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Designed for Life

AECOM’s new London head office was designed by its own in-house interior designers in consultation with a multidisciplinary team of experts, and has achieved a SKA gold rating for its environmental performance and for enhancing the health and wellbeing of its employees. We visited Aldgate Towers to discover how occupants are experiencing the team’s vision.

In October 2015, following the acquisition of URS,  global infrastructure services firm AECOM needed to consolidate the real estate of several London sites and bring the two companies together. Once the suitable building was identified as Aldgate Tower in the City of London, the vision was to redefine the culture of AECOM by instigating a complete change in the ways of working. To help manage this process, it was decided to use the organisation’s own in-house expertise to deliver the project, using a multidisciplinary team comprising interior designers, workplace strategy experts, MEP engineers, cost and project management consultants and FM and sustainability experts, all of whom would put employees’ working requirements at the heart of the design process. 

The vision was to bring together AECOM’s two legacy London offices into one central London location to enhance collaboration between teams and create a showcase environment that echoes the company’s brand of ‘built to deliver a better world’. “As a multi-disciplinary firm, the collaboration aspect is paramount as we can’t have silos” explains Jason Stubbs, AECOM’s Head of Interiors for the UK & Ireland. “For us it’s about being nimble and efficient to market and helping our clients’ achieve things quickly with high levels of excellence on design and delivery.”

Indeed, one of the first dividends of the in-house approach was that: “To deliver what would have taken 16 months if we did it traditionally with external consultants, took us just eight months; from finding the building, delivering the design, fitting it out and moving in, and the success of that was only evident in the end when you look at the number of people it involved.”

To facilitate this process a steering group was established which included representatives from across the business who met with the design team on a monthly basis to discuss ideas. The whole process was holistic, with Aimee Colville, Senior Designer at AECOM taking the brief with the leadership team and working with them in partnership to identify user groups and find out what they felt the finished environment should be like.

Colville explains: “What emerged was the idea that the AECOM UK head office should act as a showcase for our clients who should see for themselves the work that we do and how we provide a building we can both learn from and teach.”

The resulting workspace offers a range of amenities and protocols that help promote wellness within a highly flexible physical space that supports fully agile work patterns, encouraging occupants to work according to their personal preference, activity and varying requirements.

The difference is evident from the moment you arrive at AECOM’s reception area on the 16th floor which boasts great views of the City. There is no reception desk, but instead a coffee bar manned by concierges and hosts who greet you on arrival, more as if you are in a hotel environment rather than in a traditional office.

Explains Stubbs: “The whole idea is to create a more welcoming, informal multipurpose social space, which has meant not only a transformation for staff and visitors but for our FM team who did not have that kind of system up and running before.

“This necessitated a huge cultural change for FM, in going from a previous low profile approach when managing the environment to becoming very visible. For instance everyone in the building has access to an app where they can view all of the available facilities and who to email if there is a problem”, says Stubbs.

New environment
The new AECOM offices now houses around 1,050 hundred people, and is fully agile, with teams and departments sitting in designated neighbourhoods, with a choice of work settings and desking, 25 per cent of which can be used in either a standing or seated position. To enhance concentration, instead of desk phones, a unified communications system is accessed via the laptop and there is a range of collaborative project spaces, quiet rooms and meeting rooms available, which can be booked via an app, online system or staff access cards.

Part of the strategy behind the new design was in understanding what people are doing, why they are doing it, and giving them a choice of where they can work. For instance in the main offices area which spans floors 7, 8, 9 and 10, the neighbourhoods were created with the ratio of people to desks that suits their typical working needs; for instance the Strategy Plus team – AECOM’s dedicated workplace strategy, strategic briefing and interior design practice – and Interiors team, which consists of 40 members share just 22 desks.

Another important factor here was assessing team adjacencies and stitching neighbourhoods together with teams who would typically work alongside each other to create soft boundaries. For instance interior design buffer the architecture team and the project management buffer the cost management team, so if they’re working together on a project, both can bleed into each other’s environment and utilise shared resources.

To help facilitate these changes to ways of working, a number of employees were nominated as change champions at the start of the project. Throughout the design and construction period these people helped deliver space protocols and key messages of progress back to individual teams. AECOM also employed floor champions, who are trained to help with small things, for instance how to book a room or set up a presentation, as well as trouble shoot basic IT issues. This has, as much as possible helped to ensure a soft landing for occupants who have recourse to assistance without always having to resort to the more formal IT team support.

Explains Stubbs: “We’re upskilling people to understand how the environment works, and giving them the empowerment to help others.”

Break out areas
One of the most important design features in the new offices was the construction of an open, central staircase between the office floors – forged around spacious community spaces around the staircase that offer seating, amenities to promote relaxation and areas where individuals can collaborate or work alone. Staff can visit this area to find the good-quality coffee, herbal tea and sparkling and filtered water which are freely available in large kitchen areas located around the staircase, while an in-house cafeteria – known as The Grocer – serves healthy breakfast, lunch and snack options throughout the day.

As the design team admit, installing a staircase across several floors was an ambitious move, given the fact it would eat into the available office space, but the idea has paid off.

Explains Stubbs: “What you’ve seen in offices over the past decade in office design is big floor plates and little tea points dotted around, which means you’re only going to meet the 50 odd people that you work with, but here, everyone needs to come together.

“So if you’re going to take this much real estate and plug a hole in it, which would fit another 30 desks per floor, you must really want the benefit of collaboration. The design team also considered the time lost in traversing between floors using the main office lifts, which would have been significant over the life of the lease. Instead, the stair now encourage interaction and collaboration in a meaningful way.”

Occupant’s feedback

Much of the ideology behind the new offices was to help enhance the wellbeing of occupants, which is why it incorporates extensive planting schemes, fine air filters and high volumes of fresh air to achieve low CO2 and low VOCs across all of the floorplates and no employee is seated more than seven metres away from direct light from full-height windows.

So what do occupants make of the new workspace?

“We’ve just had the 100 day review (well it took place on day 130), as we wanted to include some additional data on how we were utilising the building,” explains Stubbs.

“We have change champions still embedded in every team , and we asked them to again engage with their teams to find out how things were going and the good news that it was mostly was positive with very few negatives.”

A few hiccups included some confusion regarding meeting room bookings for some from a technological perspective and the overriding popularity of the level 8 food offer means it is sometimes too busy, so the facilities team are working with the supplier to help make it more efficient.

Another niggle was the need for additional screens on the main open plan office environment where people are not currently utilising some of the break out furniture available, as the space feels too exposed.

“Another crucial element in utilising the new workplace is in instilling a level of respect for the new environment,” explains Colville.

To this end protocols were created within the workshops held during the project by the individual business units, which agreed on guidelines such  as not allowing conference calls in the open plan area as it’s so disruptive.

“What is interesting, and challenging about working on your own office environment is that it is permanently with you and Aimee and I and the rest of the design team are always on hand, for people to ask questions,” says Stubbs.

“But though we had a vision to create an amazing space, we can’t be the guardians all the time, which is why it’s up to the occupants to have those behaviours in place.”

One of the more immediate impacts is a noticeable improvement in the retention of staff and a lot of attention from new graduates who are keen to work in such an agile office, which now also includes a ping pong league.

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