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Fresh Mintel

The design of market research firm Mintel’s new London offices reinforces the company’s innovative approach to agile working and its flat management structure

19 April 2012


Some argue that as soon as something is declared ‘cool’, it’s no longer quite as cool as it was at the beginning of the sentence in which its coolness was declared. By its very nature, cool is volatile and elusive. So it is with perhaps understandable pride that Peter Haigh, chief executive at Mintel, informs me that one particular blogger has dubbed his company’s new London premises “the coolest office in the world”.

And certainly, Mintel’s workspace at 11 Pilgrim Street in the City of London is, well, less than traditionally presented. For example, visitors will soon notice the Tardis meeting room (complete with barbers’ chairs) in one corner and an American caravan (dispensing hot beverages) in another. You’ll also find 1950s’ wallpaper, plastic post boxes, ‘cuddly’ Daleks and gnome tables.

But all of this is perhaps to linger too much on the quirky elements of the office. Taken as a whole, there’s a lightness to the place and a sense of relaxed interaction between staff from the company’s different departments. Which is exactly how they wanted it.

Founded close to four decades ago to provide food and drink research, these days the Mintel market intelligence brand spans the globe with more than 500 full-time employees working in eight countries and across 10 offices. Its analysts provide expertise in areas as diverse as leisure, consumer goods, beauty, retail, financial services, sales promotion and social trends (to reinforce the latter, banners in the new break-out area declare that, from 2015, “over-55s will become the most coveted and influential marketing demographic”).

Back in 2008, Mintel was renting 1,672 square metres (18,000 square feet) of office space in London’s Long Lane. This was split into several different work areas, with some employees not seeing their colleagues from other departments for days, if not weeks. The building simply did not lend itself to interactions between staff. Add to that a lack of meeting rooms, insufficient collaborative space and limited room for paper storage, and you had a workplace that was failing in its basic role.

In itself, these problems may well have provided the necessary catalyst for change, but just as important was the development of the company’s business, which was leading to the frequent requirement for re-organising workspace every six months or so.

“We’d outgrown our old offices so much that we’d burrowed through to the building next door,” says Haigh. “We had a lot of small, cellular offices and it was a real rabbit warren with small groups of workers who rarely interacted outside of their own teams.”

In the new offices at 11 Pilgrim Street, the physical boundaries that limited social interaction at the company’s old headquarters have been replaced by a light, colourful and, above all, hierarchy-free working environment. The two floors of 929 square metres each (10,000 square feet) are both open plan, with a variety of flexible meeting rooms. Instead of individual desks, benches allow for the company’s approach to agile working – of which more later.

Haigh talks about the move process with a sense of wonder. Unusually for a chief executive, he has an academic interest in FM – his dissertation was on business relocation. The London office relocation was therefore more than a logistical exercise; it offered him the opportunity to put academic theory into practice.

Working closely with workplace consultancy Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA), Haigh began  considering locations for the new site, taking into account important metrics such as employee travel time. Haigh was keen to ensure that the new location was no more than a 10-minute walk from the previous office – a requirement derived from AWA’s survey of Mintel’s London staff. Among employees, it was clear that adverse reaction to the prospect of relocation shot up with the prospect of commuting times increasing by any more than ten minutes on top of the time it took to reach the old office.

Together with project manager Helen Guest, AWA’s Andrew Mawson was involved throughout the process. For him, the data gathered from the staff surveys was key. “It’s actually what most companies don’t do,” he says, “but it’s analysis that’s really important.”

For Haigh, the results of the survey have an important impact
on the design. “We want people to enjoy being here, and in that I think we’ve succeeded,” says Haigh. “The process of research and factoring in employee feedback was absolutely huge and I know that organisations can find that difficult. I certainly learnt a lot about change management along the way.”

Haigh explains how introducing a third party to the process paid off in several unexpected ways. “We employed AWA to work alongside our architects and builders, and what that taught us was the importance of involving our people. The communication channels that Helen set up between us and our staff were very helpful, and the survey was revealing. I didn’t realise quite how much our staff cared about their working environment,” he says.

A group of champions from each of the teams was created and the relocation team helped them to understand what was to change, why, how and when. The project was more about people than just a new office so these champions, the work they did with their teams and the integrated project team were all keys to the overall success.

The result of this attention to detail was that everyone was able to start work very quickly on day one and there has been a short bedding-in time. “The ‘snagging list’ of issues we had to deal with when we moved in was extremely short, and the work we put in to understand how people want to work has massively paid off,” says Haigh.

