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Apple’s new, perfectly circular California headquarters, are stunning. When did such architectural feats become the norm for super-brands, asks Susanna Quirke from Inspiring Interns? What’s the big idea? And what can low-budget SMEs learn observing their rich big sisters?

At the time of writing this article, the film adaptation of David Eggers’ ‘The Circle’ is poised for release in cinemas. The book – a modern fable of a mega-brand gone wrong – is set almost exclusively in the vast campus-style headquarters of the novel’s eponymous tech giant. As they enjoy the on-site wellness, hotel, auditorium and leisure facilities, the Circle’s thousands of employees begin to resemble a cult more than a workforce – no doubt the C-suite’s intention all along.

Looking at Apple’s new, perfectly circular California headquarters, due to open this month, it’s hard not to make comparisons. With space for fourteen thousand employees, a five billion dollar construction cost and every kind of amenity available, Eggers could have been describing this very complex in his semi-dystopian thriller.

Nor is Apple the only brand to indulge its architectural ambitions with such a project. From Facebook with its massive open-plan office – the largest in the world – to the famous ‘Googleplex’, grand spaces have become a sine qua non for the world’s biggest businesses.

When did such architectural feats become the norm for super-brands? What’s the big idea? And what can low-budget SMEs learn observing their rich big sisters?

Building bridges

How important is your office layout to worker happiness? Extremely, if we believe recent research. According to a March 2017 report from the Design Commission, the built environments in which we operate can affect our health, habits, social cohesion and creativity. Consider that we spend forty hours of our week in one place – the office – and the significance of this place in our personal habits becomes clear.

Creating a space which encourages collaboration while maintaining individual autonomy is, the report claims, the secret to maximising on employee productivity. It’s also one of the best draws for gifted workers in a talent-short economy.

A 2014 Australian survey revealed that “workplace design significantly increases the attractiveness of employers to potential candidates, especially when working in conjunction with an attractive organisational culture… Unprompted, respondents often cite physical workplace features as evidence of a good or bad workplace.” So there you go.

Put your feet up

When the Danish term ‘hygge’ reached buzz status in last year’s news, few thought it would be employers paying the most attention. But making workplaces more homely has been a priority among large-scale businesses for several years now. In fact, this trend of ‘domestication’ has invaded every mega-brand from Facebook to Google, and shows no signs of slowing as we head for the 2020s.

What’s the idea? Guy Crabb, MD of workplace design and build specialist ODB Group, thinks the trend has legs – especially in creative fields. “We have been working with several game developers recently,” he writes for Business Matters. “Their employees are creatives whose work patterns aren’t a typical nine to five. They might not start until 10 in the morning and it’s not unusual for them to be pulling an all-nighter. Because of this, they want home comforts in the workplace… It’s about helping staff to unwind.”

Perhaps he has a point. In the south of England, a quarter of people would consider leaving their job due to stress. The statistics suggest that, in the modern world, employers seeking to increase employee retention should prioritise reducing workplace pressure. If architectural design can play a part here – solutions range from light-up walls to ‘Reset pods’ – then companies stand to gain a lot by domesticating their offices.

The SME outlook

Of course, most SMEs aren’t operating on Apple-sized budgets. So how can a small-to-medium business with rented offices set about optimising its workspace?

According to a panel of experts who discussed just this back in 2016, the answer is in small changes that can have a big impact on your workplace culture. If you’re seeking to chase the ‘homely’ vibe, consider bring a dog into the office or playing music during working hours. If you have the space, designate a ‘time-out’ zone for workers to relax in breaks, or even a lie-down area. Research shows that greenery in the office – plants and so on – can increase relaxation and productivity.

Of course, it takes more than beanbags to make a ‘cool’ workplace. Flexibility continues to top polls as employees’ most valued perk, and few people are going to put office architecture before salary in their list of job priorities. Still, if you want to draw the best talent and make the most out of your workforce, revamping the office canteen might not be the worst place to start. Just don’t expect to rival Apple anytime soon.

Susanna Quirke writes for Inspiring Interns, a graduate recruitment agency which specialises in sourcing candidates for internships and giving out graduate careers advice. To hire graduates or browse graduate jobs, visit their website.