New-age office architecture: Tradition gives way to collaborative workspace

AIRBNB: The two-storey bunk lounge at the Airbnb office in Gurugram | Photo: Dalip Kumar
Popular culture has so often linked the office cubicle with joyless drudgery. Canadian author Douglas Coupland, in the 1991 novel Generation X, likened such workstations to “veal-fattening pens”, secluded shelters where cattle are prepared for slaughter. Dilbert, the protagonist of the comic strip about white-collar jobs, once determinedly noted: “They can make me work in a little box but they can’t crush my spirit.” And the chief character of the cult film Office Space, in a moment of daredevil rebellion, unscrewed and tipped over a cubicle wall that was blocking his view.

It may have taken some decades but the end is nigh for this notorious feature of office architecture. The walls are coming down, as some of the fastest-growing companies in the world are challenging the fiercely guarded matrix of privacy, productivity and hierarchy. The identical rows of beige tables or labyrinthian arrangement of desks are increasingly being swapped for “breakout” spaces with vibrant bits and bobs of furniture that lend themselves equally to brainstorming and relaxation. Taking a leaf out of Google’s book, the Silicon Valley pioneer of the new generation of workspaces, more offices today are envisioned not simply as tidy rooms in which to pack employees, but as open oases for stimulating collaborations. Typically, the richer and younger the company, the flashier its workspace trappings. 

Airbnb’s first office in India feels like a secluded house you would like to rent for a peaceful vacation. It’s in stark contrast to its habitat in tumultuous Gurugram, the “millennium city” that may just have as many offices now as it has homes. This one is a mix of both. It’s a one-floor workplace with some rooms and almost no walls and which houses about 50 members of the “Airfam” — the employees work, eat, and rest under one roof. The big-screen workstations plonked on wide tables are separated by distance rather than partitions. There are no fixed seats either.

In a traditional set-up, this area could have held 200 employees. But then there wouldn’t have been space for table tennis, a two-storey bunk lounge and cosy couches. The company’s cafeteria is bigger than most city restaurants — it even features a parked truck whose trolley serves as a dining area. This is how Airbnb’s head office in San Francisco thinks work is done better. Their in-house teams collaborated with the Delhi arm of architecture firm Space Matrix to create an airy, green and gorgeous office with large windows that feels like a hotel suite. From quiet rooms to conference rooms — which are exact replicas of the best properties listed on Airbnb around the world — the process for right of use is as transparent as its glass doors. It’s for whoever books it first.

The Facebook ‘wall’ and a dhaba-style sitting area at its office in Gurugram | Photo: Dalip Kumar
Somewhat contrastingly, at least to an outsider, the 45,000 sq ft office of Facebook, also in Gurugram, feels like a tightly protected secret that only its numbered employees have access to. More security personnel are visible than heads behind computers and, much like its top-selling online service, the Facebook office architecture seems to be trying to strike a balance between the right to hide and the right to share. The rows of customisable sit/stand desks are interspersed with lounges, and differentiated meeting rooms that can fit one, two, or several people at a time. The leadership team is indistinguishable from the interns at work desks; the inclusiveness is further pronounced in the cafeteria where security, housekeeping and techies sit together for buffet meals.

As Indian startups grow, they have subscribed to the open-office philosophy too. 

XIAOMI: Lounge seating at the Xiaomi office in Bengaluru | Photo: Dalip Kumar
“It conveys transparency and the absence of hierarchy, which are big asks among today’s employees,” says Anurag Verma, senior director-HR for Flipkart, which evolved from a 2BHK to a three-building office in Bengaluru’s Embassy Tech Village. In these modern offices, flexibility is paramount, especially as team structures and sizes change based on the need of the hour. Conference rooms morphed into snug sleepover spaces during Flipkart’s recent busy Big Billion Days sale, so that employees could be “well taken care of, well fed and well rested”. There were also “bunker rooms”, massage chairs, zumba and gaming zone activities. 