One of the big drivers for Mintel was socialisation. “It’s critical to us to be a flat organisation where myself, John Weeks [Mintel’s chairman] and the rest of the executive team aren’t seen as particularly special, that we’re just here to help staff do their jobs. If we’re approachable, we can get things done in a more natural, quicker way. So the whole office has been designed to reflect that.”

If attendance levels are anything to go by, the new office is a hit with staff. From measuring the same length of time before and after the relocation, the company has established that staff absenteeism has dropped by half since the move. One member of the IT team has even remarked that the office is “much better than my home”.

Perhaps surprisingly, it’s the very openness of the office space that has bred this contentedness among staff. Apart from the lockers, used for storing personal belongings, the personal space for each member of staff changes on a daily basis. So the IT system is designed to allow people to set up their desk anywhere in the office – when they plug their PC into the nearest workstation, the network will automatically know who the individual is and where they’re working, routing phone calls through as required. From a Mintel perspective, this means an individual in marketing, for example, can sit with a content specialist, in order to learn more about a given market.

Says Haigh: “One issue we were keen to address was the need to work cross-functionality. We’re always developing new products and new markets, so our people are constantly dealing with change. The more that staff in different departments know what their colleagues in other departments are doing, the better.”

In fact, this ‘mix-and-match’ approach has been enshrined in the company’s new agile working policy. Staff are required not to sit at the same desk from one day to the next, a policy advocated by AWA that has made quite a difference. Says Haigh: “Each department has their own ‘anchor zones’ within which their department is broadly based, but beyond that, we have a rule that people don’t sit in the same place the next day. They have to move around and get to know other staff – analysts, marketers, and so on.”

For Haigh, it’s important to highlight staff expertise to clients. “We’ve got lot of bright people. Our salespeople, for example: the more they’re educated about the content we’re working on, the more successful they are going to be.”

Perhaps understandably, this was a difficult policy to sell to staff. But the work of the champions, helping people to understand and see the potential, combined with the extra space and the more pleasant working environment, the initiative has borne fruit. “We now have fewer formal meetings. What really greases the wheels is the ad-hoc conversations people are having,” says Haigh.

The concept of a flat management structure has been reinforced by the decision not to allocate any particular ‘anchor zone’ for the company’s executive team. Hence on any given day, workers will find Peter Haigh or Mintel chairman John Weeks setting up on the desk next to them. “This was really important to us,” says Haigh. “We avoid any manifestation of hierarchy – it can be divisive in a lot of ways.”

AWA’s Mawson explains the logic: “We talk about a ‘power distance’, whereby the more hierarchical the organisation is, the more an employee at grass roots level is likely to see the chief executive as some huge monster. If you have that, people feel they can’t be open and share. The more you can reduce this ‘power distance’ the better. It’s good to show the human nature of the leader, so here you get that. If you’re sitting next to them talking about football, you’re unlikely to be afraid of telling them the truth about the state of a project.”

Haigh insists that the workspace at Pilgrim Street helps Mintel in promoting the culture of internal promotion that the company is keen to maintain. Analysts and researchers have moved on to become product developers, while one particular programmer is now running Mintel’s research team globally. “We believe that human skills are transferable, within limits,” says Haigh.

The way the flat management structure has been integrated into the design of the office helps in another area of Mintel’s brief – the provision of a creative working environment. Says Mawson: “If you talk to most psychologists, they’ll tell you that the more you create a safe environment for people to work in, the more creative employees will be and the more they’ll challenge things without fear of their careers being threatened.”

The next stage for Mintel will see these same agile working principles deployed in Mintel’s Chicago office, while in London there’ll be further activity to remind people to keep moving desks. The originally designated anchor zones are to be moved around as well.

Sitting in the office’s main cafeteria space, Haigh ponders his own journey from cynic to evangelist and how he has embraced the new ways of working. “I thought in a year we’d have desks in here,” he muses as his employees gather in informal groups to discuss their various projects. “Now it’s the last space I’d change.” 


Perspectives
It’s good to talk
Pat Aston, research director for Mintel, has been with the company for five years. For her, the move was a pleasant surprise, albeit one she wasn’t initially looking forward to. “Our old building had lots of little bits and we were tucked away in a dead-end room,” says Ashton. “No one came to visit us, and we were quite isolated. The real fear I had when we moved was not having a desk, your own space, and wondering what would happen if there was nowhere to sit. But the really nice surprise is that you now meet lots of other people and in fact there is always somewhere to sit.”

“It can be a bit intimidating if you end up sitting next to the chief executive or chairman, but you do end up communicating much more, and you’re just talking about things as they happen. The way we all communicate is just so much better.”