If Hollywood comedies have taught us anything over the last five years or so, it’s that the modern business environment has changed beyond recognition.
In the Robert DeNiro comedy 'The Intern', an old-timer bored of retirement finds himself on a recruitment programme at an online retailer, designed for young graduates. Once in the office, open plan areas and a somewhat relaxed attitude towards dress code are among the environmental factors that immediately position him as the archetypal fish out of water. Hilarity ensues, of course.
'The Internship', released a few years earlier, takes the idea of the ultra-cool office to even greater heights. Set in and around Google’s fabled California HQ, again two guys who were born before the tech explosion somehow wind up in a training scheme filled with web-savvy millennials. Free ice cream, nap pods, ping pong tables, and subsidised massages aplenty.
Add to this 'Why Him?', where a Silicon Valley mogul has to meet (and win over) the family of his new fiancée, while they visit his ridiculously hip home that also doubles up as an office - filled with rooms where people can pretty much do what they want - and clearly there’s a point being made.
Offices should exude the modern working totems of individuality, freedom, and flexibility. Or should they?
In the UK, places of work have been catching up with haste. But in that haste are companies being blinded by a perceived need to get contemporary, or is there a genuine benefit beyond simply impressing visitors when they first walk in the door? After all, a site is only as good as its output, and a breakout corner filled with people who have spent all morning in an body grounding workshop might not be the most productive.
"We needed to attract a lot of tech talent and realised the old office space wasn’t going to do that when we were competing with people like the BBC and Autotrader at that time. So we decided to make a big investment in office space and make it fit for purpose," says Lindsey Henderson, head of talent acquisition at vehicle rental specialist BookingGo, who oversaw the firm’s huge investment in its offices.
Operating three premises in central Manchester, back in 2015 the Manchester Evening News asked if the company - then called Rentalcars.com - had the coolest space in the city. The refurbisment, which cost £2.7million, featured James Bond meeting rooms, open air cinemas and even a rooftop beach.
"Basically the office space shows the company’s personality. It’s a very fun, informal, diverse company to work for. The great thing about starting from scratch with an office was that we were able to create a space that was suited to the ways people work in 2018," explains Lindsey.
Collaborative working spaces, informal rooms, and writable walls all certainly seem to fit with what we think of as a modern approach to work life. But in many ways the most significant aspects of the BookingGo designs are those that impact on culture, and perhaps more importantly, staff happiness both inside and outside of work.
"I think the most important changes we made definitely includes the canteen. We have a subsidised canteen and Starbucks, which allowed us to give people free breakfast in the morning," Lindsey adds. "That has been really well-received, and it has also provided a really great social space.
"We have 72 different nationalities in the offices in Manchester. When someone moves to a new country or city for the first time, being able to go for lunch with colleagues every day, or even just a coffee, is important. It has created this different social environment to what we had before."
This idea of socialising is carried through in BookingGo’s practices, not just its floorspace. Free Drink Friday happens once a month, and as the name suggests involves complimentary drinks, music, and - for the hustlers out there - an opportunity to clear up on the in-house pool table.
It shows that friendship in the workplace, and creating a positive, welcoming atmosphere for employees is a real pillar of the business. And this isn’t the only way the office itself is helping to cement the company’s reputation within its sector.
"The other area I would say has been key is the big event space on the ground floor," Lindsey adds. "We use this for things like internal hackathons, and show and tell - where people can show off to their colleagues what they have been working on.
"Another important aspect of this is that, as a company trying to build its name as a tech business in Manchester. We work in partnership with a lot of local tech groups, and host a lot of meet-ups, with the event space acting as a permanent home for these, and then others on an ad-hoc basis."
Trying to ascertain if ‘Googling-up’ an office is really worth the initial outlay and upheaval isn’t easy, though. How do you judge the impact an environment has on the people using it? Lindsey admits this isn’t easy to measure, although feedback has been convincing.
"One of the intentions was to make it easier to attract candidates. If we hadn’t done this we wouldn’t have been able to draw the same calibre, because they come in, look around, and really like the environment," she adds.
"The other thing is engagement and productivity on a daily basis. We’ve made it a space where colleagues want to work, and that means they are happier in the environment, there are less inconveniences for them. We run an annual engagement survey where we saw a massive uplift from people saying they were happier working in the new environment compared to before we did all this."
It may be tempting after reading this to dive straight in, pick up the phone, and call the first interiors specialist your search results throws up. But this is missing the overall point. As with the BookingGo examples, the most vital points to consider revolve around whether the office - or any other working environment - is actually fit for purpose. Unnecessary bells and whistles are just that, whereas great design always serves a real, tangible solution.