It’s a good few years since we featured TalkTalk’s (then) new West London campus. It’s also been a year or two since we headed out to Salford Quays – the home of a number of major media companies and once the site of Manchester Docks. Salford Quays became one of the first and largest urban regeneration projects in the United Kingdom following the closure of the dockyards in 1982 and that regeneration continues, with blue chips continuing to migrate to the area.
TalkTalk is a perfect example of this. The telecoms group recently completed its move to Salford Quays, bringing together almost 1,500 staff from two separate offices into a new state-of-the-art building, the Soapworks.
The move follows a two-year refit of the former Palmolive/Colgate building on the banks of River Irwell.
The company sited a key reason behind its decision to move as the opportunity to build links with the wide group of universities and colleges, who have also made the Quays and surrounding area their home over recent years, to promote careers opportunities for apprentices and graduates.
More than that, the Soapworks has enabled TalkTalk to provide its people with an exciting, modern and interactive space into which to work. Spread over five floors, the 106,000 sq ft space features mobile meeting hubs made from clear writeable glass, an industrial-inspired café with views of the Manchester skyline, a roof terrace and picnic heath.
The Soapworks’ transformation from industrial shell to inspiring workplace marks the coming together of employees previously based at the company’s former Irlam and Warrington sites.
Bringing all these people together under one roof for the first time, the new space also provides ample room for expansion – for up to 1,800 employees. It’s little wonder, then, that TalkTalk’s new base is described as the North West’s largest fit-out project of the year.
We make our way into the impressive, open Soapworks entrance where we’re met by Jenny Rickus, TalkTalk’s Head of Workplace Experience, together with Claremont’s Creative Director, Ken Bundy. As we head up to the top of the building for a coffee and a chat in the new 350-seater TalkTalk café and restaurant on the 4th floor, Ken tells us that Claremont won two separate competitive tenders – the first to provide the design consultancy, the second, to fit out the interior – to secure the multi-million pound project. ‘At the very start we got a commitment from the sub-contractors – because this was a year-long project,’ Ken recalls. ‘Actually, it was a two-year project for me because we did the consultancy first – and then the fit-out. In our design pack we put together the tender information for Gleeds – and we were successful, which was amazing!
‘It was a pretty complicated project. This building is still very much in transition – Block D is still to be completed.
‘We hadn’t worked with TalkTalk before. They had done quite a lot of their own consultancy internally – it’s such a big project that it had been in the planning for a long time.’
Looking around the brilliant, buzzing, open 4th floor space, we ask Jenny how this differs from TalkTalk’s previous spaces. ‘It’s like night and day!’ she smiles. ‘The move was fuelled purely by us wanting to collaborate better – we wanted to bring our two Northern sites together. Neither of the leases were up. We still had long leases on both sites. The driver was to bring people together – and that was the whole theme of the design. It was all about collaboration and connection. We’ve added the internal staircase, for example, so people can easily connect with one another rather than heading straight to their own floor and never going anywhere else. We wanted to encourage movement and collaboration – which is why, as you’ll see, we have added a lot of breakout areas and this restaurant space.
“Amazingly, the move resulted in fewer than five staff not making the move across to Salford”
‘Our two previous locations were about eight miles apart – and it might as well have been 80! This has completely changed the way we work – and are able to work. You can see, just by looking around us, that people like to come together here. We intentionally wanted this space to feel different from the rest of the building. We didn’t want a lot of TalkTalk branding up here – we wanted to create a space where people can relax and come together in much more informal way. It’s a very different space for us – behind the walls to the far end of the floor we’ve got a load of gaming stations and ping pong…as you might expect, it’s really popular! It’s used an awful lot – especially at lunchtime and by our night shifts.
‘This is a 24/7 operation and that has its own challenges and different considerations. We did have to consider how people would interact with the space differently, lighting levels and also cleaning and maintenance.’
Ken has kindly gone to get the coffees in – which gives us the perfect opportunity to ask about the selection of Claremont for the job. ‘Claremont just understood us and understood our brand,’ Jenny tells us. ‘They knew what we wanted for our people and understood what we wanted throughout the space. We’re also a value brand – so this had to be really good value but also had to have that ‘Wow’ factor.
‘It was also part of our story that we would work with local companies – we had a local site team, local fit-out, local suppliers and, in Claremont, a local design team as well. We really wanted to show that we were best in the North West.’
Speaking of locations, we ask Jenny why the Soapworks and Salford Quays? ‘This site always felt ‘TalkTalk’ to us,’ she explains. ‘It’s not in the centre of Manchester – it’s in Salford and it really has its own character. I feel as though we’ve really been able to capture what TalkTalk is in this building.
Another major consideration was scale. It’s not easy to find workable space for 1,500 people without raising something out of the ground on an out-of-town site. The Soapworks clearly ticks a lot of boxes when it comes to TalkTalk’s requirements – including parking space and great public transport links (the tram virtually stops at the door).
‘This is our biggest project to date and it involved every part of our expertise and resource,’ Ken proudly reveals. ‘The finished space strikes a balance between bringing the TalkTalk brand to life and showcasing the building’s history. It was a fantastically challenging and highly innovative brief and it’s testament to the combined commitment and passion of the whole team that the project was so successful.’
To give a sense of the scale here, there are 80 neighbourhoods, 40 meeting spaces, 30 private work pods and booths and various multi-use project spaces throughout the building.
Amazingly, the move resulted in fewer than five staff not making the move across to Salford. ‘In fact, I think I’ve seen two of those people today!’ Jenny tells us. ‘We told our staff about the plans two years ago and they knew it would be worth it because the space is so much better. This wasn’t just a move for us but a change in the way we worked and a change in our culture. People were concerned – so we made sure they were fully kept in the loop.’
Before we move on from the brilliant industrial inspired restaurant and café, our hosts lead us out onto the rooftop garden, which boats fantastic panoramic views over the River Irwell. There is even a herb garden here, with said herbs featuring in the restaurant’s dishes.
Moving down to the working floors, we can see how the neighbourhoods are linked by smart informal meeting and breakout spaces, while fixed meeting rooms sit alongside scribble walls and soft seating. We particularly like the wooden huts that provide further meeting space and the brilliant artwork throughout the floors, which is inspired by the area and includes striking images of the Northern Quarter and Beetham Tower.
‘Just because we have 1,500 people here – it doesn’t mean that we have 1,500 desks,’ Jenny points out. ‘This project was never about that. It was about creating something different – it’s about sharing spaces and collaborative areas. It’s also about flexibility – we wanted people to be able to work more flexibly, whether that means moving away from a desk, working different hours or even working away from the office. We thought a great deal about how we could encourage our people to work in a more flexible way.’
Before we leave, we simply have to mention a quite brilliant nod to this site’s former use as a soap factory. Claremont has used no less than 512 bars of soap to produce a quirky fireplace art installation. It’s got to be the best smelling artwork we’ve ever seen – or should that be smelled?