Chris Booth is managing director at leading UK office fit-out specialist Overbury. Overbury delivers projects of all sizes and works for SMEs across offices, retail, leisure, education and technology so, with nearly 20 years of experience at the firm, there isn’t much he doesn’t know about fitting out an office from scratch. If you’re setting up a new business, you’ll want an office space that keeps employees happy, impresses clients – and doesn’t cost a fortune. Slides, helter skelters, firemen’s poles, table football and juke boxes probably shouldn’t be on your shopping list. But good coffee is right up there …
So: how do you create an engaging office space when you’re working to a budget?
The practicals: go with your head, not your heart
“First of all, look at what sort of space you’re going into. For a brand new office or a converted space taken to a landlord’s category A finish you could be looking at anything from £40 up to £120 per square foot. As well as looking at the rent and what you can afford, look at the terms of the lease, going forward: if you grow out of that space, you don’t want to be stuck with a long lease. Look at the details of the lease too: things like reinstatement costs and any other obligations that may fall to you. Some buildings have very specific requirements, right down to the type of blinds. And don’t forget about running costs; something like 80% of the cost of a space is operational and lease costs. And think of these before falling in love with a particular building!
“What kind of area do you want to be in? Are you looking for a cluster of activities such as London’s Silicon Roundabout for tech, or Lincoln’s Inn for law? What kind of building is going to represent you? You might be surprised at what’s available – one of the nice things about the Gherkin was that you could take up quite small quadrants as a small business and be in an iconic building. From our own experience, when we’ve set up offices in new regions, the location was absolutely key. In Manchester, we want to be right in the centre, close to the consultancy community. Our Birmingham office is very much about being able to connect to motorways; the region is quite big and our projects are dispersed all over it, so transport links are important. Where are your clients? You’ve got to be close to them, as time is money, and if you’re a start-up you don’t want to lose disproportionate amounts of time on travelling.
“And then it really does depend on what you put inside your space. Going open-plan with one small meeting room is the lower end of the budget scale; at the higher end you perhaps have several meeting rooms, a reception, tech areas. An older building is a different kind of spend, but if you’re on a tight budget you don’t need to rip out what has already been built. You can move into someone else’s space and there is a big movement in the UK for upcycling – reusing all kinds of products, furniture. It could be that you could take over a lease and do a low-cost upgrade on what’s already there.”
“First and foremost, think about flexibility. Think about a space having multiple functions. Think about change, which happens very rapidly in a small organisation. Fixed spaces and fixed partitions take a lot of space and are expensive. It’s really important to make sure you’ve got a robust technology platform in place – wireless tech has really freed up how you use space and I’d advocate that. You’ve also got to think about the environment you’re creating if you’re recruiting – what your space says about you as a business. We’re all suffering from a massive skills shortage, attracting the right people is important and, once you’ve caught them, your space has to help keep them; it has to work for their needs. Think of the age profile you’re looking for; Generations Y and Z appreciate things like showers, bike racks, proximity to Tube stations – these might not be so important for Baby Boomers. A green agenda is important to Generations Y and Z. Lots of clever landlords are creating spaces for multi-tenancy start-ups where you can share meeting rooms, common facilities, even restaurants, and that takes the pressure off you having to have that sort of space.”
Smell the coffee …
“We did an employee survey of office workers around the country and five things really came out. More social space, less formal space – people really like collaboration space. Heating and cooling; 24% said comfort was key. Food and drinks provisions – not everywhere is within easy distance of a sandwich shop. Quality of furniture – furniture can light up a space, give flexibility, create informal meeting areas – I think this is where you can really give something back and make a space feel special. And, consistently, quality of coffee. Yes, really! We put decent coffee machines into all of our projects.”
Let there be light
“Quality of light is really important and good natural daylight is a priority for me. People are more efficient when they work in good daylight and they’re happier, they think more creatively. If you’re a creative business, don’t take a basement – or be prepared to spend a lot of money. Light can be used to create features with the wow factor. People spend a lot of money on fancy ceilings but there’s currently a trend for no ceilings and exposed surfaces can look spectacular. There are all sorts of amazing suspended light products. Plants are also very important – studies prove that where there are plants within a space, people are more efficient.”
“For finishes, wall coverings, furniture and so on, choose your spend wisely. You can put in finishes that are easy to change at low cost. The cheaper end of the market has its place. Classic-style furniture will stand the test of time but you can change it quite easily. I wouldn’t put fashion-type wall finishes in places that are inaccessible and difficult to change – for example, where you have library-style units. For floor coverings, consider maintenance costs – and what happens when your lease ends. If you put down stone, you may have to rip it all up when you move if you take your space in a category A landlord’s finish and have to put it back to that before you leave. You can change carpets quite easily using jacks to lift desks up – we have gone onto floors that are very densely populated and changed carpets, so that would be relatively easy for a small business. You don’t have to have a single-colour carpet throughout the space. The BBC, for example, has some pretty amazing carpet colour schemes and you can do that by having carpet walkways around the office to break up the space, take all the heavy traffic – and they can easily be replaced. It all depends on what kind of company you are; if you’re a tech company you might want to change and churn fairly rapidly; if you’re a fund manager you may not want to be too wacky. My own personal perspective is that we always try to design something that is fairly timeless. Going out and procuring furniture is time-consuming and distracting and our business is fitting out other people’s offices, not spending time fitting out our own, though our office does showcase what can be achieved.”
Consider your reception space
“Doing away with reception areas is a trend we’re increasingly seeing. It depends on how much time is spent with clients coming to the office. If client visits are infrequent, giving away expensive rental space for that purpose is inefficient and is going to cost you a lot of money. Typical reception desks are expensive items and most small companies have very flexible workforces – anybody can manage comings and goings. We did a survey and, if we assume that a typical rent is £60 per square foot, a typical rental could cost £45,000 a year. If you’ve got clients coming in all the time, maybe you need one; if not, is it essential?”
Be creative with the finishing touches
“One thing that has changed is the costs of printing. Technology now is pretty amazing – you can take a photograph, it can be blown up to the entire length of wall. You can take your own photographs and have them transformed into transfers. You can create compelling spaces just with transfers and digital artwork, and that’s relatively cheap and easy – and can reflect the spirit of the business. Taking second-hand products and transforming them can also be very effective. I’ve seen doors made into coffee tables, milk-bottle crates converted into lights for a milk company – I’ve seen some amazing things, cheaper than buying a piece of art, that reinforce not only a brand but also its green credentials.”