Although much of Soho is still sleeping soundly following another night of revelry and hedonism, there is a new breed of resident which breathes as much life into the area during the day as its predecessors have throughout the night.
Soho has, of course, a great history of attracting leading media firms, but it is the emerging businesses and consultancies that are now injecting a fresh energy and 21st century savvy.
A perfect example of this is global IT consultancy, ThoughtWorks. Boasting some 3,000 employees and 30 offices across 13 countries, ThoughtWorks is the epitome of the modern, open, agile, service-led and socially aware business. You only need to take a look at the company’s website to work this out. Indeed, ThoughtWorks describes itself as ‘A community of passionate individuals whose purpose is to revolutionize software design, creation and delivery, while advocating for positive social change’. If we wanted further confirmation that this is a company that really does live and breathe this mantra, a tour of the London office should do it.
‘We got a lot of the pieces from a charity who employs kids from difficult backgrounds and teaches them skills such as upholstery.’
Ken Giannini, Morgan Lovell London MD
ThoughtWorks’ Office Community Manager, Bríd Ní Riain, and Morgan Lovell London Managing Director, Ken Giannini, have kindly agreed to give us the guided tour of the amazing Wardour Street space. Ken begins by telling us a little about the origins of the project from a design stance. ‘It was a design competition – in fact it came down to two firms and even the client said they were slightly surprised that we won the job’ he reveals, as honest as ever. ‘Prior to the interview the other firm had more communication with them and engaged a little more than we did – but at the actual presentation we just completely blew them away, and really did give them new ideas that they thought were just fantastic.
‘We actually won the design pitch for a different building altogether – but they then didn’t do the deal on that building and came here and kept us involved.
‘This place is completely flexible, 100% agile working – there’s not even a reception area. It’s a very engaging environment where teams come together, and they can grow and shrink those teams – so if they win a contract to design a new app, they can immediately pull a team together. That team can be anything from four people through to 25!’
Walking out into the 1st floor space we’re immediately aware that, as Ken revealed, there is no formal reception area (that function is taken care of street level by a multi-tenant reception space), instead we find a mix of soft seating, a bar/kitchen space and eclectic finishes. We feel quite at home immediately – which, we guess, is exactly what was intended. Although we have seen similar spaces before, we can’t recall walking straight out of a lift and into such an environment. It’s this ‘spin’ that gives the space such an instant impact.
‘This is our community area,’ Bríd explains. ‘If people want to have 1-2-1 meetings in nice comfy chairs or if people want informal team talks, then they can come out here. We use this space for lunchtime talks and events – we can fit 30-40 people here – and it’s where we meet and greet people and then it really works as a networking space afterwards. In other words, it’s our party space – don’t all good parties end up in the kitchen?’
‘There’s an interesting story with the furniture here,’ Ken tells us. ‘We got a lot of the pieces from a charity who employs kids from difficult backgrounds and teaches them skills such as upholstery.’
‘They’re absolutely beautiful,’ Bríd enthuses. ‘I love these pieces. I particularly like the nook in the corner where you can get away from things – or just watch Soho going by. It has a kaleidoscope effect – with the design on the floor reflected onto the ceiling. It’s so bright in here – we’re very lucky that the windows are amazing and we get so much light in here. Even on the dullest days.’
The ceilings here are stripped back, in keeping with the overall look and feel of the space. We move through to a pair of large meeting rooms – and already we’re expecting the unexpected. Although much of the design of these rooms – which are again multifunctional and can be opened up into one larger space – is what we might find in any good workplace, there are certainly ThoughtWorks twists here. ‘It can work as a boardroom during the day and then we can open it all up in the evening,’ Bríd tells us. ‘All these tables are foldable, and then we can bring 60 chairs in. This evening we’re hosting an event with speakers from Help for Heroes and TopShop coming in. The details – such as the amazing credenza and the edge of the tables – add that ThoughtWorks touch.’
‘All the walls have something stuck on or written on – they really do use that third dimension,’ Ken admires.
‘That’s very much part of the agile way we work,’ Bríd agrees.
Moving on, we find small private booths for phone and Skype calls, and then, beyond this, the real hub of the office. ‘It’s very, very open – even from here you can see all the way to the back,’ Bríd explains. ‘The idea behind this is to make sure that we are collaborative, that we are cross-pollenating – and we move around and the idea is that we sit somewhere different every day. We don’t have any pedestals – you clear your desk at the end of the day, pop it into your locker, then next morning you go back to your locker and find somewhere new to sit. Some people do fall into the same seats – and that’s fine – but we do like people to move around and talk to different people.
‘It’s very, very open. The idea behind this is to make sure that we are collaborative, that we are cross-pollenating – and we move around and the idea is that we sit somewhere different every day.’
Bríd Ní Riain,
ThoughtWorks’ Office Community Manager
‘Just in case your gasping and you can’t make it the few yards back to the community area, we’ve put another teapoint in here as well!’
What we can’t help but notice (and admire) is that, like Ken mentioned a little earlier, staff here can (and do) use the walls and even the windows for writing and sticking things on. Beyond said windows is yet another little hidden treasure. A serene outdoor area is dedicated to the company’s late MD Luke Barratt, who was tragically killed in a cycling accident last year.
Moving back inside, the open plan floor is partially broken up with two translucent, brightly coloured, open hubs. Walking around the first we expect to find a meeting table on the other side, but instead find a very different type of table – table tennis. ‘If you are a technology company worth your salt you need a ping pong table, a beer fridge and lots and lots of writing space!’ Bríd grins. ‘This is our Town Hall area – and we can clear all the tables away and bring in these BuzziSpace cubes and host presentations. We have screens that drop down and bleacher-style seating. Every month we meet here to catch up with the rest of the UK and Europe. We have an artwork display on the far wall for a little extra inspiration – and these can be changed regularly by moving the pipes that the art is hung upon. That’s another clever Morgan Lovell installation, I believe!’
We’ve long been an advocate of a healthy buzz throughout an office, but even we’re surprised at the noise levels here at the back of the office. Three things occur to us at this point. Firstly, this really is a hub of activity and productivity. Secondly, these guys really do look like they are in their element working in this way. Thirdly, the clever layout of the space means that, even just a few yards back, we had no idea of just how much activity was going on here.
As we walk through this hive of activity, Bríd tells us that everyone loves the new space, the way they are able to work and indeed the move from Holborn to Soho. We can see why. ‘It was much more old school and quite grey,’ Bríd says of the company’s former home. ‘This is much more us. We’re not into pristine – we’re busy and we like working this way. Obviously, we want it to look good – but first and foremost it has to be comfortable for us and it has to work.’
‘It’s the agile nature of ThoughtWorks and the people here that allows this to work,’ Ken adds.
Before we have to make our way back on to the ‘mean’ streets of Soho, we ask about ThoughtWorks’ social responsibility programme – which, we understand, is a big part of the company’s ethos. ‘The company was founded on three pillars: to be a sustainable business, to be at the cutting edge of technology and to give back to our local community,’ Bríd tells us. ‘We work with the likes of UNICEF and Hope for Haiti on a global level – and then we also work with local charities, we offer the space and some of our resources to them, such as our WiFi. We all get involved – and we want to give something back and we focus on the areas where we can give something back. We’re not coming into our lovely office every day with blinkers on. We’re aware of the community around us – and we get to host some really cool events and meet some really lovely people.’
And we’ve met some lovely people this morning. Truly inspirational