We’ve been fortunate enough to have seen the evolution of leading professional services company PwC’s workplaces through both 7 More London and Embankment Place. We’ve also known the company’s Carl Gearing (Strategic Planning) – who has been a regular contributor to Mix – for a good few years now. So when we were given the opportunity to meet up with Carl in our hometown of Manchester, to look at the latest PwC workplace creation, we weren’t going to say no!
PwC has been in Manchester for over 80 years and is one of the city’s leading professional services firms. Some 900+ staff now work out of the new Manchester office, servicing some of the city and the region’s largest and most prestigious businesses. The new workplace at No.1 Spinningfields – the city’s tallest commercial tower – is a significant move for both PwC and for Manchester’s ever-growing business centre. PwC has taken 67,000 sq ft over three floors, with a further floor of 25,000 sq ft also secured for future growth. Previously, the firm was based at Barbirolli Square, near the Bridgewater Hall, for the best part of 20 years.
No.1 Spinningfields offers PwC a number of things; great address, fantastic location and pristine, large, open floorplates. Concentrating on the latter, the nature of the building provides Carl and the team with a great canvas to create forward-thinking furniture layouts and flexible, diverse work settings for the 700 people now calling this building their working home.
We begin by asking Carl about the process of developing these work settings. ‘We sit with everyone, from the Senior Partner through to the postman, and host a number of sessions to talk about the furniture,’ he begins. ‘Everyone’s keen to talk about the furniture. We start by talking through the settings we’ve devised – and also about how the space will feel. One of the big things that came out of those sessions was that people really wanted to feel that the space had an identity of Manchester. I asked them what that meant – and they said that it should be a bit edgy, a bit ‘out there’, something different and not corporate. So we’ve had to push like crazy to create something that had exactly that feel.
‘I didn’t want people to walk in here and see pictures of Manchester to understand that this is Manchester. This is louder, it’s more brash than we’ve done before. Some of the things here don’t really sit together – but they do sit together. It’s eclectic – and I hope we’ve achieved what people wanted.
‘It was a big push – the layout itself was a big push. Then, to get the finishes we wanted and the right look and feel, it really does take things a lot further. We’ve done things here that not only PwC have not done before, but I don’t believe anyone has done before.
‘This is very much part of a wider programme. We’ve taken on board all the things we’ve learnt from past projects – the things that have worked really well and those that haven’t worked. We always try to take things forward with every project we do – and this was probably a bigger leap forward than previous projects we’ve done.’
Carl and his team once again worked alongside BDP here in Manchester. Carl grins as he tells us that his friends at BDP raised an eyebrow or two when he explained his thinking behind the look and feel of the space. ‘I wanted to be even louder,’ he admits as we walk through the myriad of eclectic, flexible settings. ‘You can’t produce a creative, fantastic office space by holding back. You have to be a bit brave. You have to trust what you know and what those people around you know – and then push to get it done.
‘I think that, to start with, some people couldn’t see what we’d done here. There is a reason for everything though – a real rationale. Once I showed people the floorplan and explained why everything is like it is, they started to get it. Every twist and turn in this space has been implemented for a very good reason.
‘For example, Partners don’t have an office in here. There are enough offices for Partners to go into and use if they need to – so they can book an office – but these spaces are not set up as Partner offices, they’re set up as meeting rooms and Partners sit out here with everyone else. What we needed to do, therefore, was to carefully position certain settings, so that those places where the Partners sit are protected and more secure. So you’ll find that people can’t walk behind them – there is that little bit of protection for them. Each of these areas has meeting spaces, pods and benches, and then we’ve also added mobile screen units, designed by Jones & Partners, which give even more protection and privacy where and when necessary.
‘There’s an awful lot of thought gone into all this. After all, the Partners have spent years in their own offices – and pretty big offices at that! This is a big change for them. To be honest, it’s all a big change for them. Their old office was probably more space than they needed – this is actually less practice space here! They’ve now taken floors five, six and seven – with seven offering amazing outdoor space.
‘This office is all about future working. It’s about being able to bring people up from London and it’s about providing a world-class facility in the heart of a world-class city.’
We walk through the space, stopping every few yards to admire the fantastic variety of settings and furniture employed throughout. ‘There is no booking of desks here,’ Carl tells us. ‘You simply go the digital floorplan on each floor and it will tell you where’s free. There are sensors under everything. You can sit anywhere that is free. People tend to sit within their own teams, of course, but you can sit – or stand – literally anywhere.
‘Everyone has a ‘smartbox’. The sensors won’t tell people where you are – they are just there to show where is free.
‘The biggest change, from my point of view however, is that we’ve previously laid things out in a very linear fashion. On the Leeds project, we started to twist things a little and come away from the walls. Here, we have nothing against the walls and the windows, and we have created these working areas, where you have sit/stand, collaborative benching, meeting space, private booth…and all within a few feet of each other. In the past, we’ve found that people within a team need or want to work in different ways, using different settings, and so have spread themselves throughout the office. Here, we have everything within a few feet of each other, so those teams can stay close to one another and work together, whatever setting they require or in whichever way they want to work. This is truly collaborative. Everyone has choice here.
‘The look and feel is really soft. We’ve used curved ends, we’ve used natural materials and very non-corporate colours. There are writable screens and ‘walls’ everywhere, so people don’t need to book a room to meet up and collaborate.’
These ‘boroughs’ are repeated throughout the open working floors, although the smart use of products and facilities breaks up the vastness of the floorplates.
Then we have the large, bright central presentation space, a brilliant informal breakout space (think Upper Class lounge or boutique hotel lobby rather than a couple of sofas stuck together) and, upstairs, a quite brilliant client facing suite (we’ve now moved on to top end restaurant/bar in terms of look and feel) and the aforementioned outdoor space – which we’re sure will be a massive hit come the Spring and Summer, but not quite the place to be right now!
This is urban planning on a more condensed scale. It’s clever, it’s intuitive and it looks and feels incredibly impressive. In fact, from our vantage point up here above Spinningfields, we can see into neighbouring buildings, where rows upon rows of desks only help highlight how open, bright and generous this space is.