As Rio Tinto boldly goes into the 21st century world of office space with its newly consolidated headquarters, Camilla Berens reports on the multinational mining group's voyage of discovery
by Camilla Berens
FM World magazine: 7 August 2008
The entrance to Rio Tinto's new offices in west London make you feel a bit like you're aboard the Starship Enterprise: it's all curved white lines, metallic panels and pristine efficiency. To the right of the reception desk is an 'induction area'. This is a cluster of PCs on a table that's overshadowed by a giant mushroom-shaped lampshade and ringed by the type of thin, high-backed chair favoured by Lieutenant Uhura. The whole effect leaves you feeling that you're not really dressed appropriately unless you're wearing a natty nylon space suit with trouser legs that are an inch too short.
It may have been little time coming but Rio Tinto has now boldly launched itself into the 21st century world of office space. At the end of last year, the Anglo-Australian mining giant consolidated all four of its main UK branches into a newly constructed block next to Paddington train station. The corporate change was both structural and cultural.
"Historically, the business has been run as a conglomerate: lots of big businesses under one umbrella but not really talking to each other," says Sean Jones, the company's FM. "It was felt that by improving our processes, we could make the business more efficient, create a better place to work and feel more like one organisation."
The project has been interesting, particularly when it comes to facilities management. "Moving to the new building was like a new business venture for me," Jones recalls. "Our old base at St James's Square still had cellular offices and they hadn't really heard of FM, so it was a huge change-management challenge." Jones was brought in 18 months ago to manage the task of moving the company into its new base. After 13 years in FM at the Prudential, he was ready to take on a new sector and a brand new building.
His first project was to carry out a full organisational review. "I wanted to make the most of maintaining the knowledge and skills of the people we have here but also bring in some new elements to help the transformation," he explains. All existing contracts were then put out to tender.
"Pretty much everything was up for grabs: catering, security, cleaning, maintenance, post room, front of house," Jones continues. "Delivery is now sub-contracted to niche providers offering one specific, quality, service." Then, there was the move itself. "Add the challenges of fitting-out of the new building, moving in and the change management of taking all the customers with us - some of whom were the most senior in the company - and it made an interesting and fun-packed year," he chuckles.
The building's reception area may look rather formidable but the interior office layout has been carefully designed to be as user-friendly as possible. Jones and his team worked closely with Rio Tinto at the planning stage and the collaboration has produced some interesting results.
"I've always believe you can do anything to create a fantastic building but if it's not fit for purpose for the people who use it, it becomes a bit of a white elephant," Jones says. The open-plan work areas look fairly unremarkable. Jones points out the desks are on the generous side and laptop connections have been designed to fit under the desk to allow more space on top. The whole office is Wi-Fi enabled for maximum flexibility and the latest IP technology allows staff to use their telephone extension wherever they're sitting. It's also very egalitarian. Everyone has the same sized space regardless of their seniority. But the variety of meeting rooms is a surprise.
The rear section of the building is a warren of rooms catering for different functions. Each floor has half a dozen sound-proofed 'telebooths' which provide drop-in meeting spaces or simply quiet rooms to work. The emphasis is on brevity of use. "There are no power sockets. So once your laptop battery runs out, you have to leave," Jones points out. "At the beginning, we were slightly worried that people would use these rooms as their private offices - hence the emphasis on short-term use." There are also larger rooms for internal meetings and super-plush rooms for meetings with external guests.
Besides these, there are rooms designed for video conferences, 'mixed areas' with seating, coffee machines and CNN news screens and several types of space for brainstorming sessions. Some of the brainstorming rooms have high tables and stools while others have squashy sofas, depending on what kind of brainpower is required.
One of the biggest surprises is the visitor suites - two bedrooms fitted out to hotel standard in the basement. These mainly cater for employees flying in from the company's offices in Australia: "They use the visitor suites to have a sleep and a shower. If you think that a hotel room in London is about £200 a night, it's a good cost saving."
