Innovation Stations

As more and more companies are waking up to the realisation that their staff don’t need to be sitting at a desk to be productive, design practices are delivering increasingly unique and stimulating work environments, reports Helen Parton


Inspiration can strike at any time they say, but it helps if the environment you're in is conducive to doing so. Take Turkish bathroom manufacturer VitrA's new Innovation Centre, located a couple of hours' drive from Istanbul. This space represents the company's strong investment in research and development activities; it's a chance to demonstrate to visitors its prowess in sustainability and technological advances, as well as being home to some simply beautiful roomsets.

The stark, white architecture of the Innovation Centre, set among the rugged Turkish scenery, gives the outside of the building something of the Bond villain lair to its appearance, while inside its flattering lighting is reminiscent of a high-end boutique.

The design consultant for the space, Erdem Akan, explains the rationale: 'When I designed the exhibition area, training workshop and seminar hall, I made sure the details did not overpower the "big idea". From the entrance to the conference area, the entire space was designed with the minimalist and communication-centred approach.'

The space has a definite Willy Wonka-like quality to it in terms of product development, but instead of off-the-wall ideas about choccy treats, there are futuristic developments such as a special rubberised surface that dips into a washbasin at the touch of a button, or a waterless urinal. 'I chose an idea that is distinctly idea-orientated; on a long wall of the building we displayed projects under the headings New Materials, Comfort and Ergonomics, and Production Processes,' continues Akan. 'The Innovation Centre was envisaged as a living, evolving space, rather than a museum to sanitaryware and, as such, the sub units of the project have different rhythms that can change so that visitors always have the chance to see new things on their next visit.'

Upstairs from the showroom-cum-new product arena is the backbone of the Innovation Centre, as this is where the design team works its magic in a spacious workstation area. Here natural light floods in and a coolly neutral colour scheme provides a soothing backdrop to the work being carried out.

While VitrA's product range is more tangible than Russian technology provider Yandex, that hasn't stopped the latter inspiring staff and visitors with 3D representations of what it does. Confused? Well you might be even more so on seeing the finished result. The St Petersburg offices are organised like the desktop of a computer, in the second phase of this workplace project that covers the building's entire fourth floor of the Benois business centre.

Screens and shelves take the shape of a music play button, cursor arrows, the @ symbol and a Pac-Man logo. The reception resembles a text box where you input your username and password, and meeting rooms are framed by ribbon-like shapes and coloured curtains.

Says project architect Peter Zaytsev of the Za Bor studio: 'Guests and staff are immersed in Yandex services, which they normally work with in 2D. Here they are transformed into something 3D as pixellated objects grow to gigantic proportions in a unique, transcendental experience, beyond the imagination of even Aldous Huxley.' If all this sounds a little highfalutin, certain elements that might at first seem entirely decorative do have a practical purpose too, such as the cast-polymer jellyfish clocks, which contain network printers, or the spirals, which separate the informal communication zone from the corridor.

The architects have addressed the challenge of organising a very complex space along a 200m-long central corridor axis by using these hyperreal elements. Meeting cells and workstations are arranged along this corridor, interspersed of course with the screens and shelving of the cartoon-like, oversized pieces of polystyrene foam, which set new standards in terms of what could be achieved in this material, especially in an office environment.

It was clearly worth it though, if only to answer the part of the brief that called for something showy and impressive, which has been answered with gusto. Zaytsev adds how there was a desire to 'make work a very enjoyable pastime'. This, coupled with Yandex being a 24-hour operation, is why in addition to the larger-than-life elements there is a variety of well-developed recreational and informal working areas, including a gym, cafeteria and lecture halls.

While Yandex used structural elements to inspire, over at Thai telecommunications provider dtac, design practice Hassell cleverly deployed materials to inspire, to much the same ends as Za Bor did with oversize shapes at Yandex. Explains Hassell principal Tanya Suvannapong: 'The client sought to develop and encourage creativity and enthusiasm. This leads to a focus on considered and consistent treatments rather than being defined through their function. This led to natural materials, especially timber, featuring heavily in the interior. Locally made cotton and silk and custom joinery were also used throughout the fit-out, both to suit the client's aesthetic design direction and their preference to support Thai products and designers. Despite the opulent appearance, efficiency in both the timeline and the budget was also a factor.

The principal aim of this new workplace is to communicate both to staff and visitors dtac's philosophy of 'play and learn'. This runs through every facet of dtac, from the atmosphere at its headquarters through to its merchandising and advertising. Central to this is, says Suvannapong, is making traditionally conventional spaces flexible enough through design to stimulate a creative response from the user and a memorable experience for the visitor.

