13 years and two months. That’s the amount of time the average person spends at work. A lot of their life. And yet many spend this precious time in dreary, uninspiring offices, drinking sh*t coffee out of plastic cups. No wonder the UK has such a productivity problem!
It amazes me how often this is overlooked. When I’m coaching clients, I get them to take a long, hard look at their workplace. It can tell so much about an organisation. Is it messy or spotless? What’s the first impression like? Does it reflect company values? I’m a big fan of injecting a bit of fun. As MD of three fast-growing tech companies, I’ve seen the difference an inspiring workplace can make to motivation, loyalty and engagement. If you truly want the best out of your staff, you need to give them a workplace they can be proud of.
Timing is everything
There’s a moment in every company’s history when it’s time to invest in the working environment. You need to be the judge of this. It’s fashionable for start-ups to take the opposite approach – where spending no money at all is somehow motivating. HP started in a garage. Apple too. When I joined Rackspace as employee number 120, we were in the Broadway Bank building in downtown San Antonio, sitting on second hand mismatched furniture. We were the antidote to our fat cat competitors. Our message to customers? ‘We’re not about corporate luxury. We’re reinvesting all your money in growth.’
This stripped down, high energy approach can be really useful at the beginning. It keeps people focused on what really matters. But when your company gets bigger, you start to lose that ‘special forces’ mentality and create more of a ‘mass movement’ mindset. It’s at this point that you need to put time and effort into creating a workplace that truly reflects your business. And making it the best in your marketplace.
Attract top talent
Any company looking to grow needs ‘A Players’. That is, the top 10% of available talent in a given location for a given salary and job. It’s likely that they’ll be specialists in their field and you’ll need to fight hard to attract them. Office environment is crucial. You need to impress them in the first four seconds they enter your offices. Research says that subliminal decisions are made this quickly.
At Rackspace, we wanted to create a real sense of difference. Our open plan environment had curved, organically shaped desking and a games area, set back in a glassed off area. During their breaks, staff could play foosball or Sega Rally. Whilst the glass partitioning prevented noise, the sense of fun filtered out to the rest of the floor. The energy of the place was palpable. As soon as you walked in, you knew you’d arrived at a great place to work.
As MD of Peer 1, I recognised that the people we hired and the service they provided was our difference in the market. We needed top talent. It was my mission to create the best workplace in Southampton. You couldn’t get more ‘wow’ than the bright yellow, helter-skelter slide that dominated the heart of the office. What a talking point! And what a great way to put a smile on people’s faces – whether they were new recruits, clients or existing staff. Some people scoffed when we installed it. They said it was too gimmicky and we’d soon grow tired of it. Two years later, I was still sliding between floors. With a massive grin on my face!
Create envy in clients
At Peer 1, our aim was to be a place where our clients wished they worked. We invested time and effort into creating positive envy around our offices. It worked. Customers loved coming to see us and often invented excuses to hold meetings in our offices!
First impressions are as important for potential clients as they are for potential hires. Our receptionist at Rackspace was given the title ‘Director of First Impressions’. Reception was their domain. Fresh flowers, coffee machine humming, spotless waiting area, warm smile – everything was focused on that all important first impression. Our environment reinforced our purpose of ‘Fanatical Support’ – nothing was too much trouble for our clients and it showed.
Increase staff engagement
It’s a no-brainer. Happy staff equal better productivity. And what better way to make them happy than by giving them a workplace they can be proud of? I’m a firm believer in making it a team effort. The pay-back from this can be huge. Far better to get complete buy-in by trusting staff to design their environment rather than imposing something on them. You can create the context and rules, then let the team play.
When we were planning the new Peer 1 office, it was a case of ‘snog, marry, dump’. Staff told me what they liked/disliked about the current space and what they wanted from the new one. There were loads of ideas: herb gardens, climbing walls, sleep pods…. We created a committee whose job was to oversee the renovation. Not only was this useful in getting the refit finished, it also gave opportunities for responsibility and leadership.
I’d been to see a contact lens manufacturer in Southampton and was really impressed with their approach. Photos of Christmas parties through the years brightened up the main corridor, giving you an immediate happy vibe and a real sense of evolution. They’d started a staff suggestion scheme and presented it on the wall with a movie-production theme. You could see the process laid out before you. First the ‘Script Ideas’, with the number of votes next to them. Then ‘In Production’ where ideas with the most votes were progressed. And finally ‘In The Can’ – the finished projects complete with photos. Staff could see their ideas being taken right through to fruition. Brilliant!
At Rackspace and Peer 1, we had fridges full of beer and champagne, along with an unlimited supply of cereal and toast. And proper coffee – not that horrible instant stuff out of a vending machine. Sometimes, visitors to our offices asked me why the fridges weren’t locked. I told them that we trusted our staff and we never had anyone who took the p*ss.
Encourage team cohesion
I’m a pretty sociable guy. I like a chat and a bit of banter. It’s so important for building mutual understanding and strong relationships. And my view is it’s best done face-to-face. Sometimes, I think we undervalue this in a world where remote working is becoming the norm. Your office environment needs to encourage social interaction – at Peer 1 you could play pool or table-tennis, chat on the swings or hang out in the indoor cinema. These areas also provided valuable mental breaks – I’m a great believer in concentrated work with regular breathers.
Something that wasn’t so popular at Peer 1 was my insistence that staff moved desks every quarter. You can imagine the whining and complaints! But it was so positive. It forced my techy workforce out of their comfort zones so that they got to know a wider variety of people. A really good way to promote overall company cohesion. If you try this, be strong! And make sure you’re ready for the fall-out. It will be worth it.
More than just a workplace
If it’s done well, your office environment can serve multiple purposes. When I look back at the layout of Peer 1, it was reminiscent of the different stations of the cross you find in churches (my Catholic heritage comes through again!) Different areas of our offices told different stories.
The company values were on one wall along with ‘Employee of the Month’ photos. Shout-outs to staff were scribbled on note-paper and stuck up next to the value they’d embodied. It was a live, fluid space of praise and celebration. Alongside this was the client brag wall as well as our 24/7 monitoring wall and our ‘cock-up-of-the-month’ wall – all important areas delivering different messages. Finally (one of my favourite ideas), we had a gallery of photos of new staff, each one next to a list of ‘10 things you don’t know about me’. A great talking point amongst staff and clients alike.
Diversity in staff
If you’re planning an office move, think carefully about location. This can have a big effect on your ability to recruit a diverse workforce. So many of my past jobs have been on business parks – I hate them! They’re such soulless places – hard to get to, devoid of shops, cafes and any kind of buzz. When Peer 1 were relocating, we deliberately chose Southampton city centre. From there, we could draw staff from a variety of different towns across the south. There was free transport from the train station, buses running past, ample parking and people could cycle or walk to work. We even installed showers and indoor cycle parking.
If you’re serious about wanting your company to grow, invest time and money in your workplace. It doesn’t need to cost the earth. At the time we were re-fitting Peer 1, our contractor was also working for a large corporate client spending three times per square metre more than we were. And it ended up as a bland no impact space.
With the right amount of imagination, effort and ideas from all your team, you can transform your surroundings and with it the productivity levels of your staff. And have fun doing it! Good luck.
Written by business growth coach Dom Monkhouse. Find out more about his work here.