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Rules of employee engagement

LiveMint logoLiveMint 17-09-2017 Aparna Piramal Raje

If there is a single idea that defines workplaces in India today, it is collaboration. Never before have co-workers, in any given office, had so many options for places to huddle with each other. High-backed sofas, bar-stools or café-style seating—all are an attempt by companies to re-invent themselves, and their workspaces, and mimic the free-flowing atmosphere of a lounge or café. The idea is to provide spaces for informal dialogue in a corporate work environment.

Although the spirit of collaboration is universal, its expression is not. Like any over-arching ideology, every believer’s interpretation is slightly different. PepsiCo’s office in Gurugram, Haryana, which it moved into in November 2016, is a case in point. The corporate headquarters of the Indian arm of the food and beverage multinational illustrates the company’s practical and technology-driven approach to collaborative working.

Informal spaces for breaks.

Balancing openness and privacy

The seating plan reflects management’s pragmatism towards privacy. Unlike many contemporary open-plan work environments that have eliminated territorial boundaries, PepsiCo decided to retain a few cabins for senior managers, and provide an assigned seat (and quite a generous-sized desk) to everyone else.

Since the re-location entailed consolidating nearly 1,000 employees from five distinct locations in Gurugram into one building, the core team of employees who worked on the interior fit-out did not want to push the envelope by introducing a new practice of flexible, unassigned seating. “Flexi-seating makes sense in a consulting environment when you may not be in office most of the time, but not in ours. When you keep on changing seats, it is very disorienting for everybody,” says Avantika Susan Nigam, associate director, human resources.

Seating location was instead leveraged as a tool to promote a specific form of collaboration between cross-functional teams. “We have ‘embedded’ teams that support each other with the teams that they support. For example, my team which supports finance will sit in finance. Similarly my team members who support R&D (research and development) sit with them. So in that sense, it is mixed seating,” says Nigam.

Shared leadership space was another design principle to maximize spatial efficiency. “When a (private) office is empty, our leaders are very comfortable to allow anybody to come in, sit and have a chat inside their rooms. It is an informal culture and this works both ways,” adds Nigam.

Like most open-offices, workstations are flanked by enclosed meeting rooms—as many as 77 rooms, seating 350 people between them. Configurations differ, with 1-20-seater meeting rooms, telephone booths, and the option of combining rooms in some cases.

A selection of high-backed sofas and armchairs has been judiciously placed, in three informal spaces, for tea and coffee breaks. The design and layout of these breakout spaces are less visually inspiring than in other offices.

A device to book a meeting room.

Technology to support work culture

Sometimes the branding hand is overplayed. Workplace branding and graphic elements rely too much on digital screens and come across as generic, for example. But these are relatively minor considerations. Where the workspace falters on aesthetic creativity, it scores on technology. “If you don’t complement the open office with digital technology, it really won’t work,” says Suhail Ghai, chief information officer, highlighting an often-overlooked axiom of modern workplace planning.

Each meeting room is “a self-sustaining suite for collaboration”, fitted with a large TV screen, integrated sound and camera and is compatible with Skype, says Ghai. Laptops can be connected without a cable in larger rooms. In addition, there are four tele-presence rooms, for “seamless global communication” through higher resolution video-conferencing. There is a digital command centre for “social listening”, monitoring customer feedback, social media and the effectiveness of marketing campaigns.

Technology reinforces meeting room protocol and discipline. A digital meeting locator along with interactive signage helps employees know which meeting rooms are available at any point in time. “You can walk up and book a room, using your employee card, on a device outside the room itself. Or you can book a room online. The good part is that if you actually don’t use the room, it will unblock the room and make the device available for others,” says Ghai.

Crèche which can hold 15 children. Photographs by Pradeep Gaur/Mint

For Suchitra Rajendra, vice-president, human resources, technology propels employee mobility and flexibility. “A lot of my team sits in Mumbai and there is absolutely no problem because we are so connected now.”

The cameras do not stop at the meeting rooms. For first-time mother and supply chain manager Shreya Rai, the live-access cameras at PepsiCo’s in-house crèche allow her family to keep a remote eye on their toddler daughter who checks into the crèche daily. “Instead of feeling worried about what your child is doing at home, I know she is safe downstairs and I can always go there if something happens,” says Rai. The crèche can accommodate up to 15 children from the age of six months to three years.

Proximity is a company-wide benefit. Reduced geographic barriers have resulted in faster project completion times. “Business metrics are very important. If a brand team comes back to me and says this office has enabled us to be on time, with no project delays for a launch, that is a very powerful return on investment,” says Rajendra.

More than ever before, designing a new office is all about understanding each company’s unique work culture and processes, and using design thinking to take them forward.

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Take feedback

When a re-location affects over 1,000 employees, getting an entire workforce motivated about their new workplace is a sizeable human resource challenge. PepsiCo responded to this challenge by inviting employees to set the terms for rules-of-engagement in the new facility, well ahead of the actual move itself.

These processes were defined by a 50-member core team of employees, each of whom volunteered to contribute to the office re-location project, during the ongoing fit-out. The large team size reflects the company’s strategic intent to establish a sense of shared ownership, and resolve the minor details that affect everyday work life.

“We had a campaign saying ‘You want to move, then make a move’, and ‘move it, shake it, be the mover, be the shaker.’ So people were leaning in and self-nominating. That led to a much more positive vibe versus just a project team managing the move,” says Suchitra Rajendra, vice-president, human resources.

Thirteen different sub-groups within this 50 member-team were each responsible for distinct areas, such as eateries, branding, communication, technology transportation, the crèche and other workplace policies, says Avantika Nigam, associate director, human resources. “We had one common WhatsApp group. Much decision-making got closed on that group. We would share a photograph, everybody would comment saying ‘yes, no, done’,” she says.

Given the tech-intensive nature of the facility, a downloadable app was also created to help employees acquaint themselves with their surroundings. “It is a self-help tool. You have to tell it which meeting room and what equipment you are using, it will tell you how to start, how to switch it off. It is more intuitive than posters or other communication,” says chief information officer Suhail Ghai.

Reverse mentoring was another technique to help older employees get accustomed to the new facility. A youth committee (YCom) composed of nine millennials from each function served as “tech champions”, who were responsible for training older colleagues on new equipment, adds Ghai.

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