2005-09-08

Gogarburn The Way To Go?

Gogarburn Banking Village As you walk into the airy glass, steel and sandstone atrium, your eye is caught by a florist's shop on the left, a 'Tesco Express' on the right. Down one corridor, a large restaurant beckons, while ahead is a 'Starbucks' counter. You could be entering another shopping mall -- except that you have to visit the reception desk -- where an efficient girl called (believe me) Lolita takes your photograph and presents you with a security pass. This is 'The Royal Bank of Scotland's' 350_million_GBP world headquarters at Gogarburn, on the western outskirts of Edinburgh. Although it is due to be officially opened by the 'Queen' 2005-09-14, its 3_250 staff have been steadily moving from other centres since the beginning of 2005-07, and what they've been walking into is a 'state-of-the-art' campus, rather than an office, situated within a lushly wooded 78-acre park. At the heart of it all is a 280_m long street, lined with shops and cafés, more redolent of a village atmosphere, than corporate community. And it could be the future, so far as large-scale office developments are concerned, especially in out-of-town sites. The architects for the project, Edinburgh-based 'Michael Laird Architects', have arranged the campus's six 'business houses' around 'The Street', as it's known, with its 'Tesco', chemist, hairdresser, dry cleaner, two 'Starbucks' outlets and 1727 Deli (the year the bank, now the fifth largest financial institution in the world, was granted its royal charter). Along this street, at tables under a 'boulevard-esque' rank of fig trees, small groups of staff are meeting over coffee. As I walk in, a prone figure on a stretcher is removed to a waiting ambulance -- all human life is here, it seems.
'It's all about providing a quality working environment and investing in staff,' says Ms.Linda Harper, a spokesman for the bank, as we progress along the slate-flagged street. 'There was consultation with staff about every aspect of this building, from the nursery and the leisure and fitness centre to exactly what they wanted in "The Street". 'The whole building has been defined around giving staff what they need.'
Ms.Harper gestures towards groups of people, sitting at tables, as one would on a street café.
'As you can see, "The Street", although it's got all these shops, is still very much part of the working environment. 'These are all people having business meetings, while there are other meeting rooms on the first floor above us. 'It gets compared to a village, and that's really what they had in mind when they were thinking of the kind of provision required.'
It's perhaps early days yet to gauge workforce response to this novel working environment, but the general impression seems favourable, according to Ms.Harper. We interrupt a small meeting at one table to talk to Mr.Douglas Hill, who works in the bank's retail support team, who moved to Gogar from the RBS Gyle office, and is appreciative, despite some initial reservations.
'Before we moved out I was probably quite indifferent to the move, but it's actually a lot more social out here. You send less e-mails and you meet people face to face. Just having everyone in one location helps.'
Both Mr.Hill, who is 35, and his colleague Mr.James Mackay, 29, are both members of the fitness centre, and Mr.Mackay is enthusiastic about the Gogarburn facilities, which are more than a 09:00-17:00 facility for him:
'I live reasonably close, so I was out at the gym on Sunday and the wife and I went for lunch here afterwards. I think the general quality adds to our day-to-day working life. 'You can break out in areas like this for meetings and it does make things a lot more relaxed.'
Also in retail support, Ms.Debbie Mckay is similarly approving and, living in Larbert, finds the bank's computerised car-share scheme particularly useful. Nearby, Ms.Sam Van Kempen, a finance manager who has been with 'The Royal Bank of Scotland' for three years, finds the arrangements ideal, particularly for her two-year-old daughter, Hannah.
'Coming to work in the morning, having the crêche here means I don't have to rush out early to go to one place then another. 'I can see her at lunchtime, take her for a swim in the leisure centre at the end of the day and come back over to "The Street" if I've some shopping to do.'
At the building's grandly glazed main entrance, we step out into the 78-acre, wooded park which gave the bank and its architects a flying start when it came to creating a campus-style development. Part of the site formerly housed the rambling complex of 'Gogarburn Mental Hospital', of which all that remains is 'Gogarburn House', an 1893 Scots Renaissance mansion, now housing the staff club and bistro and linking with new buildings containing the fitness centre, swimming pool and crêche. The crêche, accommodating up to 70 children, is run by 'Bright Horizons Family Solutions', a leading provider of employer-sponsored child care, while the fitness centre is run by 'Sona Health and Leisure', the largest provider of corporate gyms in the UK. Back on 'The Street', the 500-seat staff canteen, the deli and the two 'Starbucks' outlets are run for the bank by the giant catering group Compass (the first time a 'Starbucks' has been run under franchise terms). As the bank earns rental from the various 'Street' retailers, it certainly seems to make good business sense, over and above catering for employees. So, is this the way forward in office development? Mr.Ernest Sheavills, 'The Royal Bank of Scotland's' property director, feels it isn't necessarily for the bank to say so, but does believe that it provides a high-quality and cost-effective working environment.
'What we have been able to do here at Gogarburn has been driven by the fact that it is an out-of-town campus in a parkland setting, so we are able to do things here that might not be possible in a city centre development,' he says.
The bustling 'Street' and its sylvan setting seem almost utopian, although, in a fleeting moment of Luddite cynicism, I find myself considering how, not too far from here, West Lothian coalmining communities were held in thrall to the pit owners, who among other things, profited from the company shop in the long-abolished 'truck system'. This, clearly, is a far-removed total working environment, but, on the way back into town, a little seed of doubt is sown by my taxi driver.
'I think they must be encouraging their staff not to go home at all,' he observes, laconically.'
He's joking -- probably -- but his remark comes to mind when talking to Mr.Cary Cooper CBE, professor of organisational psychology and health at 'Lancaster University'.
'My own view is that this is a really good idea,' says Mr.Cooper, a specialist in workplace psychology.
'I've heard about this building and I'm told it's a really interesting design.
'It's making facilities available on an out-of-town site, so that people don't have to rush away and rush back for their shopping or (dry) cleaning.
'It's not uncommon now, especially on sites that are away from the centre, like "Canary Wharf". 'There's only one downside -- it's a good idea, as long as they don't go the American way and create a long working hours culture, saying: "Well, you have all the facilities here, so there's no reason you can't stay on late." 'However, we tend not to do that in the UK, and otherwise, I think it's really meeting the needs of their employees.'
Back at Gogarburn, Mr.Ernest Sheavills dismisses any question of potential exploitation and stresses that the facilities at Gogarburn were all identified through staff consultation.
'This building is designed to facilitate the best possible work-life balance for our staff. Whether they choose to make use of some or all of the facilities is purely a matter of choice.'
Mr.John Lawson, professor of marketing at 'The University of Edinburgh Management School', also sees this kind of total environment as becoming commonplace in large office developments internationally.
'It's becoming a function of having a large office population in one building. Clearly, if it is out of town, it's going to have even more benefits.'
Mr.Lawson, though, feels it is unlikely such developments could engender a long-working-hours culture.
'If people are going to work until seven, they're going to work until seven.
'There is enough 24-hour shopping around now anyway. I can't see that being a major issue.
'The only downside I can see is that, rather like at stations or airports, these retailers have, effectively, a captive customer base, so there's less incentive for them to be really competitive.
'But given that they are major companies such as "Starbucks" and "Tesco", I think they're unlikely to exploit that position.'
Exploitation of employees is hardly likely, he agrees --
'as long as "The Royal Bank" doesn't start giving "Tesco" tokens instead of salaries'.
'To work, rest and play' Jim Gilchrist, The Scotsman', 2005-09-07, We Links: Royal Bank of Scotland Scottish Banking

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