The downside of such floor plans, understandably, “is the fact that openness comes at the cost of privacy and confidentiality,” as Verma says. Flipkart’s way to deal with this is to provide enough informal spaces and a large number of smaller-capacity meeting rooms. And in case an employee needs to get away from one of the long tables, Flipkart has demarcated Quiet Zones for the purpose. Or she can just plant herself on one of the swing-style chairs tucked away by a corner window. 

Right next to Flipkart’s office in the Embassy Tech Village in Bengaluru is that of Xiaomi India. In the five-floor office, its largely millennial employees can be spotted regularly moving about the open office or sitting in the breakout areas among puzzle-themed furniture. Also noticeable are the huge whiteboards that cover bare walls: the expansive writing boards are meant to fuel creativity during brainstorming sessions. Muralikrishnan B, chief operating officer, does not miss having an exclusive cabin. “(It) takes away the unnecessary hierarchy, so that every individual voice and idea is heard.” This work culture, he reckons, is among the reasons the Beijing-headquartered company has done well in India.

Not to be left behind, large, long-standing firms too have chosen to revamp their architecture. Inside the Tata Group’s headquarters in the 94-year-old Bombay House in Mumbai’s Fort, which was recently refurbished, the minimalist workstations embrace the future, while the boardroom with historic wooden details stays true to the group's heritage. A new lounge is the go-to venue for formal and informal meetings. Colourful wall art was created to distinguish each company office by the industry it belongs to. For instance, at Tata Steel, cold-rolled steel sheets were fashioned to represent the skyline of the Jamshedpur steel plant, while Tata Chemicals features Mendeleev’s periodic table and oversized petri dishes with resin art. 

Godrej: The Godrej India Culture Lab in Mumbai | Photo: Dalip Kumar
Similar artful references to the past and the future are built into the Godrej headquarters building in Mumbai’s Vikhroli, which was completed in 2015. Anubhav Gupta, chief design officer of its properties arm, says some of the furniture and decorative installations were made out of discarded factory materials. The company also pays tribute to the leafy suburb where it has for long existed by inviting the outside in: there are bursts of green with trees and sunlight that filters in through an enormous atrium, even if that last feature meant losing precious floor space. To appeal to a diverse set of employees, the 9.5 lakh sq ft office includes a grocery store, spaces for exhibitions and live acts, an urban farm and coffee shop. 

Modernisation is more challenging in certain sectors and cities but there is still willingness to try new things. Companies that had asked architect-designer Jasem Pirani, co-founder of MuseLab, to include private rooms in the design, warmed up to the idea of partly frosted or fluted glass. In Mumbai, especially, given constraints of space, incorporating a warm and cheerful reception area is a rare luxury. Pirani recently did up the 7,000 

sq ft space of a traditional pharmaceutical company in the city where the need for large storage areas got in the way of an open plan. He chose to suspend desk units from the ceiling such that they decluttered the floor. 

This sea change in office layouts, and indeed attitudes, has been fuelled by the desire to attract and hold the attention of modern employees. While redesigning the space for a venture capital firm in Bengaluru, design consultant Priyanka Shah-Bhandary observed that investors, with their proximity to the start-up culture, had even shed their suits for jeans. “The shift from formal to informal has become evident. You don’t have to dress the same way today as you did 15 years ago, and this is completely in line with design philosophies which say no to cubicles.” 

For the millennials who make up 70 per cent of Airtel’s workforce, the line between home and office is blurred, says Gautam Anand, the company’s chief people officer. Their workspace, located on the Delhi-Gurugram highway, has slowly chipped away at barriers, going from opaque cabins to glass ones and, finally, giving business heads the option to decline cabins. It’s not an easy change for all, says Anand, but the intimidation that one may feel working under the gaze of bosses turns into the familiarity of working alongside a colleague. “They start to get along on a first-name basis.” With the average age of employees coming down in India, the change is becoming part of an organisation’s brand identity.

Looking at this re-imagination of the office space, it seems like a bygone era when the success of an employee was measured by the size of his corner office.

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