Open-access content 3rd November 2008
Rio Tinto's major project delivered a modern open plan environment reflective of the firm's ambition to foster a culture of collaboration
by Adam McNestrie
06 November 2008
BIFM Awards Winner: New Build
The common thread running through this change programme is unity. It wanted to renovate itself across the board: from coffee cups, to workspace culture, to office location, to branding - right through to which operations could call themselves Rio Tinto. The firm's facilities manager Sean Jones said: "The move was part of a whole change programme which is about learning from each other and working together - it was the physical manifestation of the drive to make Rio Tinto a more collaborative company."
In 2006 when senior management sanctioned the project staff were based at four different UK locations: London's St James's Square, Chiswick, Guildford and Bristol. The workspace was traditional: cellular, hierarchical, cumbersome. Jones talked about a "steady state" which had lasted for 10 or 15 years. The December 2007 move to a new consolidated premises in Paddington, west London, with the capacity to accommodate up to 600 staff was "a revolution... ten years of change in one". Gone were cellular offices and heavy-handed hierarchy. Desktop computers, fixed telephone lines, wires: much of the paraphernalia of the modern office was jettisoned.
The offices are aggressively open-plan; the whole building fitted with Wi-Fi and "follow me" IP telephony. Desk-space is generous and the docking stations for the laptops that are almost exclusively used by Rio Tinto staff have been specially designed to minimise the space that they take up. Tidy-desk policy has been taken to the next level: personalisation of desk-space is discouraged and with the specially designed docking stations and wireless technology, it is normal for workspaces to be almost completely clear.
You won't find I Love New York mugs overflowing with pens and novelty biscuit holders at Rio Tinto. It's just another part of the smooth pristineness of the office and its unapologetic egalitarianism. The head of global business services has the same set up as the administrative assistant who started last week. The meeting rooms have been designed with flexibility in mind as well. There is a meeting room for every purpose. Even the language ("a new vocabulary of space") has been specially tailored to Rio Tinto's purposes. Staff can choose from capsules, telebooths, meet-ins, meet-outs and brainstorms depending on their particular needs.
And the design gives more than just a cursory nod to sustainability as well. The building is ISO 14001 accredited and it's not difficult to see why. Headline features include a rainwater harvesting tank hooked up to the toilet flushing system and an automated, photosensitive light dimming system. Less flashy, but as important are the compostable coffee cups, the omission of personal wastepaper baskets, the default two-sided printing, the refusal to provide employee car-parking and the provision of changing facilities for cyclists.
Jones attributes the success of the building to the continuous reciprocal flow of information between designers and the FM team. "A holistic approach was adopted: the FM function worked closely and in tandem with the group property and design team throughout."
This need to bridge the abyss that often separates the design process from the operational requirements of the staff was addressed by constantly asking: "How well is the building design aligned with the work principles, etiquette and standards of the staff?"
What is perhaps most distinctive about the Rio Tinto fit-out is its Russian doll approach. From the reworking of five niche research areas into one, to the dissolving of cellular office space into open-plan, to the consolidation of four workplaces into one, to the application of the Paddington principles on a global scale - the same impulse towards unification is evident, with each level nested under the other, making its contribution to the whole.
The same reorganisation of workspace and work culture is taking place at a global level. Rio Tinto Paddington is being established as a sort of world standard. Salt Lake City has already been reorganised along the same lines and Montreal is to follow suit soon. All this is running parallel to a rebranding exercise which is seeing various subsidiaries and satellites absorbed by the Rio Tinto brand. The successful integration of the fit-out into this overarching narrative is what impresses most about Rio Tinto. FM and design are playing a central role in forging a coherent, cohesive company from something previously diffuse and disparate.