We’ve completely lost our bearings. We’re in the fantastic Foster designed Walbrook Building in the City (not for the first time) to see the new London headquarters of GSMA.
We have to admit, we were fully expecting the layout and flow of this second floor space to mirror that of Arthur J Gallagher’s brilliant home a couple of floors below. We couldn’t have been more far from the mark.
The stunning new home of the global mobile operators’ association is markedly different – to the extent that it actually takes us a minute or two to figure out where we’re currently stood and even where we’ve just come from. We’ve got a feeling there will be one or two more unexpected turns (metaphorically speaking) throughout our visit.
GSMA is the association that represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide. GSMA organises the largest annual event in the mobile industry, the GSMA Mobile World Congress, in addition to other, targeted events, spans more than 220 countries, uniting nearly 800 of the world’s mobile operators, as well as more than 200 companies in the broader mobile ecosystem, including handset makers, software companies, equipment providers, Internet companies, and media and entertainment organisations. To give a real sense of scale here, the 2014 Mobile World Congress attracted some 85,000 visitors and a host of impressive key speakers that included Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
As we walk into the stunning open space we are met by GSMA Chief Marketing Officer, Michael O’Hara, and lead designer Patricia Bessey from Engine Room. We begin by talking about GSMA itself and the astonishing growth of the mobile sector. ‘It is incredible – it is by far the fastest growth of a technology,’ Michael tells us. ‘There are some amazing statistics. There are now some 7.1 billion mobile connections worldwide. Everyone thinks that this means 7.1 billion people have mobile phones, whereas only about 3.6 billion actually do – people now have a bunch of phones and devices.
‘The transformational effect of mobile phones is quite incredible – especially in developing companies. There’s a great stat which shows that there are now more mobile phones than bank accounts on this planet.’
We move on to ask why London was the choice for the site of the new global HQ. ‘GSMA was originally a European initiative, with headquarters in Dublin. London is a major hub, a great place for us to find great staff and a great place for members to get here easily. We have a lot of our members close-by.
‘We were previously in Mid-City Place in Holborn and we were also in New Street Square for a while – so that’s three jumps in my time alone. I definitely don’t want to move again!
‘Since we were in Mid-City Place our growth has been significant – we were going through almost a start-up period and we had to keep adding to our numbers. I think now we’ve reached about the right size. We’ve sub-let a whole piece of this floor, so we can pick that up again should we need to.’
‘The transformational effect of mobile phones is quite incredible – especially in developing companies.’
‘This is an interesting space,’ Patricia adds. ‘It really fits our criteria nicely. There is a great floor to ceiling height and it has great spans – there are hardly any columns in the way – so we had some artistic license when it came to the flow of the space. The piazza that we were looking to create fitted really nicely into this footprint. It just clicks. It was a joy to work with.’
‘This scheme is also about being efficient with space. A criteria of 70% agile working was the challenge at the beginning, while also maximising the use of real estate and help push the business forward.’
‘We had to fundamentally look at how we use space,’ Michael continues. ‘Technology has allowed us to do that – and we’ve always been at the forefront of being mobile, of course. This was not about us running out of space – it was about a work style change as much as a workplace change. GSMA was a very corporate organisation and we’ve spent a fair bit of time trying to modernise it. We’re also conscious that we don’t want to be a Google or a Facebook. Don’t get me wrong, I love going to those places, but what we wanted to do is to create an environment that could promote collaborative working, give people free space and we also wanted to modernise the brand – as you walk round you’ll see that we’ve really worked hard on the graphics and made it look more vibrant and interesting for people, as well as introducing flexibility throughout.’
As we walk through the dynamic ‘front of house’ space, with its large free address benches and touchdown spaces, we’re told that none of this is bookable. ‘I think a big part of this is opening the business up to its client base,’ Patricia points out. ‘It’s about presenting a more open approach to the business.’
‘That’s true,’ Michael confirms. ‘In our old building we had a very distinct split between the front and the back of the building. If you were a visitor you went one way and the staff would go the other way. To start with, we did have some of our people questioning the idea that a member could just walk into the office and that members could just wander around the space – but we felt that we wanted to move towards a modern world of collaboration, flexibility and transparency. It’s worked really well – I don’t think anyone here has been upset by it, and our members really like it.
