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We might be a long way from home, but thanks to a combination of the unseasonal warm weather, the equally warm reception we’ve received and the brilliant facilities we’ve decamped to for the day, we’re feeling more than comfortable thanks very much!

We’re in Stockton-on-Tees in the North East, and more specifically we’ve come to see the new working home of leading dedicated eCommerce provider, Visualsoft. Situated on a smart, modern, riverside business park on the outskirts of town, we’re already feeling revived despite the lengthy drive.

Visualsoft exclusively designs, builds and markets outstanding online stores. The company also delivers managed support and specialist hosting, which allows it to build long-term relationships with every retailer it works with. In addition, since opening its doors in 1998, the business has grown in tandem with the eCommerce sector. Today its workforce includes over 200 staff based across four offices in Stockton, Newcastle and London, and its impressive portfolio features hundreds of clients, ranging from independent sellers to multi-chain retailers and internationally known brands.

Dale Office Interiors was selected from 10 design proposals to deliver a vibrant, collaborative work setting that was totally in line with Visualsoft’s talent acquisition strategies, and the firm’s Mark Haynes is happy to show us around this forward-thinking facility. Before we do, however, Mark reveals that Visualsoft doesn’t operate like most firms do. The company’s CEO, Dean Benson, has a unique philosophy to business, with people very much at the heart of everything. And this isn’t just talk or lip service. Dean believes it is all about people; happy staff = happy clients!

‘The culture here is great. They are free and vibrant and wanted to be able to express that…’

Mark tells us that Dean did unlimited holidays before Richard Branson. Everyone here gets breakfast and protein shakes and a gym and a crèche are coming shortly. First, however, we’re extremely keen to see what’s already been delivered.

We head up to the first floor, where the majority of those Visualsoft people are based. Even before we’ve reached the floor we can hear the unmistakable ‘clack’ of pool balls. The signs are very good indeed.

VS-Final-11PWe are greeted at reception with huge smiles and can already hear and feel a sense of vibrancy and activity beyond. The long, rectangular floorplate is split by a central hub, which sits behind the reception area. This hub features an all-mod-cons kitchen space, which is surrounded by domestic -styled breakout areas. There are smart coffee machines, refrigerators, icemakers, relaxing seating and, of course, a recreational activity or two on hand. Emanating from this central hub are the two ‘wings’, each of which provides clean, contemporary, bright working space.

‘The guys here are able to sit pretty much where they want to,’ Mark tells us. ‘There are general teams and zones but no strict allocation. They really figured out adjacencies etc by themselves. We did a pretty basic maximum occupancy plan with 1,600x700mm desks to start with – and then we showed them something else and that first plan went out of the window! They really found their own space and their own level.

‘The culture here is great. They are free and vibrant and wanted to be able to express that – to live and breathe it. They did have the Viasit chairs in the Google colours to start with – but they decided the green was a step too far! From there they said that they love their games – so we provided those too.

We make our way back down to ground floor level to meet with Dean and the team responsible for this amazing working culture. Here we find another open working space, which features a suite of smart glazed meeting rooms along one side. Complete with river view!

We take a seat in the largest of the rooms, where we are joined by CEO Dean, Creative Principal Adrian Foster and Brand Manager Sarah McCormick. We begin by asking about what is clearly most important to Dean – the people. ‘That has been one of the biggest challenges,’ he admits. ‘We’ve got over 200 staff now – but when we first engaged with Dale Office we only had 160. We never know if we’re going to increase staff numbers or stay still or go down. Historically, over 17 years, we’ve kept going up – but you just don’t know. I think we’re in a fortunate industry. We can’t be sure where eCommerce is going to go or where on-line marketing is going to go, but we’ve got some really clever people here, so we’re going to enjoy it!

‘The feedback we’ve been getting is fantastic. We already have some really interesting stats that show the building is really working for us. Sickness levels are pretty much irrelevant here. People still do their jobs!’

‘We’ve been here for two months now,’ Adrian tells us. ‘We did a staged move to minimize disruption.’

So has the business always been in Stockton? ‘We started in Middlesbrough – when there were just three people in the business. As it started to grow the guys moved just down the road to Stockton-on-Tees – and we’ve always moved to a new location within a two-mile radius since then.

‘Our last office was massively different to this. It was an old Grade II listed council building, so we couldn’t really put our stamp on it. It had a lot of small rooms, which could only house a maximum of about 12 people, the corridors were really small and tight and people were in and out of these different rooms all the time. It really was at the other end of the spectrum from where we are now.’

‘It was so compartmentalised,’ Adrian agrees. ‘We even suffered when it came to adjacencies because the rooms couldn’t support our teams and departments. So we’d find that bigger teams who needed to be close to one another were forced into rooms at opposite ends of the building. I think because of the way that we work it didn’t affect us too negatively, although it did create small problems.

‘We knew that we would combat that over here. We were able to get the floorplates working for us, not against us. The speed at which we’re able to communicate and work here is amazing.’

‘It even got to the point where we’d have colleagues from London come to visit and, because of the layout, we weren’t even aware they were here!’ Sarah tells us.

Adrian and Sarah tell us that, over the 17 years, the business has outgrown its premises on a number of occasions. ‘We’ve had to keep moving on to larger, more functional offices,’ Adrian explains. ‘Hopefully we’re here to stay for a while. We also have plenty of space to grow into here.’

VS-Final-08PAs we’ve already seen upstairs, this new scheme offers far more than much needed space and functional office space. ‘The kitchens in our old place consisted of sink, a kettle and a microwave,’ Adrian agrees. ‘We didn’t have a commercial kitchen as it were. The kitchen here is always busy – people head there throughout the day for drinks or something to eat or simply to meet and sit with their laptop. It really draws people in – which was very much part of the original intention.’

Another massive improvement is the meeting facilities, we discover. ‘These rooms here are multifunctional,’ Adrian continues. ‘They are used for both client meetings and for internal meetings – although our guys tend to favour the breakout spaces upstairs for internal meetings. We don’t like to clog up rooms with people having half-hour internal chats.’

Our hosts tell us that the original brief was for solely for the central kitchen/breakout facility. Having put that out to tender, astonishingly, only a few firms actually wanted to come and visit the space! Dale Office was very much an exception – not just visiting the space, but also immediately showing a willingness to go above and beyond, as Adrian reveals. ‘When Dale Office came up here they had a look around and said to us, ‘You might be missing a trick here. You’ve got this blank canvas – do you mind if we present some ideas to you?’ We said ‘No problem, you pitch it how you want to’. Essentially, the final brief was written around that – it was a wish list of things we wanted! Dale Office’s interpretation of the brief was spot-on. They nailed everything and then expanded upon it! I liked one of the other designs as well, to be honest, but everyone in the room was wowed by what Dale Office delivered.’

We’ll leave the final words to Dean. ‘Ultimately, the measure of whether this space is working for us is down to staff happiness and the output of the company. From here, this now just about tweaks – about our guys coming up with new ideas. We don’t like to stay still here!’

Worth the drive? Absolutely. 

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