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What does it take to build a progressive workplace?

A walk inside SAP’s R&D facility in Bengaluru that welcomes the outside inside and puts employee wellness at the centre of its design

Workers can choose their seats inside the 200,00 sq.ft SAP office building
Workers can choose their seats inside the 200,00 sq.ft SAP office building (Samuel Rajkumar )

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Some campuses set the standards for humane workplaces—and a refurbished office building in the R&D facility of global enterprise software company SAP is one of them. Spread over 200,00 sq.ft in Bengaluru’s Whitefield neighbourhood, its holistic approach to employee wellness makes it an inviting place to work at.

Three themed sun-lit courtyards are a visible attraction. With furniture and décor based on states like Goa, Kerala and Rajasthan, the courtyards serve as getaways from conventional office life, for me-time, quiet work or spontaneous catchups with colleagues. While most offices today have meeting spaces for collaboration, and desks and phone booths for solo work, few workspaces have the luxury of providing opportunities for quiet contemplation.

And then there are plants. The tree-lined biophilic campus has around 750-800 trees that bring the outdoors in, providing a rare connect with nature.

“We have a specialised landscape team to take care of inside and outside plants; we have a water treatment plant and irrigation facility systems. These are oxygen yielding plants and saplings that are safe to use indoors,” explains Ravi Vajram, the company’s senior manager, global real estate and facilities.

The building, which is LEED Gold certified, also houses a gym and indoor and outdoor sports facilities like tennis and table tennis, which, according to Vajram, are used more in the morning and evening. An emphasis on healthy eating, reduced supply of junk food and enhanced indoor air quality also reflect the company’s focus on employee wellness. There’s also ergonomic furniture, elevated desks, which are larger than normal to accommodate two monitors, to promote employee comfort. Tactile flooring across the facility is a measure to support the visually impaired. A barrier-free environment enables easier access for persons with disabilities.

Also read: YourDost: A workplace where the star employee is a dog

The tree-lined biophilic campus has around 750-800 trees and three sun-lit courtyards.
The tree-lined biophilic campus has around 750-800 trees and three sun-lit courtyards. (Samuel Rajkumar )

Flexibility at work

Employee centricity is reflected in spatial layout. Furniture and work policies are aligned around one the most essential elements of modern worklife: flexibility.

The building has 1,500 seats and a headcount of 2,000 people. A hybrid and flexible work policy means that employees can choose when they want to come to the physical office. Employees, managers and teams collectively decide which days they will come in, and which days they can work from anywhere else, either from their home or from one of SAP’s other facilities in Bengaluru.

Within the facility, employees choose their own space. This was a major shift for SAP, as previously the facility had 100% assigned seating. It now has only 30% fixed seating, with the rest of the seats being unassigned.

“Our facility is designed in such a way that at any point of time anyone can operate based on different numbers and sizes. Right from two to 500 people can work, depending on the situation and business needs,” Vajram says, highlighting the varied sizes of meeting rooms, collaboration spaces and the auditorium.

Rashmi Raghuraj, senior HR business partner, works from home one day a week, as her role requires her to be in office four days a week.

When at work, she picks a desk depending on whether the task is more focussed or more collaborative, or if she wants a change of scene. “Hybrid brings in individual choice and ties it in with organisational priorities. If I have to do more focused kind of work, I have my set workspace, but that’s not assigned to me. So I find a desk that’s suitable for me. Sometimes I need to move out of the space, think a little bit. I sit near the greenery, if I have to freely think of a solution, or if I have a team meeting. A lot of teams have their meetings in the open space. So that really helps you connect with nature, bring out creativity,” she says.

Desks are also laid out in such a way that teams can have stand-up meetings in the work areas themselves. This helps encourage agile working, an important feature of technology companies.

All of these policies and practices promote mental health and, ultimately, productivity. “Outcomes are important, but the process is also important. If I’m stressed out and delivering the outcome, that is not really productive. I think with such a workspace, what I really like is that I can choose the place based on my state of mind, and be productive in the way that I want to be productive,” says Raghuraj.

This is a critical point at a time when workplace well-being is gaining attention. Occupancy has steadily gone up since the building opened after the pandemic, suggesting that employees want to work in the physical office.

SAP has always created progressive workplaces, yet my office tour makes me wonder: how much of this is replicable to a small or mid-sized company, one that cannot afford themed courtyards, an indoor plantation or expensive ergonomic furniture? Must it take a campus to be humane?

The answer is more nuanced. While the infrastructure brings comfort, as Raghuraj said, the mindset counts for as much. If the environment promotes autonomy and flexibility, then the process of delivering results is much more likely to be smoother—and more productive, for individuals, teams and companies.

Also read: A walk through Space Matrix's experimental un-office

Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organisations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles.



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