Feature

A fine place to work

A stimulating work environment can improve staff morale and boost productivity.

Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen has flicked his hair at plenty of anxious home-owners during the past few years but precious little of his creative flair has found its way into the office. There are, however, some enlightened companies out there that see the value of providing an office that is conducive to hard work.

"One of the oldest principles of occupational psychology is that if you pay attention to people and their surroundings you will increase productivity," says business psychologist David Langdon. "Some organisations create a very specific environment as they believe it will have a certain impact on their staff. It could, for example, promote creativity."

When IT consultancy Valtech decided to move out of its cramped Tottenham Court Road offices it wanted its new home to be a more stimulating and sociable environment.

Valtech's new Barbican offices certainly achieve a vibrant atmosphere, but considerable thought lies behind the bright colours and alternative layout.

"The architects had to understand the company," explains Ronnie Southerton, Valtech's human resources director. "We didn't want a dotcom label, but we did want to promote a flat structure. We wanted the design to reflect this."

Among the building's features is a waterfall canopy in the light shaft that creates a vertical link to all three floors. Each area has a different feel, reflecting the department that is based there. The IT consultants sit in an open-plan area with high ceilings that leads to one of several recreational areas. Southerton says this helps compensate for time spent at less-inspiring client offices.

Colour coding has also been central to creating an environment more conducive to productivity.

Colour psychologist Angela Wright approves of the choice of blue for Valtech's training floor. "Blue is a good colour for training as it encourages intellectual activity," she says. "Unfortunately, most work environments favour grey, which tends to indicate bad weather and the onset of winter."

Wright believes colours have a powerful effect and that using them in the workplace is a positive move.

Valtech's offices are full of hidden surprises. On the third floor a sliding storage unit reveals "the orange room", a windowless room painted orange from floor to ceiling and furnished with two luminous orange sofas. According to Wright, orange is one of the three warmest colours and stimulates the mind. So it is certainly not a place to go to relax.

The offices also feature floor-to-ceiling murals. "We tried to make something of the dull essentials," says architectural assistant Huw Williams, who worked on the project. "We put the images in the toilet to try to take people away from their local space and transport them to New York or a forest."

The Benham Valence headquarters of convergence specialist Prime Business Solutions was another building that required a lot of innovative thinking, but this is where the similarity with Valtech ends. The work carried out here was about preserving and restoring the building to its former glory.

Benham Valence is an 18th-century Georgian mansion situated at the end of a sweeping driveway and surrounded by a beautifully landscaped park. The house was designed by Henry Holland, with landscaping by Capability Brown, but despite its historical significance it had been standing empty for several years and was falling into a state of disrepair.

Its grade one listing made it an impossible choice for most companies. The stone floors could not be dug up nor the ceilings lowered to install the miles of cabling needed for the operations of a modern company.

"Installing normal technology would have been financially prohibitive, as well as taking a long time," says Matt Franklin, Prime's managing director and co-founder. But, as a convergence technology reseller, the company realised it could be looking at the ideal showcase for its products.

Prudential, the building's owner, pleased to find a tenant for the property, spent more than £1m restoring the external stonework, gilded covings and cornicing, mosaic floors and magnificent fireplaces.

Prime then implemented a mixed wired and wireless IP network system to enable it to use communications applications and IT without damaging the building's structure.

The result is a working environment in a house that is little different to how it was 200 years ago, when Samuel Johnson and George IV were visitors.

The grand state room is resplendent with chandeliers and the walls are decorated with pictures of war heroes. There is no visible communications infrastructure in the room but it has a full wireless network. This was made possible by putting a small base station on each floor with a wireless card to connect each computer to the network.

Prime employees can use the state room to set up mobile project teams or go there to work in a quiet environment that has full access to e-mail, the Internet, video streaming and telephones. "I like using this room for meetings as it makes for a less formal business environment," says Dave Bourke, Prime's technical director.
The ballroom is now the boardroom, although the company did use it for a summer ball.

The staff enjoy their unique working environment and feel it helps keep things in perspective. "Working in a growing company can be intense," says operations manager Luke Barton. "Working here takes you away, it is far easier to relax - you just need to look out of the window."
Whether in a bright orange room or walking around the grounds of a stately home, it would seem staff certainly prefer it to their traditional grey boxes.

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This was first published in November 2001

 

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