culture, leading to more collaborative working. “The opportunity for people to come and talk to me just completely transformed. We also have different divisions interacting more with each other, so the pace at which work happens increased a lot. We want to build a culture of a very flat organization structure, where people can interact with each other to get work done, and they are not working in silos."

Although open-plan offices generate criticism in many parts of the world, for Bagri, the new layout has resulted in faster decision-making. “You can make a right decision or a wrong decision but indecision is the worst thing. So the fact that we are able to make more decisions because of the layout was great," Bagri says.

As an example, he points to decisions related to packaging sizes. “Typically, multiple departments approve a pack size, and it would take forever to get it signed off. And because most of the supply chain ends up meeting here now, at least on a weekly basis, and we have the sales team also here, and the commercial team also here, so we could take decisions around the fact that we wanted to launch a new SKU (stockkeeping unit) in the market. The time to launch went down significantly because we had all the stakeholders sign off in one go. Plus, we had a retail environment where we could test upstairs to look if this would actually work, see the shelf, we all went upstairs, saw whether it will work or not."

Third, talent acquisition. Better location and a more contemporary work environment, however simple, has enabled the company to hire better talent. “A lot of my work has been just trying to transform this organization from a family-run, family -driven organization to a professionally driven, family-run sort of organization. What’s been good is that as we’ve been hiring professionals and getting people largely from the industry, that (professional) culture has percolated into the business. This company has the potential of a startup, with the stability of a mature business in how to do things. The desire to execute is more like a startup. So we are trying to hire people also accordingly," he says.

Long-term ambition

At 160 crore of revenue for 2018-19, Baggry’s is a niche consumer goods player. But Bagri’s ambition are unambiguous: “To eventually get into the full breakfast cereal segment and then target towards making us a complete honest health and wellness brand, not just cereals but extending to lot of other categories. We are going to make sure that whether it’s snacking or whether it is a mid-day meal or whether it’s a midnight munch or whether it’s a beverage, we are there, the consumers expect us."

He insists there is a growing awareness about health and nutrition across the country, with small-town e-commerce consumers asking for foods such as muesli, quinoa, chia seeds and steel-cut oats.

A compact, windowless basement office might not seem particularly exciting as a way to foster a new work culture, but Bagri has assessed its many possibilities. To paraphrase the popular saying, he has “brought the mountain to the mall", and it seems to be working for him.

Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles. She is the author of Working Out Of The Box: 40 Stories Of Leading CEOs.

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