There’s no reception desk at Grant Thornton’s sparkling new offices in St Albans (opened March 2015) and Chelmsford (opened September 2015), and you won’t have to wear a ‘visitor’ badge on arrival. Instead, when you walk in a host greets you, and the first room you enter is the kitchen, where you’ll find folk sitting around the table chatting over espressos. Beyond the kitchen are open-plan ‘zones’ – there are no doors at all – where people ‘graze’ before moving on to other work areas.
But perhaps the most intriguing thing about these new offices is their purpose. They have not been built solely – or even primarily, perhaps – for Team Grant Thornton. Rather they have been designed to be used by clients, ‘friends’ and potential clients; to enable new conversations with people that may otherwise be out of reach. These groups are not only welcomed but encouraged to spend as much time here as possible.
“We’re trying to create our own offline social network for people of relevance and interest,” says tax advisory partner and UK innovation group leader Dominic Preston. “And that doesn’t have to be entirely controlled by Grant Thornton.”
Clearly these offices are a far cry from the professional services industry’s traditional secretive, appointment-only places of work. But a cynic might argue they’ve come about simply because it’s on trend to be more like Google. What’s the hard business case, exactly?
Dominic Preston explains: “When planning these new offices, the big question we asked ourselves was: ‘What interactions do we as a professional services firm need and want to have with our audience. And what does that audience look like?”
All you professional services firms say you’re different, yet when we physically interact with you, we experience almost exactly the same things.
During his conversation with the BDLN, Dominic often refers to his firm’s “audience”, and with these new offices clearly inspired at least in part by the media industry, it’s not a huge jump to suggest that Grant Thornton now sees itself as a publisher and thought-leader, not just a service provider.
Dominic continues: “Another driver was the continual feedback we’d received. It went along the lines of: ‘All you professional services firms say you’re different, yet when we physically interact with you, we experience almost exactly the same things. We’re greeted in a corporate reception, ushered through some barriers, normally up in a lift, and then into a meeting room that could be anywhere. Then we sit down for our statutory one- or two-hour interaction.’
“One purpose of these new spaces is to create a physically different way of interacting with Grant Thornton, to get away from: ‘Me adviser, you client; me know, you don’t; me tell you, you pay.”
But perhaps the most interesting part is the idea of an ‘offline social network’ – a shared, welcoming space where powerful new connections can be forged; ultimately a business development tool made from bricks and mortar (plus a cool kitchen and a few crazy lightshades).
“The St Albans and Harpenden area has more company directors per head than anywhere else in the UK,” explains Dominic. “So it makes sense to tap into that population of business leaders and create something compelling so they engage with us. We want to appeal to people who might otherwise work from home but are attracted by the value-added content [another publishing term – Ed]. They might be scale-up businesses that want to come in because it’s a natural habitat for them, or non-execs, CEOs, FDs and CFOs who want some space away from their usual desks.
“What everyone craves is connectivity and to learn new things, often through storytelling. You can contrive those with networking events, but you’re present on someone else’s terms. If we can create the feeling that people are here on their own terms, building their own community, then that’s hugely powerful. Community is the big word for us.”
And it would appear that this community-facing, open-source ethos is already succeeding in introducing new people and networks to Grant Thornton. Local tech hub Silicon Abbey has held events at the St Albans office, and several charity and third-sector organisations are using that space too, leading to wider community engagement while also meeting regular requests for sponsorship in a new way.
“By enabling third-sector organisations to hold events here, we’re meeting some really interesting people. It’s creating self-propulsion already,” says Dominic.
Being here highlights the unnecessary barriers that the professional services industry has been guilty of raising between itself and clients and potential clients.
But these offices are not just bait to lure potential clients, their design and layout are having a positive impact on Grant Thornton’s working practices too. Dominic says: “Six weeks after opening St Albans, we were invited to pitch for a full-service opportunity. We set up a meeting room but because we’d put out lunch in the kitchen, the visiting directors came in and sat down, and the pitch began over the kitchen table. The pitch simply became a conversation; the formal rules disappeared; yes we ran through some balance sheets, but essentially they told us about their business over lunch. And we won the work.
“Being here highlights the unnecessary barriers that the professional services industry has been guilty of raising between itself and clients and potential clients. In these new workspaces we travel as far in one meeting as we would normally go in two or three elsewhere. The design and layout mean people feel they have permission to open up. They tell us much more than we’d have found out in the more traditional, staid, formulaic environment.”
So where will this lead? Over to Dominic: “We’re using these new workspaces to evaluate our entire estate. Is it currently right and relevant for the way our people work today? More importantly, is it right and relevant for the interactions we need to have with clients? As with most London-centric businesses, right now we’re shipping plenty of high-paid people into the most expensive space in the UK. So we’re going to use these new offices as a really challenging lens through which to see what purpose our estate serves.”
New attitudes and working practices, plus the recession and digital revolution, have left most office spaces – and the way they are used – well behind the curve.
Grant Thornton’s new offices, and more importantly the business development play behind them, are a fascinating move. And although cynics might smile wryly when Dominic refers to them as “professional services apartments where everyone gets on”, the benefits of removing barriers and encouraging new individuals, groups and networks through the doors are clear to see.
New attitudes and working practices, plus the recession and digital revolution, have left most office spaces – and the way they are used – well behind the curve. Grant Thornton has picked up the baton. The race to modernise professional services workspaces has begun.