The IT is about as cutting-edge as you can get for a corporate building. The theme for the company's new system is One Rio Tinto. "We've built everything around that idea," Jones explains. The One Card acts as a security pass, catering card (staff are provided with free meals) and key to activate the printers and photocopiers. The email-based booking system for meeting rooms is called One Place and the large archive storeroom in the basement is called One Store. The message is clear. Rio Tinto offices may have been a bit fuddy-duddy in the past but now they're embracing the 21st century.
There are some nice eco-friendly touches as well. These days, working for a company with a tendency to attract controversy may have its pitfalls but, with CSR being such a big deal, you're almost guaranteed to have an eco-friendly head office. Jones rattles off his eco-list: ISO 14001 accreditation; rainwater harvesting tank for the toilet flushing system; caterers chosen for their use of locally sourced ingredients, compostable coffee cups; an emphasis on video conferencing rather than air miles; and a 20-30 per cent reduction in waste paper through the use of One Cards. "The fact that you've got to swipe your card before anything can be printed off saves a lot of wasted paper," Jones explains.
Personal wastepaper bins have been phased out completely. All rubbish is put in centrally located waste points. A centralised stationery cupboard has also cut down on orders and 65 per cent of the items are made from recycled materials. "Even the biro casings are made from old mobile phones," Jones adds. The FM remit includes fleet, travel and information management, hotel bookings and subscriptions which means Jones is able to work on making green savings in quite a few areas. "We're always looking for ways to be more resourceful," he says.
The diligence involved in settling the staff into their new office is clear. Each desk wall still has an essential A4 guide to where everything is. For the first week, 'floor walkers' were also brought in to help the new arrivals find their way around. But with so much high-tech wiring running around the building, you suspect the gremlins can't be far away. When FM World visited, one of the lifts was out of action and the swipe card point on the basement patio door was preventing people from getting back inside. By and large though, everything seems to be running smoothly. "We recognised from day one that not everything would work exactly how we wanted it to," Jones says. "But there aren't many things we had to change and I can't say there was anything that was a complete failure."
Rio Tinto is very proud of its décor in the main entrance. The white walls are interspersed with panel, each made from metals mined by the company. "It's a more subtle type of branding," Jones explains. This made me wonder if the move towards a new office culture has been as understated. It must have been a big leap for many of the longer-term employees to move to such a starkly 21st century building.
Jones admits that change management has been one of his biggest challenges. But he says he's confident that everyone is gradually coming around to the benefits of a cutting-edge workspace. "We know we're not going to change everyone overnight. But we're gradually encouraging people to behave in a different way and that becomes common practice with a degree of peer pressure," he says.
I'm sure it's all done with the best intentions, but with hindsight, I felt that sometimes the ambient mood could be a bit overbearing. Every new visitor is required to watch an eight-minute induction film even before they get through the reception. If you arrive by bike, there's another induction film about the company's 'cycle store'. At this point you'd probably start to wonder if you were ever going to get into the building at all. If this is the introduction, it also makes you wonder what it's like working in the building all day. For the sake of the employees, I hope it's more Captain Kirk than Big Brother.
FM Quick facts
- Rio Tinto is named after the company's first mine, a Spanish copper mine named after a local red-coloured river or rio tinto
- Material mined by Rio Tinto include: coal, uranium, aluminium, gold, silver, diamonds, talc and salt
- Rio Tinto-mined iron ore was used in the construction of the Olympic stadium in Beijing
- The company is one of the main sources of the pink diamond market
Names and numbers
- Total square footage: 105,000
- Staffing: The company employs around 65,000 people in more
- than 50 companies. Last year, it
- made a record profit of £3.8 billion.
- The FM team numbers 11
- Catering: Lexington provide
- catering and vending and hospitality
- Cleaning: Mitie Cleaning Services
- Logistics (post, copy shop, couriers, printers and resource areas): TNT
- Security: Wilson James
- Maintenance fabric and plan: Platinum Facilities Management Services (PFMS)
- Reception and switchboard helpdesk: Portico