When AECOM’s workplace design practice was asked to create a central London hub for its own people, the global firm took the liberty of going back to basics to benefit employees’ experience. Michael Willoughby reports.
This is the second time I have entered AECOM’s reception area in Aldgate, named after the old eastern gate to the City of London, so I am forewarned.
Last time, I was on the 16th floor of the American-based built environment behe- moth’s UK central London hub, I was taken quite sharply aback: Instead of meeting the gaze of a seated, steely-yet-friendly gate- keeper over a desk, the first thing I saw was a coffee machine and a casual arrangement of tables. I cast wildly around for the person who would stop me walking straight into the heart of the company before being spotted and warmly welcomed, ending my confusion.
Today however, I walk straight to the ‘concierge’ who has the role of not only directing visitors to their desired person, taking coats and bags, and booking meeting rooms, but also making coffee. He brings me to Jason Stubbs, UK and Ireland head of interiors for AECOM who was handed, he says, “what some might call a poisoned chalice,” namely developing the 1,000- employee workspace in the new Aldgate Tower.
“We wanted to get away from what we had in the old offices,” Stubbs tells me when I describe the experience of my first visit.
“We don’t have a formal desk as such, we have baristas, people need to greet you.”
The reception area design, which took inspiration from the hospitality industry, helps project the open and collaborative nature of the AECOM brand as well as being an ideal spot for casual internal-external meetings (of up to 150 people!), for which a room booking is not needed. Crucially, concierges have another role, to grant – or deny – access to the bank of meeting rooms immediately adjacent to the welcome space – hence the ‘free range’ aspect.
The glazing affords a great view over the assortment of towers for which the City of London has become both famous and infamous, but for Stubbs and his colleagues the panorama is more meaningful: He can point to the scores of buildings which AECOM has had a hand in creating – such as test fit space planning and project management services for the Shard, cost- management for the old RBS building whose roof we look down upon – even carrying out engineering services for the Category A fit-out of Aldgate Tower itself.
More collaborative space was one of the big goals from the research Stubbs and his Strategy+ team carried out for the 85,500 ft2 space, between December 2015 and April 2016. Back then, there were several London sites, including one in High Holborn and one in Victoria, as well as locations in St Albans and Croydon. The latter two offices were retained, with the Aldgate Tower forming part of a ‘campus.’ It houses all the business unit functions – encompassing and bringing together every- thing that falls under the brand. Collaboration between every office is encouraged, with WebEx and Telepresence conference facilities linking everything.
This focus on collaboration drives the layout. Apart from the reception, the 16th floor is purely meeting rooms. The corridor in-between also seems to owe much to hotel design, enlivened by furniture sourced via The Furniture Practice. Like everything else in the development, the chairs and tables score highly on the SKA environmental rating tool. There are over 100 ‘good practice’ measures covering energy and CO2 emissions, waste, water, materials, pollution, wellbeing and transport of products and materials. Even though this added time and cost to the project, it was important to make sure the project rated highly, says Stubbs, because AECOM’s sustainability team was involved in writing the SKA rating standards.
But apart from the casual seating, there are, of course, desks. These sit around the periphery of the building – still offering stupendous views – food and drink services are collected around the staircase, which is covered in further detail later. These desks are entirely flexible and arranged into what the company calls “neighbourhoods” organised by practice speciality; ‘bleed spaces’ sited between these feature semi- casual seating. At the ends are what they call “touchdown” spaces with large screens for breakout meetings.
Floors also have smaller bookable meeting rooms towards the core and all walls are magnetic, allowing for further opportunities to display work. There is even a “mini-theatre” with cushioned benches to seat 30. This replaces the “rows and rows of desks with everyone jammed in,” of the former office, says Stubbs.
Employees who work on floors eight to 10 (the building has other tenants) can plug in their laptops at the workstations and, in 25 per cent of cases, monitors can be adjusted into a standing position. Meanwhile, the task lighting can be controlled by the occupants – over and above the fluorescent ambient lighting. Staff don’t have private drawers, but access to a private locker, plentiful “hard stationery” such as staplers at the end of the work- benches and portable plastic caddies for pens and Post-Its (replacing the 35 crates of stationery that were got rid of when the office moved).
