Some workplaces look so different from conventional offices that they can be called an ‘un-office’. The Indian headquarters of Space Matrix is one of them. The reception and foyer of the Singapore-based design consultancy resemble an entrance to a restaurant–and indeed, a café is placed at the heart of the downstairs workspace. Although there are several clusters of tables and chairs where employees are busy working, there are no assigned seats, relatively few workstations or enclosed meeting rooms – or doors.
Instead, there is a generous open-plan space to hold client meetings and presentations. A dramatic double-height space, with two floors. An arterial walkway connecting two ends of the office. A versatile indoor amphitheatre-style space, for town halls or spontaneous catchups. Nooks and crannies for solo work. Dedicated spaces for quiet work. And a palette of edgy materials found more commonly in recreational spaces, rather than offices.
This 22-year-old firm is a market leader in designing and building high-end corporate workplaces and has 16 offices, primarily in Asia-Pacific (check). Located in Gurugram, the 7905-square-foot Indian headquarters is called the Beta Lab’, a nod to its experimental approach to workplace design.
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Guinea pigs and Beta Labs
“We called it a Beta Lab to make sure that we test out the offerings in the market. Only if they are successful do we recommend them to our clients. We’d rather be the guinea pigs ourselves, than the clients. So we started testing equipment, tables, chairs, workstations, technology and experience in behaviour as well,” explains Akshay Lakhanpal, chief executive of Space Matrix’s India business.
For example, a group of colleagues works on an elevated round table with ergonomic high chairs, a work setting that I am seeing for the first time. Many new-age offices have high chairs and barstools, but they are not usually ergonomic or designed for long periods of use. “This (work setting) gives one an escape from physical monotony. With the right ergonomics, these high chairs allow people to be away from the normal sitting-standing posture, through the day,” says Lakhanpal.
The Beta Lab is fluid, collaborative and intentionally landscaped based on varying workflows and work patterns. The downstairs work area, with an in-house coffee bar and lunch area, is “a high buzz, energy hub for the office, where all brainstorming, discussions, disagreements happen, where teams are supposed to sit together and work things out. Upstairs, there is a focused workspace where individuals work ‘head-down’ without disturbance, like a library setting. The third setting is a ‘hyper focus’ room, which is meant to get your creative juices flowing. You can adjust your own settings, in terms of lighting colour, lighting level or music,” describes Lakhanpal. Work areas are complemented by collaboration zones, such as the amphitheatre-like stepped seating, the venue for Friday night get-togethers or training programmes.
Technology enhances personalisation, says Lakhanpal. The company developed an app to automate the “lighting management system, blinds, the building management system, which is the air conditioning and electrical, the room booking system, the visitor management system, and the pantry ordering system. We've connected all of those things into a single platform. You can order a black coffee to be delivered by the pantry to where you are seated or set up the air-conditioning and lighting to suit your preferences in a meeting room.” It is an empowering tool, given that many office workers struggle with the right temperature or cooling levels.
The company’s social quotient has been promoted by the way teams are located. Previously the company had “silos – a design team, a procurement team, a projects team”, Lakhanpal says. But now the company encourages teams to locate themselves by client teams, where “folks working on different aspects of the project can get together and get work done.”
Employees, predictably, love the autonomy and the collaboration the Beta Lab offers. “I was one of the champions of the team saying no unassigned seats, but I change my seat almost five to six times a day and most of us do. You want to work with your team or you want to work with the project team and there is an area assigned for it, we can do it on tables, we don't occupy meeting rooms for that. So the real estate planning has worked out well for us,” says Payal Kapoor, head of design for North India.
Lakhanpal notices that talent recruitment and retention have become easier in the Beta Lab. Their client-win ratio has also gone up, as clients are able to observe different styles of working, and experience it for themselves, in some cases, by choosing to work from the office for a few hours, he claims.
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‘The New Office’
With a headcount of just over 100 people, the Beta Lab is not a large office, inviting criticism that it may not scale for a larger, more conventional floor plate. “All of these spaces can be adapted for a larger space. Not every firm works like us, certain aspects will change depending on workflow, but it’s scalable for sure,” Lakhanpal insists.
Twenty-five years ago, a renowned British architect Francis Duffy wrote a seminal book on office design called ‘The New Office’ where he outlined different typologies of spaces, based on work patterns, and shared case studies of companies. But workplace design thinking based on work patterns has ceded ground to Google-inspired workspaces in recent years, which are colourful and often gimmicky.
By avoiding the binary trope of monotonous rows of workstations at one extreme, or a surrogate theme park at the other, the Beta Lab presents an important alternative to how we can re-imagine the office. Such experiments are good for the industry. Like everything in design, the best ideas can only be taken forward when they are prototyped and test-driven by the users themselves.
Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organisations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles.