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Get by with a little help from our friends

Author : Tim Fryer

31 March 2012


The team at Save the Children International is undergoing a huge transformation in its organisation, and this has included a move from dingy offices in Hammersmith, to far more prestigious premises in the very heart of London. Tim Fryer went to visit

Nicola Purdy, SCI’s FM, in the library area

Backing on to the National Gallery, who is now Save the Children International’s (SCI) neighbour and landlord, the new office is sandwiched between Trafalgar Square and Leicester Square in the centre of London. The quality of the interior of the office, which was refitted for SCI when it moved in during August 2011, is a match for the desirability of its location. Immediately, given SCI’s charitable status, there is a very large metaphorical elephant in the new office. How can SCI afford all this?

Shouldn’t all the money invested in these plush offices be channelled into saving children? A question that is not lost on any of the staff working there, who clearly see SCI as a cause to fight rather than an employer to work for. Nicola Purdy, SCI’s Facilities Manager, explained how it became possible: “The National Gallery gave us an incredible deal. I think it is partly because of who we are. They gave us a lot of time rent free. We signed a ten-year lease with a five-year break and we got a very good percentage of years rent free, and they reduced the price per square foot significantly as well. I think it was because they wanted to help another charity.”

The move was precipitated by a planned change in the way SCI was to be organised. A vision of ‘One Save the Children’ would involve centralising many of the administrative and strategic functions. SCI is made up of its 29 country members and acts as an umbrella organisation to country-specific Save the Children organisations. The 29 members voted London as the most desirable and productive location for its headquarters, and one that would be most likely to attract high quality staff, but the existing offices in Hammersmith were neither big enough for this expanded operation nor a particularly desirable workplace. The process of integrating member countries into one global HQ has been labelled internally as ‘the transition’, and this transition was clearly dependent on finding the right premises.

In the absence of anyone filling an FM role Purdy was bought in over a year ago on a fixed-term contract to manage the transition from a facilities perspective, although Purdy’s role has since been made permanent. Timescales were tight as the lease on the Hammersmith premises was not going to be renewed after August 2011. Purdy commented: “We wanted to be in central London for our staff. We did a lot of staff surveys and everyone wanted to be here - we just couldn’t see a way of doing it until the National Gallery offered such a good rate. It is cheaper than what we were looking at in Hammersmith.”

However it was not only the National Gallery who contributed to the move. Workplace consultants Peldon Rose were engaged to ensure that SCI found the right property and to design and fit out the interior once it had been found. The company’s Steve Taylor said: “We effectively helped Nicola and the team when they were looking at spaces. There were various options around town, we started looking in Hammersmith and we looked in Central London. Their concerns were that they can’t be seen to be ostentation and setting up home in an extraordinarily expensive part of town – but that wasn’t the case and they managed to get a very good deal. We helped them looking at different spaces, looking at which was most suitable for them, which was the most effective, how is the building going to work, what sort of energy is it going to create with the staff.”

As part of its involvement Peldon Rose employed its own consultants to carry out a detailed survey of properties that were in the mix, including several days testing the services at the National Gallery’s premises in Orange Street. “We did that for free because we wanted to give them what help we could give and that was probably the most valuable thing we could have given at that stage,” said Taylor. “Unfortunately we did have to charge to put the walls up and build the space!”

“Peldon Rose donated a lot of time and a lot of money,” added Nicola Purdy. “We had a very, very tight budget, but we were lucky. IKEA donated the kitchen, Polycom donated comms equipment, some of the TVs are donated, Studley [the consultant who found the property in the first place] worked in partnership with Steve for a very reduced fee.… But also our members had to see everything that was spent as it is the members money. For example the cost of every door was written down and passed on to every single country - so it had to be very transparent. It was a really fine balancing act. We wanted to attract staff and our Hammersmith offices were terrible - people were not very happy there. And it also had to be a good working space but it had to be as cheap as possible.”

So with SCI’s financial responsibility beyond reproach – and the elephant in the office therefore banished – Purdy went on to discuss the objectives for the transition. Most obvious change was that the team was planned to grow from the 40 staff based in Hammersmith, to a steady total of 127 in the Orange Street office, with a temporary peak of 160 during this year to manage the additional workload caused by the transition. This will fall back to 127 in 2013.

The furniture was supplied by Lime (a Peldon Rose subsidiary) who used its influence with its suppliers to provide SCI with a good deal on desks and chairs. The desks feature recessed legs, so that a bay of six can easily be reconfigured into a bay of eight, and back again, to temporarily provide all staff with their own workspace. This includes international travellers such as the international programming group and the change managers – people who go to the member countries and help them come to terms with the transition because it can be a difficult thing for people who are used to looking after their own affairs to have someone look after them for them.

The idea behind ‘One Save the Children’ is to centralise such functions as finance and recruiting, training, health and safety compliance (which has become part of Purdy’s brief), overall senior management and co-ordinating international campaigns – the day before my visit had been the launch of the ‘Every One’ global campaign, and as a consequence there were many tired but happy members of staff who had worked round the clock. Overall the new organisation is intended to save money and therefore allow more money to be channelled into saving children.

It wasn’t until April, after nearly committing to another Hammersmith office, that the Orange Street facility became available. SCI signed the lease in May and work began in June, giving Peldon Rose eight weeks to prepare the office for occupation in August. Taylor commented: “It was a demanding programme, certainly fast track, but it didn’t scare us. We knew the building beforehand and having worked with SCI to understand what they wanted we were really ready to push the button as soon as we got the go ahead. There was still a lot of work to be done with meeting spaces and Skype booths and things like that.

“The central core is absolutely massive and at first glance you might think that that would limit how we use the space effectively, but it is actually a bit of a benefit because there is no raised floor. This way we could take quite a lot of things off the perimeter and going up into the ceiling and down power poles and things like that, so you don’t see any of the infrastructure.

In terms of what SCI wanted the space provide, it would appear that the brief could be defined as everything that the Hammersmith office wasn’t. Purdy commented: “We didn’t want it to be hierarchical at all and we were desperate for it to be open plan and desperate for it to be on one floor, so those were the three biggest things. We also wanted to look at how it was going to work for us – we want everyone sat together. We were going to be this one huge Save the Children and we want to be one at the centre as well. For example we were going to have two or three tea points, but then decided to have one kitchen so that everyone can walk around and see each other. There are notice boards by the kitchen so it becomes a focal point, and that is also why we have a big social area. I also wanted it to be colourful and lots of big pictures of children.”

“The social area is actually mixed use as you can have meetings here,” added Taylor, “they don’t have to be closed door meetings. There is also the kitchen and other areas where there is space for informal meetings, and the furniture that allows you to do that. There are seats with high backs that give a little bit of an acoustic barrier, not much, but it gives the feeling of a meeting space and people are quite happy to be in there.”

Another issue was the levels of natural light. Taylor said: “Hammersmith had very limited light and so it became quite high on people’s wish list. That is why we played around with meeting room locations. Things like the voile that wraps around the library didn’t just happen by fluke, it is to retain some light while providing an element of privacy. Because of low ceilings if you put up too many walls and hard surfaces you will just start getting dark corners and nasty shadows everywhere, but I think we have done very well in retaining as much natural light as possible. Everyone wants natural light so it is not unique to SCI, but it was one of their high priorities. I have never seen so many people beg for light!”

Purdy added: “I think that highlights how unselfish people are here. In other offices I have worked in people want fancy coffee machines and all the rest. These guys just want light. And they wanted good toilets – in Hammersmith you could have to queue for 10 minutes to use the toilets!”

“You could say that people work for this organisation because they have got a big heart,” concluded Taylor, “and they would work even if you shut them in a cupboard with no light. But for all their energy and heart, if you did this they may not be that productive. The idea of doing this was to make this organisation a lot better and to be able to collaborate with each other. I think that the space at Hammersmith was limiting SCI as an organisation, communication levels were probably at an all time low, so what we have done is take all those people with the great heart and energy and given them a place in which they can flourish and give them something back.”

If anyone would like to donate to Save the Children this can be done online at
www.savethechildren.org.uk/donate





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