Agency management: Creative spaces

The layout of an office can be key to encouraging staff productivity. Alex Black looks at how three agencies fare.

What was the best office you ever worked in? Was it the one with the beanbags? The one with the giant fish tank? The one with the free bar?

These may have been key factors to you, but did they mean your agency got the best out of you and your colleagues?

The answer, unless you were an alcoholic or beanbag fetishist, is probably not. Keeping creativity at its peak requires a more carefully planned environment.

So PRWeek asked Iain Russell, chief executive of the Intellectual Assets Centre (IAC), to run the rule over the offices of three PR agencies: Bristol-based integrated agency Bray Leino, London consumer shop Frank PR and the 100-strong Red Consultancy.

Russell's brief was to assess their ability to get the most out of staff. He used five IAC guidelines:

Here's how the three matched up.

- Key members of staff should be in the centre, where the highest number of people can be within their orbit

All places in which people congregate should be central

There should be as few private offices as possible

Kitchens, photocopiers and printers should only be reached by circuitous journey, forcing employees to interact

Create open plan areas where senior employees sit near newest employees

BRAY LEINO

Bray Leino MD Roberta Fuke: Our consumer teams sit with B2B specialists and every now and again we move people around, so people get to know each other.

My office is on the ground floor and faces the front drive. It is central to the building, and staff pass by to get to other rooms.

The general office downstairs is where the majority of the PR teams work. This has more senior team members in each central unit, so each 'group' of desks adheres to the principle of enabling everyone to gravitate towards them. Also, this room is central so everyone passes through this area.

The desks are set up in such a way that people can feel they have their own workspace without anyone else entrenching on theirs. Everyone sits near a large sash window, either looking out on to the gardens, or over the downs.

Rooms range from three to ten people depending on size, staff and teams are split between B2B and B2C and staff are also split across practice: this means they are forced to move around and interact. Staff on the ground floor are also equidistant from both communal kitchen areas, and printers, stationery and so on are all housed in a separate room so everyone has to move around to get there, as well as having to go through the central office to enter the room.

We are also about to unveil new branding, which will be reflected throughout the building in early 2008.

The expert's view: Bray Leino is housed within a 19th-century four-storey merchant's mansion in the affluent Bristol suburb of Clifton. The office space and size is restricted by the style of the building but it still has around 7,000 square feet of space.

The current layout of the functional office space has the majority of staff seated at individual desks with the desk acting as a barrier between them and the office.

For creative workers, the number one predictor of job performance is having the ability to concentrate in their own work-space. Each individual appears to have a delineated space with little distraction from others. Some computer screens seem to block some workers' faces from others though. While this does mean concentration will be paramount, there should be a balance between having 'own space' and not being cut off from other individuals.

There is a great area in the entrance hall exuding a modern e-cafe feel with a computer bench and plasma screens.

The exterior of the building is beautiful, but there is little internally that would provide a visitor with the clear under-standing that Bray Leino is a creative agency. The new branding and colour will help with this.

FRANK PR

MD Andrew Bloch: We try to make the layout as non-hierarchical as possible, so although team leaders are in the thick of things, there is no set 'central position' for them. We move staff around every few months.

We wanted a real buzz in the main room (we even consulted an acoustics engineer to help increase the background noise), but you have to have quiet rooms too for when people need to really concentrate.

Myself and the management team are in one corner, but the layout is so open we didn't feel we had to sit right in the centre. We like clients to see what they're buying, so the reception area is in the main room. We've always had interesting boardrooms (the first two offices had an ambulance and a beach), hence the bedroom. It's a memorable space.

The expert's view: Frank PR's approach is to concentrate more staff around each other. The open plan space has been broken up with clever design. There is a central console-type approach with a large number of desks adjacent to and opposite each other in the centre.

Our guidelines recommend that the places where people tend to congregate should be central. Frank has done the opposite, but these spaces don't give the impression of being distinct and separate. Frank does not have private offices; just separate meeting rooms.

Photocopiers etc are placed on colourful picnic tables next to the desk areas, forcing people to move around. And the meeting areas are not cordoned off.

The blackboard-fronted banks of cupboards capture ideas and all sorts of valuable information.

It may not be easy to concentrate in the console arrangement. However, privacy is found in one of the adjacent breakout areas. The atmosphere is one of having fun, with plenty of space and walls adorned with stimulating photos, pictures and bookshelves with files in them - an open plan space with hustle and bustle.

The display of awards and certificates suggests there is a pride in the creative performance. All in all this is a good example of the 'caves and commons' approach of much of European architecture in the past 20 years.

THE RED CONSULTANCY

Mike Morgan, CEO: We attract clutter, boxes and product deliveries and with limited storage space our office manager and his team do a great job. Believe me - the office is not normally this spic and span!

Our bar and upstairs area get used both by teams and clients - last month we held a burlesque PR event there for Johnson & Johnson.

We might look a bit clinical in the pictures but when the place is busy, it buzzes.

The expert's view: The layout of Red's office is in 'nests' where a number of workers are sat at adjacent desks, separated from others by office furniture. In effect they are cut off from the group on the other side of the 'barrier'. The architecture of the building means there are a number of brick pillars to break the room up. This helps create distinct spaces and has a 'cosier' feel than a large open plan office.

Everything looked very tidy, so staff could spend time within their own 'nests' without bypassing others. The corridors were well delineated but it might be that Red could benefit from a little more 'chaos'. The barrack-like arrangement of the nests, with the office equipment acting as barriers to the nest next door, might be replaced by more of a 'yellow-brick road'-type arrangement that forces people to travel through neighbours' spaces.

Desk areas make good use of natural light, and the glass walls of the meeting area allow group work without disturbing the concentration of others.

While the 'nests' may restrict communications, they do allow privacy. I would say the design at Red has allowed for the open plan to be split up and does help people to personalise their work areas.

However, breaking up the nest arrangements might inspire even more collaboration. Knowledge management is about people interacting, and the design is a key element in 'engineering' that process.

There is a super congregation area but Red might think about having more break-out facilities nearer to the working areas. Workers might need two or three settings to cope with multi-tasking.

The bar area is chic, and it means senior people can sit down with others and chat about things going on in the company.

The use of colour throughout the space is intriguing. Red is often taken as being a very masculine colour, but this agency appears to have a young staff group with many women. The gender mix could be one of the things the owners might wish to bear in mind when thinking about the design and seating.

One other thing: if I was a stranger I am not sure how much I could pick up about the culture or values of Red from sitting in its reception area.

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