Employees can also find spots for quiet working.
Employees can also find spots for quiet working.

Design is at its best when it resolves paradoxes or when it can blend two extremes, to arrive at an original solution. Take, for instance, the Bengaluru office of Akamai Technologies, an American B2B technology firm that secures and delivers digital experiences. Its 3,00,000 sq. ft office resolves the biggest paradox in workplace design today: Creating enough “we" space for collaboration versus providing enough “me" space for privacy. For most companies, the trade-off is a struggle. Akamai’s design solution provides vital lessons for others, especially startups, which, more often than not, have to negotiate the same challenge, when dealing with a millennial workplace that wants both types of spaces.

A business-led approach

Akamai’s design solution reflects business needs. “We enable online experiences for our customer’s users. If there is an e-commerce platform, we secure the platform from bots. In that world, bots are a big menace, where they take over sites, lock up inventories. We have offerings which will manage bot-related security vulnerabilities," says Prasad Mandava, managing director of Akamai’s India business. Broadcasting and sports are another important sector for the company. “When millions of people are coming online to watch a sporting event like a cricket game, that would be supported by our Intelligent Edge platform."

To develop these technological capabilities, the company needs two distinct sets of skills. Deep work, driven by hi-tech engineers working on their own, and collaboration, often between multiple teams. “Because we are a technology company and people do want to do deep work and there are sensitive things that go on, people need privacy. At the same time, there is lot of collaborative working. If you have a sporting event being supported, it’s a dozen or more teams which are collaborating to make sure that event goes really smoothly….I think we’ve achieved a healthy mix of communal spaces and private spaces, for both collaborative working and deep working within the same building, rather than going open all over," says Mandava.

The design solution consists of three main elements: individual workstations, shared formal and informal communal spaces, and secure communal spaces, including three command centres.

Creating the right space

Individual workstations were customized to create islands of privacy, amid an open-plan office—a deliberate move to make sure each employee could work without being distracted by co-workers, or without being worried about being looked over by adjacent neighbours, who may be from a different team. Each height-adjustable workstation has a flexible privacy screen and a tall storage unit that separates workstations from each other. When an individual wants to stand and work, the privacy screen moves up and down too, so that their computer is not exposed to others. “The workstation has been researched and developed specifically to their needs. If people want to sit and work, they should get privacy and if they want to stand and work, they should have privacy," says Dhanaraj Kaveriyappan, project leader at Cushman and Wakefield, the project managers for the facility. The solution provides nearly as much privacy as working in an enclosed room without losing out on the economic benefits of being in an open-plan office, and is distinct from the rows of desks that populate Indian workplaces.

These islands of privacy are complemented by a range of formal and informal communal spaces: breakout areas near pantries, bar-stool type meeting tables for small group discussions, meeting rooms with projection capabilities, and armchairs scattered around the office for individual work or meetings in pairs. “We are in one unified building across five floors and once you enter the building, it is literally very porous between the floors—people can interact a lot, there are common spaces. Only the command centres have specialized security, once you are in the building," says Mandava.

The command centres—the network operating command centre, the security operating command centre and the broadcast operating command centre—reflect Akamai’s different lines of business. “’They are set up to be secure, secluded but open. People sit and they collaborate on a particular topic, whether it is network control, security control. They occupy the centres when they are doing their monitoring, they will have all the data in front of them in high-tech displays. They also get to sit somewhere else when they want to get their personal work done, to do back office analysis. That’s why we talk about the combination of communal spaces versus private," says Mandava.

DEFINING OFFICE CULTURE

Mandava’s view on the importance of retaining privacy goes against the current tide of open-plan offices in the country, but for him, workplace design reflects workplace culture, not just the prevalence of mobile technology itself.

Many companies have “dinner-table setups", he says, where teams sit around a table with a head at one end. “What I’ve seen is that they were providing common services to customers and they wanted literally a very agile group (there is an agile scrum methodology of working in technology). And they wanted all of them to be around the table, looking at the same stuff and collaborating. If that’s your style of working and the culture that you encourage, then go for the open space with the dinner table set-up, which is really lot of flexibility.

“But I think each technology workplace creates its own brand of culture. If you don’t do that agile scrum or don’t need the dinner table, then provide a combination of the private space versus the communal space where the movement is easy to happen, which is really what we have here," says Mandava.

This approach to workplace also enables employees to evolve their own work-style. “When I’m with my colleague I’m at my cube, otherwise I work in other spaces, you can go and work in any corner. Everyone is quiet, I can work peacefully," says Hashi Roy, a graphic designer. Pinkesh Rathore, a software engineer in the office of the chief information officer, finds his ergonomic desk has increased his productivity. “Usually, I work in my place. If I need my time alone, there are small conference rooms where I can work alone to focus," he says.

The lesson is simple: Workplace design should be based on work-styles, not the other way around.


Employees can also find spots for quiet working.Photographs by Jithendra M./Mint
Employees can also find spots for quiet working.Photographs by Jithendra M./Mint

*Aparna Piramal Raje is the author of Working Out Of The Box: 40 Stories Of Leading CEOs.Write to us at businessoflife@livemint.com

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