Citizens Advice sets trend for multi-use buildings

The news that the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) is set to use churches, and other places of worship, to provide face-to-face advice in the local community, after cuts in their funding meant their own property portfolio has been rationalised, got me thinking what other buildings could become multi-use.

People already use coffee shops, parks, museums and galleries to perch with their laptops and catch up on emails. Meanwhile many home-based knowledge workers, disillusioned with (or lacking the discipline to) work from home pop to libraries or use their local serviced office (which are springing up all over the place and not just from the likes of Regus and MWB) occasionally.

How about schools outside of term times? Colleges and universities hire out their facilities to organisations for conferences, is there a role for schools to become mini drop-in centres for advice, get-togethers or even a local hub for workers (although the chairs can be on the small side sometimes…).

The gym is a perfect place for a bit of post-workout working – a decent café with healthy juices and WiFi would attract a professional clientele.

Churches hosting non-religious community groups is nothing new. Previous guidelines have encouraged churches to host post offices and community shops and many have already started accommodating the Citizens Advice Bureaux. Spilsby Methodist Church in Lincolnshire, for example, secured funding to develop part of the church as a community centre with interview rooms, a community area, kitchen area, toilets, and is now being used by the East Lindsey CAB. The upstairs of the church was also converted into a “Bunk Barn” offering basic accommodation to tourists as part of the project, which also involved partnering with the Church of England and Age UK.

Citizens Advice are well versed in providing their services in different facilities – they currently operate from more than 3,500 locations including high streets, community centres, doctors’ surgeries, courts and prisons.

But there are downsides – my local parish priest went apoplectic when he discovered that what he thought was an exercise class in the parish hall turned out to be yoga which he felt went against Catholic teaching. Following on from the local youth group holding a halowe’en party in the facility, he was feeling a little sensitive about his parishioners’ more subversive activities. Perhaps anticipating these concerns, Citizens Advice has produced Faithful Advice, a guide for places of worships in setting up advice sessions in their buildings.

The lesson for facilities managers in these cash-strapped times, must surely be to look at how to get the best out of your facility – what other groups might be keen to use your building or its grounds at little or no cost to you (or even provide an income?)? And if you work in the charity sector, what local businesses might be happy for you to piggyback off their built environment?

Construction and facilities professionals talk a great deal about building new ‘flexible’ buildings which are future proofed for a variety of needs, but it’s important to remember that there are thousands of buildings already out there which could easily be used for different purposes. It’s just a question of opening our eyes to the possibilities.

Do you know of other good examples of multi-use buildings? We’d love to hear from you.

Wild and wacky workplaces are in vogue

By Marianne Halavage, the newest member of the Magenta Associate’s team

The trend seems to be for workplaces, creative and otherwise, to look increasingly wild and wacky.

For Magenta’s new offices in Brighton we’ve rejected outright wild and wacky and instead opted for flashes of colour to liven the place up. Courtesy of IKEA we’ve added a lovely bold picture of a magenta-coloured flower to the white walls and there’s a vase of pink and white flowers standing in the corner (we prefer to say they’ll live forever than call them fake).

But like many smaller workplaces, we’re constrained by the will of our landlord who, possibly understandably, won’t let us paint our white walls, even the tiny ones beside the fireplace, magenta.

Many bigger companies, on the other hand, have greater reign to create their own wild and wacky universes – and are increasingly doing so.

Take for example the Googleplex, the global headquarters of technology giant Google in Mountain View California, where there are slides, firemen poles, beanbags, replicas of SpaceShipOne and a dinosaur skeleton, not to mention 18 restaurants, a gym, free laundry rooms, two swimming pools and sand volleyball courts.

Then there’s the new Red Bull office in South London, which has a slide between three floors, ping pong table meeting rooms, a modern bar and cafe, and a comfy lounge area, and even a terrace which converts into a bungee jump bridge.

And over in West London, smoothie maker Innocent has a pillar red telephone box, table football, picnic benches and astro turf grass for each floor.

The FM community’s perspective

But despite the trend, the jury in the FM community is still out on whether having these wild and wacky playthings truly add value to the employee and to the business. Or are they just a bad case of keeping up with the creative Joneses?

BIFM chairman Ian Broadbent thinks they add some value: “Gimmicks can help but true creativity has to come from the minds of the leaders of an organisation. Slides and meeting beds would just be an enabler – a creative culture needs to exist in the minds.”

A premises and facilities director at a leading law firm agrees. “I think these wacky ideas can encourage creative thinking but they need to be suitable for the type of business. For example slides may suit media and technology firms with dress down codes but wouldn’t be appropriate in a business suit environment.” Cost is also an issue he points out – what might work in California where there is more space, may not be so cost-effective in central London (or, presumably, Brighton).

Craig Knight, head of the Prism team at the University of Exeter which explores the psychology of working and living space, is all for a bit of wackiness in offices. He argues that thanks to Taylorist principles of consistency, standardisation, and efficiency, offices are increasingly becoming lean with little personalisation or decoration. “A happy rat sits in a luxurious cage, a sad rat in a lean cage, so why do we create lean offices?

But others are more sceptical. A facilities manager at a search engine company says that thinking beds and slides is “just a designer taking the idea to its limit.”

And Principal Consultant at Agents4FM, Lionel Prodgers, says that the wacky examples of slides and bean bags are mostly gimmicks, for PR and to attract staff rather than stimulating creative thinking. “If you go behind the facade of a ‘wacky’ showroom type office environment you will find rows of conventional flat top bench/desk space.”

But one FM in the media sector says that slides add to the ambience – even if no-one uses them, “You are setting your stall out as a creative organisation. People can be proud to work for an organisation which has a slide, even if they don’t use it. It is a physical manifestation of that organisation’s culture and beliefs, a bit like the expensive furniture.