There is another aspect to making sure the flexible floors work properly – in the form of elective “floor champions.” They keep the stationery caddies stocked, the print facilities working properly and are trained to handle basic systems issues, such as getting onto the server. They are also charged with making sure that the storage – which is open, with no cupboards or drawers in order to prevent hoarding – are kept tidy. In that way, better facilities were offered as a quid pro quo for handing more responsibility to the teams themselves.
Another aspect of the design that helped reduce costs for the service team is an app guiding employees through common tech problems and replacing some of the function of the IT help desk such as getting printing sorted out or getting online. The trained-up on-floor champions are the next port of call. If that fails, the team of IT specialists in Aldgate will get involved and – if things are really bad – there are more people to call in Basingstoke who will save the day!
Open to a staircase
The most striking aspect of AECOM’s office, though, is the huge, open staircase that connects four of the internal floors. This was not without its risks and challenges: stickers attached to the inside of the steps caution users to hold onto the handrails and forbid using mobile phones and open coffee cups on the stairs. (The danger comes from dropping something on someone’s head far below.)
There were further health and safety issues in creating the staircase, which was challenging due to concerns about potential spread of fire. Staircases need to be contained within a volume in order to stop any spread. The normal solution would have been to have fire curtains around the staircase, but that would have prevented the openness and permeability the team was seeking.
Instead, fire-rated walls are pushed back to make way for the catering facilities. The staircase and environs serve several purposes, centred on a high-spec catering function. Each floor through which the staircase flows has a different name and type of offering, including tables for sandwiches, a full-service restaurant and kitchens. There are even rocking chairs overlooking the City.
Stubbs says that this is far better than most clients’ set-ups, with two tea points on each floor and people always ending up going to the same space.
“Those 50 staff members don’t meet the other 50,” says Stubbs. “We are using design to create serendipity and improve well-being . You don’t want to push it on people, but we have had an amazing amount of positive feedback.”
As if to prove his point, I see a contact of mine heading up the staircase. An unintended boon of the grand staircase is its function as an all-office meeting area, when the whole 1,000 people gathered around the staircase on several floors hear big company names address the assembled staff.
“We can’t fit the whole company into one environment and it would be foolish of us to have created a space just for that,” says Stubbs. “When our head of buildings and places spoke, everyone could see and hear. It was fantastic.”
If the staircase was a challenge, it was one the team took up with gusto. The staircase was installed over a nine week period as if it were three separate staircases, with each portion completed before construction of the next level down was started.
A smash hit for staff
The office in total has been a smash hit with staff. Communications executive, Catherine Llewellyn, who helped show me around, says she can’t imagine going back to the “old way” of working which she describes as “1980s.”
And AECOM being famous for its build- ing services practice, the building yields up its secrets to engineers who are starting out: part of the ceiling void is open so that they can “get under the hood” of a real installation. In fact, the entire process can be examined by graduates.
“You can say (to designers, engineers, cost-managers and clients) – don’t forget these things that could catch you out, The most striking aspect of AECOM’s office is the huge, open staircase that connects four of the internal floors which might be hard to envisage,” says Stubbs “The exposed ceiling services detail looks inexpensive, but exposed steelwork requires specialist intumescent paint finishing that could drive up cost if there are large quantities to spray. For a graduate designer or engineer, these things might not be high on the radar, but working in a space that offers a training and learning platform is invaluable for career-development.”
Stubbs says that staff retention was a big worry moving to a new home, but AECOM’s recent 100 day review of the office revealed a very positive reduction in turnover figures.
“The workplace plays a very important part in retaining and attracting staff,” he says, “and I think we are at the top of our game when it comes to architecture and engineering, construction services and the environment.”
Research and design: December 2015 – April 2016
On-site: April 2016 – September 2016
Size: 85,500 ft² over five floors.
Project design (workplace strategy / change management /
interior design / building engineering /
cost, project management & sustainability consultancy): AECOM
Main contractor: Overbury
Loose furniture: The Furniture Practice
Joinery: Benchmark, Specialist Joinery Group
Workstations: Herman Miller