Hence the headquarters' front-of-house environment becomes a lesson in flexibility. On one day there may be a local street-market stall set up in the reception floor and on another it can be transformed into a games arcade or hosting a community event. This is intended to both promote physical and brand interaction. One of the other key elements is the large, three-level void linked by a wide stairway, which operates as both a connective element and as a casual amphitheatre space, ideal for large meetings or company-wide presentations. The open spaces surrounding the stairs contain a minimum amount of fixed elements. As a result, the function of the space is simply defined through a series of platforms, again creating flexible environments.

There are some slightly unusual facilities to be found here, such as an indoor running track, band stage and a karaoke machine. 'This significant investment in staff recreational activities, intentionally seen as an adjunct to the workspace, lives up to the value placed on a holistic approach to staff wellbeing and enjoys the advantage of being perceived as tangible value-add for working at dtac,' says Suvannapong

Given that staff can spend the better part of their working day at the office, for early starters or late leavers looking to avoid the traffic jams of central Bangkok, the recreation can be a real boon. The fusion of modern corporate workplace with more unusual recreation activity was inspired by similar projects in Norway and Japan. Indeed at the dtac parent company HQ such an inspirational approach to workplace design saw a rise of more than 20 per cent in all the staff's key performance indicators. The scheme in Thailand was also in part a reference to the lifestyle choices their staff, the majority being under 30, would make.

Staff are encouraged to be mobile in where they choose to work, whether that's at their desk, in a meeting room, lounge or even outside on a terrace overlooking the city skyline. In essence, staff are encouraged to physically convey dtac's marketing slogan of 'Feel Goood' (sic) and one assumes, Be Inspiiiiired. The reception is also a focal point for AOL's Palo Alto HQ by San Francisco-based design practice Studio O+A. It had previously worked on transforming the old-school corporate aesthetic of dark finishes and dropped ceilings to an approach of honest materiality where exposed ceilings, concrete floors and stripped-back white walls are the order of the day in the rest of AOL's workspace at the same address.

Now in a follow-up scheme to the ground floor, a skateboard ramp spans the entire lobby and integrates a reception desk and lounge area. This plywood entry portal is an iconic symbol from when AOL first came into existence. Says Denise Cherry, principal design director with Studio O+A: 'The skate park and half pipes are a subtle reference to that Dogtown and Z Boys Eighties-era California. It also added a distinct sense of youth, vitality and new thinking.'

This is yet another example of campus culture transported to the workplace - even the outside with its boules area is more Ivy League than blue chip. The likes of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have spoken about the importance of how tech workplaces must be inspiring places to be and set new standards with how people work.

We've seen that across the world as Google reveals office after office that visually stimulates, and Microsoft sets new standards in activity-based working: get your job done wherever you want, as long as you are inspired to get it done. Studio O+A's interior design encourages cross-pollination not just across departments but across the many start-ups on the ground floor, including the Stanford Business School's incubator, management consultancy Medallia and cloud-computing company Cloud On.

'We wanted to create a space that encourages thinking and ideation throughout, whether via problem solving on whiteboard walls, discussions over an espresso at the coffee bar or through a large-scale event in the auditorium. Inspiring people is about providing that variety: by addressing all the different ways people work: sat on a sofa with a laptop, extreme quiet versus the white noise of a coffee shop.'

The common areas and circulation routes are intended to provide communal energy, to provide cross pollination: to make sure the like-minded creative techs in the building have the opportunity to experience those chance encounters that just might inspire the next million-dollar app or social media miracle. It's almost like a miniature version of Silicon Valley itself, that idea of a city within a city. The gym, cafe, yoga studio, bicycle docking station and helmet hire scheme are other definite nods to the lifestyles favoured by workers here.

Technology provider Citrix is also embracing this 'work anywhere' philosophy at its 1,530 sq m base at La Defense in Paris. Instead of an academic campus though, design practice Area Sq worked on creating a village centre complete with town hall, bus stops (represented by snug areas), library, a playground represented by break-out areas, even a village green, to create a sense of community and encourage interaction. This was playing on the idea of a global village, as individuals from the UK, France and Germany all come to work here.

As less than 50 per cent of them are based at this Paris office full-time, Area Sq created zonal spaces that encompassed a cafe, meeting rooms and a general space, rather than having too many workstations. James Geekie, head of design at Area Sq Regions says: 'Slowly companies are waking up to the reality that staff don't have to be sitting at their desks to be earning revenue for the business. With Citrix however, its brand philosophy is just this, so it meant we could design an environment which entirely embraced this vision for the future of the workplace.

'This project maximises the use of space while making it a fun, inspiring and productive place to be. Now when a person arrives in the office, rather than being greeted by rows of desks they will see a range of zonal areas in which they can meet, socialise, brainstorm or relax in. They are then able to choose to work in the space that will most efficiently meet their needs.'

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