Thursday, 7 April 2011

Cutting Corners at KPMG

Yesterday, I attended a tour of KPMG’s new Canary Wharf offices courtesy of The Office productivity Network (OPN). It was a full on day with presentations by the facilities, operation and branding teams of KPMG along with the design story presented by Angela Sasso of Swankey Architects (actually Swanke Hayden Connell Architects). The highlight of the day was the tour of the new facilities.

First impressions count at KPMG. The lobby is impressive but not exuberant, the welcome is slick and professional, the environment is fresh and light – all relevant to the subtle branding integrated into the building. As in many offices, the main workspaces where low key, 1600 mm bench desks, low partitions, and minimalist colour – perhaps a little too clinical not helped by the lack of planting and human touches a bit like a home that is being de-cluttered in order to sell. However, effort had been made to break up the serried ranks of desks by introducing quiet pods and cluster of 120° desk for the senior managers. The graphics in the main workspace are also minimalist compared to the wonderful manifestations used in the conference suite. But for me there are clearly two winning features of this space: the atrium and the informal meeting spaces.

A missing corner of the building forms the “cassette atrium”, termed cassette because some of the floors intrude into the atrium void like, well, open filing cabinets. I guess cassette sounds better than drawer but the phrase is totally lost on my two sons who are hard wired to their MP3s. But I forgive them the silly name, by cutting through some of the floors and introducing additional stair cases, the designers have created a wonderfully pleasing functional and well utilised space. The breakout spaces around the atrium were busy supporting interaction and the whole atrium space was alive and busy.

The designers paid special attention to the attributes that make up good breakout and informal interaction spaces. Angela abhors using pockets of left over pace to plonk a set of tables and chairs and call a breakout. The spaces are near primary circulation routes but not directly on them, they offer semi-privacy by either being behind corners or by using high backed banquette seating, they are near watering holes to provide extra purpose, and wi-fi and built-in power support extended laptop use – see my previous paper on this subject. Again these spaces looked well utilised whilst offering a pleasant place to be. The pre-move utilisation study indicated a need for more small meeting rooms, but KPMG are now finding there is a need for larger meeting rooms as small meetings take place in the atrium and informal meeting areas. I recall similar happened at GSK where the Street was preferred to the on-floor breakout areas, but more importantly this finding emphasises the need for utilisation studies to monitor the purpose and conditions of meetings rather than just the size and place – this casts more doubts on the relevance of the utilisation study in workplaces where the organisation was a shift in workstyle. But let’s get off that particular hobby horse and walk on.

Some statistics. The building is 400,000 sq ft with some 2,900 desks so a density of around 13 m² per desk which is reasonable for a HQ building. However, the building supports circa 4,500 staff, providing a dynamic density of around 8 m² per person so pretty good. The presenters referred to a blended share ratio of 1.4:1 staff to desks but it varies from 1:1 to 7:1 across functions.

I was surprised to hear, for a company that seems obsessed with business cases, that a full post occupancy evaluation and benefits realisation study had not been carried out. The annual staff survey showed that satisfaction with the working environment (temperature, light etc) at Canary Wharf was only 6% above the KPMG average. Either a) the space is not performing well, b) the other spaces also perform equally well, or c) the wrong question was asked. I would go with the later, the prize in KPMG’s new offices is not the environmental conditions but rather the level of interaction, the utilisation, and the subtle branding (let’s call it effectiveness, efficiency and expression for old times sake). The only coner cut is the one with the atrium.

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