Back in Brighton, I wonder what our landlord will say to our proposition to extend a slide from the window into the garden two floors below and to add a fireman’s pole from our office straight into the kitchen which will, naturally, be stocked with free champagne and cupcakes …

So what do you think about the trend for creative workplaces to look increasingly wild and wacky? Would you like to work in somewhere like the Googleplex? Or would you be too distracted to get on with your work? We’d love to hear from you.

Standing room only

Having moved out of London after 18 years of living in the capital I’m now enjoying (enduring?) the delights of commuting to work. Not five days a week fortunately, but two or three times a week I suffer an hour’s journey on a packed train into London with hardly enough elbow room to type on my laptop.

But, because I’m at the start of the line, I’m one of the lucky ones –I always get a seat (even if it is occasionally an aisle seat facing backwards). Yesterday the train was packed by the time it left Brighton and everybody from Preston Park onwards had to stand all the way into London (unless they were lucky or cunning enough to have positioned themselves next to someone with a suitcase who looked like they were getting out at Gatwick Airport). Commuting, I’ve discovered, comes with its own unique games and strategies (an encyclopediac knowledge of train times, and where the doors open to allow you the speediest exit being just some of them)

An industry colleague who regularly commutes from Haywards Heath (which is still a 45 minute trek into London Victoria) never gets a seat. When renewing her ticket she asked the station office for a ‘standing only ticket’ (as they provide in some theatres and concerts) but was told the season ticket entitled her to travel to the destination  and didn’t guarantee the manner in which she would travel. Caring customer service.

So you’ve driven/ walked or ridden to the station, stood in a cramped carriage for an hour nestled up against people you would never say hello to, let alone virtually cuddle, and then rushed by tube, bus or foot to the office the other end. And then your working day begins and you’re expected to be fully productive, add value to clients and your organisation, be friendly, approachable and above all professional for eight-plus hours and then do the return journey with people who haven’t recently had the benefit of a morning wash.

As I said I’m one of the lucky ones. Doing the journey two to three times a week (and often not in the rush hour) is enjoyable, when it’s broken up by time spent in a local office, or working at home. It also helps the ‘life’ side of the equation. When I work from Brighton I can be home by 6pm rather than 7.30pm. But is a five-day commute to a city office really the ideal way to get the best out of people? Or would working from a mixture of settings: offices in big towns, local offices/ hubs and home offices be preferable to allow people to both be productive and also get pleasure from their working (and home) lives?


Doesn’t Boris Johnson need to chill out anymore?

What a shame that London mayor Boris Johnson has bowed to pressure and axed two so-called “chill-out” spaces at City Hall. The report in today’s FM World Daily claims that the business lounges where staff can read, eat and hold informal meetings are being removed to make way for more desks.

The “chill-out” spaces have caused controversy because of the big expense to fit them out – about £25,000 (not that much when you consider the building’s overall budget but the Evening Standard kicked up a big fuss at the time). Some chairs apparently cost nearly £900 each, four high tables cost £2,000 each and carpets added another £4,170, according to the FM World report (although that may well be the list price and a substantial discount was achieved). In any case surely setting the spaces up and then demolishing them 12 months later is the real waste of money?

It’s also interesting that according to the FM World report, the original design in 2002 was for 426 desks, on handover there were 570 and this eventually increased to 697. And more to come by the sound of it. It would be interesting to know how many staff the building supports, the desk to person ratio, how many of the staff in the building are encouraged to work flexibly by time or location or whether agile/intelligent working has made it as far as City Hall.

Usually much more can be done to encourage people to work in other locations (either at home, in client sites, local offices, third spaces etc) which then frees up much-needed space in the main head office.  If people were to work in this way, then the business lounges currently being ditched would be the first thing needed to allow staff to drop in to work, meet colleagues informally. Those types of informal spaces can support many more people when they’re set up as business lounges, rather than being covered in desks.

Generation Y wants to work at work

Is it really any surprise that young people want to work at work, rather than at home, or anywhere else? An article in this morning’s reports on a study of 19 blue-chip companies, including Barclays, Microsoft, Tesco and Pfizer by Advanced Workplace Associates that revealed that employees in the early stages of their careers prefer to work at the office in order to see and be seen.

Learning the ropes, making contacts and gaining recognition are important for Generation Y and they need to do this in the office. “As people become more established and have proven their abilities, they are more likely to support working flexibly or remotely as part of their working pattern,” explained Andrew Mawson, MD of Advanced Workplace Associates.

But there’s one important point that was missed. I think that younger people prefer to work in the office, because one of the other options – working at home is just not a possibility for many.

When people talk about homeworking they mention their fully-equipped home office with the desk, swivel chair and latest technology – either in the loft extension or at the bottom of the garden where they can get away from the kids. But many Gen Yers don’t live in those types of palatial surroundings. They might be in house shares with a large group of friends or living in temporary accommodation where there is no WiFi access or quiet space to work or make business phonecalls.

I met up with a potential client the other day at his swish offices in More London. His private Regus office had stunning views over gardens and towards Tower Bridge. The price tag was also impressive for what was essentially a start-up arm of an existing business. When I asked why he didn’t work remotely he pointed out that he lived in a house share with five other people, many of whom worked shifts and so were at home during the day watching TV or sleeping. Working from home, or using home as a base, wasn’t an option if he wanted to set his stall out as a professional business. I take his point. As a Gen Xer with young children, I’m not a big fan of homeworking when they’re also at home – and have been known to pack up the home office and decamp to the local library or café when the school bell rings for home time.

So it’s little surprise that the office is quite a draw for many younger people – and it puts the onus on the employer to look after these people, providing them with decent sustenance and a good environment to work and socialise.