‘It’s great that our members can now come in and interact with our people. We were also quite segregated in our old offices, and it was a conscious decision to put us all together here – and we do jump in and talk to each other a lot now.’
GSMA’s previous offices, we learn, had something of a traditional, corporate layout with bench desking throughout. The principal brief here was to create a ‘marketplace’ for employees and visitors to come together and engage in creative enterprise that is not just visually stimulating and representative of a modern technology company, but is also a platform for GSMA to implement its strategy for new working methods. Consequently the new space is built around agile and team working strategies; the creation of space integrated with the latest furniture systems which allow people to think and work equally well as individuals or in groups.
As Michael alluded to a little earlier, GSMA required as many meeting points as possible – one challenging element of the brief was that the company houses 400 staff but, due to the nature of its business, frequent international visitors and clients, it would require space for up to 600 people.
‘It’s great that our members can now come in and interact with our people. We were also quite segregated in our old offices…’
Linear and symmetrical lines in the reception area creates a futuristic feel with an added ‘wow’ factor and visitors are met with the striking contrast of a bold red against white walls. The dramatic red strip runs from the floor to the ceiling, acting as a visual frame for the reception desk. This is coupled with two back-lit reception desks, block feature lights and inset LED tube overhead lighting which runs in linear lines.
Flanking the office’s entrance are six, two-person conference booths, each of which has an acoustics-enhancing ‘lid’ on top. Cleverly, a red beam of light is automatically projected onto the ceiling once a booth is occupied.
Beyond the reception desk, visitors enter the piazza – the public space that is the real heart of this facility. This zone has been carefully designed to suit a variety of individual and group requirements and features a mixture of soft seating: individual lounge chairs, standing height benches with perching stools, high back sofas, individual lounge chairs and fixed banquet style seating.
The design takes a great deal of influence from the aforementioned Mobile World Congress, with a gigantic media wall featuring above the tea point, the media content for which shows key industry and corporate information. The chrome counter teapoint, with matching fixtures and fittings, enables GSMA staff to select their morning brew via the touchpad connected to the drinks dispenser.
Additional interactive stations running down one side of the piazza showcase the latest gadgets, from smartphones and touchpads to smart glasses – and even a smart dog collar! Moving through to the spacious office floor, each area is carefully planned and fitted out with built-in flexibility to help maximise creativity and the potential for innovative thinking. All booths, pods, meeting and conference rooms – and even desks – have been fitted with intelligent pre-booking systems which allows authorised employees and visitors to schedule meetings from any part of the world via their mobile device. The system updates itself, organises and schedules the meeting for the user, minimising delays and complications.
We are informed that there are no less than 15 different types of meeting facilities available, including individual thinking rooms, breakout areas for informal meetings, two-person conference booths, meeting pods, group meeting rooms and standing height desks.
The largest conference room is a clever example of how the team has delivered a versatile space. It is divided into four separate rooms for daily use, however, this can quickly be converted via the bi-folding walls to form a larger conference space.
We also really like the cool curved partitions that arch over a selection of workbenches in the open plan space. These acoustic partitions are mobile and can be arranged in a staggered formation or closed together to form a tunnel which creates a separate department space within the main office floor.
Powerful wall graphics add a sense of character to the offices of GSMA. Located near the reception area, a large infographic wall in the form of two maps aids wayfinding. The left side map highlights where key office areas are located, while the right side of the map identifies key London destinations. In the main office space, a timeline wall is filled with the company’s key initiatives and successes. Finally, the ‘GSMA Intelligence Wall’ uses seven LED screens to show current industry statistics and data across the globe in real time.
‘We are absolutely delighted with our new home,’ Michael enthuses. ‘Engine Room have exceeded all expectations and delivered an amazing environment for our staff.’
We can only agree. Engine Room, fit-out firm The Interiors Group and the entire project team here have created a special working environment. TIG’s Andy Black is also clearly in agreement. ‘It made a refreshing change for the often hypothetical agile working principals to actually be incorporated, particularly in tandem with cutting edge technology,’ he enthuses. ‘GSMA were and still are the perfect client, both in terms of an amazing team ethos – and so keen to share their working methods and principals with TIG’s prospective and future client base. I don’t think I will ever grow bored of showing people their amazing space and the multitude of ways in which their staff use the space to the benefit of both themselves and the business. They really are a testimony to how a workplace should be.’
You can, just like the project team here, be on right on top of your game – it still requires a switched-on client though