Recent times have seen Skandia's UK division focusing on two major pursuits - the reorganisation of staff and refurbishment of its workspace. Camilla Berens looks at how the change programme has helped the firm to improve its overall performance
by Camilla Berens
23 October 2008
The words sailing and pensions don't often come together in the same breath. Skandia is best known as a specialist in pensions and investments but it also has a long association with the sea. For the past 14 years, the company has sponsored Cowes Week and more recently backed the British sailing team all the way to their multi-medal-winning performance at the Beijing Olympics. (Seven golds, no less).
Over the last two years, the UK division of the company has been focussing on improving its own performance. At the end of 2006, the firm embarked on a change programme that involved a major redistribution of staff around its Southampton headquarters. The project also provided an ideal opportunity to smarten up its workspace. "At that point the building was looking quite tired," says the firm's head of FM, Steve Cox. "The project provided a great opportunity to reorganise and refurbish - and introduce a few innovative ideas as well."
Before moving to Skandia, Cox spent seven years with FM firm Coflex. The consulting side of his work took him to a number of different European countries and across a variety of sectors including telecoms, insurance, IT, banking and local government. This background, combined with his work as an external tutor at the College of Estate Management has brought him into contact with a wide range of office designs and concepts. "The Skandia project was an opportunity that doesn't always come along," he says. "So we brought in a local space planning consultancy and we tried to be as imaginative as possible."
The plan was simple enough - to refurbish all seven floors and rig out the company with more up-to-date office furniture and computers. The process was made simpler by the fact that Skandia had an empty office block up for let nearby and this was used to temporarily house staff while each floor was being 'refreshed'. But it wasn't all plain sailing. "The business was still formulating its size and shape as we were planning the new layout for each floor," Cox explains. "In some cases, a business unit might want to bring in another 35-40 people and if one thing changed, then almost everything else has to be changed as well."
Despite the difficulties, Cox took it upon himself to introduce another dimension to the challenge. "We wanted to look at the whole issue of space," he explains. "Historically, space had been allocated by job grading but we didn't think this was a modern way of doing things." The main aim of the new approach was to reduce the area for each member of staff from 130 sq ft to around 100 sq ft. Directors were allowed to keep their office cubicles but desk space for the rest of the staff is now much more egalitarian. The road towards this transition was smoothed by the promise that the area for each business unit would be tailored to its particular needs. "We tried to avoid a vanilla solution," Cox adds. "We wanted to have a uniform look to the floors but within that we ensured that the furniture and layout would meet the needs of each unit for the next three to four years."
Cox admits that there were pockets of resistance to the changes. "It was a push and pull effect," says Cox. "When we first started, there was a lot of push coming from us but once we'd established the new layout, we found that it turned into more of a pull. People started to ask when their floor was going to be done."
Although desk space areas have been reduced, the introduction of more up-to-date computer equipment has meant that most people now have just as much desktop space as before. One of Cox's best ideas was to introduce flat screen computers which are mounted on an adjustable arm. The fitting allows the user to change the height and angle of the screen with ease. It's a good design which not only frees up space under the screen but literally takes the headache out of hot-desking.
The first impression of the refurbished office is that it's all remarkably orderly and ship-shape. Gone is the mish-mash of desk formations, division screens, shelves and meeting tables. Cupboards are now either desk height or pushed to the side of the room to create a clear line of sight across each floor. Desks are lined in neat avenues either side of a central walkway and a team of PAs has been brought together to ensures that personal clutter is kept to a minimum.
Another interesting addition is use of glass partitions and manifestations. The row of offices and meeting rooms on the ground floor are made of glass to maximise the use of natural light and stacked at a 10 degree angle along an external wall. It's a nice touch and gives each business unit its own shape and identity without compromising the overall drive for more streamlined effect. In the same way, manifestations aren't just used to stop people walking into the glass walls but to brand the space.
Bright and breezy
Another notable improvement is in the lighting. The ceilings have been fitted with the latest Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers specification units and although they're a lot less energy intensive, the effective is a brighter overall feel to the working areas. "The old lighting gave a bit of a cave effect because it was recessed up into the ceiling," Cox explains. "The new lighting protrudes downwards with a reflector above it. Although the actual lighting level is pretty much the same as before, it gives the feel of a brighter, more dispersed light."
The energy efficient lighting is one of several efforts Cox and his team have made to improve the company's green credentials. Cox made sure that all the old office furniture was stripped down and recycled by a local company. "There was quite a lot of interest in what we were going to do with the old furniture and it was good to be able to tell people that it was being sorted out properly," he adds.
As far as internal recycling is concerned, the company has had a policy in place for some time but since the refurbishment work, Cox has upped the anti by removing desk bins. "This can be quite a paper-intensive environment, so we've taken away the bins and put in recycling stations instead," he explains. "Health and safety like it because it makes people get up from their desk and stretch their legs."
To support this drive, the company's directors have also agreed that all meetings should now be paperless. "Everything is now done in PowerPoint," says Cox. When FM World visited in early autumn all but one floor had been refurbished. The reorganisation might be almost complete but Cox sees the project as a work in progress. He has formed a small working group of senior managers who have undertaken to visit a number of companies - including Rio Tinto's new offices (featured in FM World, 7 August 2008) - to get some inspiration for future ideas. In the medium term, Cox and his team are keen to encourage the company to consider developing more flexible working arrangements. "We're on a journey," he says. "We're looking at how to use hot-desking more effectively as well the potential of introducing home-working and remote working into the equation."
In the same boat
The burning question is how do the staff feel about the changes? Cox says there has been an improvement in retention and productivity figures since the refurbishment but the upheaval must have been fairly traumatic, particular for the more long-standing staff. Cox told FM World that before the re-shuffle some people had been working at the same desk for 15 years. To be uprooted, put in a temporary space and then replanted into an office with a completely different layout, IT system and corporate structure must have been quite a big deal for those who aren't comfortable with change.
Undoubtedly everyone will benefit in the long run. The changes are a considerable improvement in terms of administrative efficiency and the new office desks and chairs are well designed and easy on the elbows and backside. But Cox and his team may have missed a trick here. For all its professional sleekness, the office lacks charm. The lighting may be brighter but the colour scheme is relentlessly grey. The manifestation designs add texture but they only reinforce the lack of colour in the place.
The overall effect only serves to reinforce the stereotypical image of finance being a rather soulless business. If employees are to be actively discouraged from nesting and introducing the Gonk family to their workstations, they need to have something to make them feel a bit more at home. There are already signs of rebellion: a Bhudda mask has appeared on a wall pillar, an old fashioned hotel reception bell now sits sardonically on a PA's desk.
Rio Tinto successfully brightened up its gloomy HQ stairwells with giant, brightly coloured, photographs of its global mining operations. Pensions and investments don't inspire much in the way of imagery but Skandia could certainly make a bigger deal of its relationship with the sailing community. Some photographic highlights from the Team GB's exploits in China or one or two of the big races at Cowes Week would introduce a uniform splash of colour and make Skandia's offices feel less like place for robots and more like a space for busy human beings.
Camilla Berens is a freelance journalist
Head office area: 106,000 sq ft
Total staff at head office: 1,150
In house FM team: 28
Office space consultants: PiMS Workspace Furniture/flatscreen bracket suppliers : TSI
Office furniture recycling: Green Works
Catering: Restaurants at Work
Cleaning/landscaping: Quality Assured Services
Engineering services: ISS Aviance
Vending: Simply Drinks
Travel: Reed & McKay Travel
Security: PCL Whitehall Security Group
Fleet/Vehicle maintenance: Inchcape
Reception/health and safety: in house