Feng Shui @ BCG and other important thoughts from Dr. Antonella Mei-Pochtler
This is a great article taken as-is from Bene.
The managing partner of Germany/Austria of the international consulting company advocates the genius loci of the office building: design is part of the make, it creates identity and acts like a magnet
In your function as a consultant your are working in a special line of business. You are hardly ever in your office - how much significance do you thus attribute to this place? The Austrian headquarters of Boston Consulting is located in the city of Vienna in the former Kattus house, a multi-storey house from the 16th century, consisting of many small parts. A rather surprising choice.
Consultants have to spend as much time as possible with their customers. Our offices and our EDP-equipment which is becoming increasingly extravagant are a further necessity. It has frequently been discussed how many ad-hoc offices we will need. Consequently, we have examined the new office concepts extremely intensively and have committed teams of consultants to illuminate the issue. We have considered everything from the extremely centralised office, where up to 1000 people work near the most busy airport, e.g. Frankfurt, to the completely decentralised small office. We have even considered a flexible office system, where the employees arrive in the morning, check in like in a hotel and are allocated a place for the day. After many interviews and considerations we have concluded that it is extremely important to the people to have a place to return to. The building shall have a genius loci. Thus, we are more and more turning to old office buildings. The Viennese office was one of our most recent to be opened. Only the Berlin office is younger and it is situated in the Hacke’sche Höfe, a very traditional area with a lot of local flair. In Stockholm our office is also located in the city centre – we want to be in places where you feel that something fascinating has happened. People can identify more easily with such places.
It sounds like a very European concept.
We believe that we have become a global enterprise. More than half of our turnover is achieved outside the United States. Europe contributes the biggest part and the German-speaking countries are the most important within Europe. European ideas are thus integrated in the development of office concepts.
Are these concepts shared and supported by the upper management crew of Boston Consulting?
This is one of the very positive things in our company: We have some basic values and principles, but the individual employees are still granted a lot of freedom. The office issue is a personal concern to me and to others, but it is definitely not supported in its totality. In the beginning everybody was sceptical. People who had seen the building told us that they had to think about it again. The building had been unused for a long time. I have looked at about fifteen different offices in Vienna, all of them in very beautiful historical buildings. But none of these satisfied me a 100%, as their identities were too weak. Suddenly I came across this building. It is true that it was rather dark, but I was convinced that it was the right place to implement ideas. Our architect, who furnishes also most of our offices in Germany, told us that it would be impossible to integrate modern offices into this building: too many small rooms, to many staircases, no encouragement of communication. According to him we should have installed a video system in order to see each other at all. But I thought that it would be one reason more to adapt the building.
And how do you use your office?
Compared to my colleagues I am out of office above average. I do have an office in Vienna, but most of my customers are not in Vienna. Up to now I have always lived in-between various locations. For some time my personal headquarters was in Munich, but I have always been rather mobile. However, it is important to me, to have a place you are looking forward to whenever you are coming back, a place you call your own, even if you are only there two times a month.
If our society is heading towards the direction you have chosen personally – which role will the identity of the office play in the future ?
The basic discussion centres around the question if people will be working more in their homes or if they will spend more time in their offices. I think: both. A kind of compromise will dominate. As people will be increasingly working in their home offices they will need common meeting places, but not permanent offices and work places. Just look at the arrangement of this room: at least three quarters are dedicated to the conference table and only one quarter is reserved for me personally. In fact I do not need a working desk at all, as I go through my mail at home, where I have more peace to do it. My only reason for coming to the office is to meet people. Consequently, the meeting place “office” is very essential. This atmosphere is also reflected in the interior design, in the choice of office furniture and the equipment. In my discussions with the architect Müller-Hartburg and the interior designer Dr. Stefan Culen, I have explained that I am looking for a design similar to a city hotel – i.e. a homely atmosphere and not a classic, business-like office situation.
Would you agree that design is a management-instrument and fosters motivation?
Absolutely. Namely in two ways: on the one hand designing is an activity experienced in a team. But I have to admit that I am not very democratic as regards design decisions. I may have listened to the proposals of different people, but in the end one person has to make the decisions. Decisions made by various persons might result in an eclecticism – a style I do not approve of very much.
However, it is very important to discuss design issues in groups. Design is part of the make and the make stands for identity. Identity creates cohesion and the more transitory and mobile office life becomes, the more important it will be to have some magnetic effects. You have to ask yourself: What characterises the make of a consulting company? And the answer has to be, the values we represent. Thus we have attributed major significance to the implementation of the value statements by means of the pictures arranged around the elevator, and to the common environment and joint experience.
You won’t believe how many group events, outings as we use to call it, how many common meals we are organising. We are celebrating a Friday-Lunch every week, where everybody participates. We have to plan events and centres of attraction constantly in order to allow people to come together. Even an espresso-machine provides identification. I am Italian and I have told the people already eight years ago, when I was still in Munich, that we needed a decent “bar” in the house. It is only obvious that the kitchen is the centre of every house. So why should it be any different in offices? People still have to eat and drink.
Could you please describe the values of Boston Consulting briefly? And how they are implemented in the design?
The most important value is “Client First”, that’s the beginning. Our values are presented in the following way: behind the reception area, right at the entrance, the basic idea of the values is displayed. You are confronted with a mixture of earthy colours, light and warmer red colours. These are the three major elements supported by our Value Statement: Inside, Impact and Trust. Inside, i.e. the creative idea, Impact, the effect on the company, and Trust as the trusting co-operation with the customer. Some of these values are more important to me than others. It begins with the most earthy of all: “Client first” – the basis of the company is also the basis of the profit. The second: “Respect for the individual”, followed by “Beyond the obvious”, etc. The higher you climb the stairs the further you go beyond the conventional. Consequently, the pictures in the upper storeys only represent light and transparency.
In the beginning we were surprised that you did not radically implement popular concepts of non-territorial offices like “hotelling” in your office building. It seems that you value the real needs of the employees tremendously, like e.g. the espresso-machine.
Yes, that’s very important, but our offices are still structured flexibly. If you look at this office – we are so called net importers. Approximately 15 persons commute to us from other offices and work for Austrian customers. They come on Monday and leave us on Friday. Consequently we need to have a “breathing” office. It has to be feasible to seat people who are actually not sitting here all the time. Thus, we have some offices, especially in the lower areas which comprise up to six tables. In these offices entire teams can meet and work together, they are flexible. These rooms are non-territorial. I always ask the “guest-consultants” how they feel. Apparently they are totally happy. They are looking forward to coming to these offices, as they convey a lot of identity. At the Friday-Lunches they can mix with the “stationary-consultants”. In the future we will turn to flexible desking also with the stationary-consultants. In the end, the commonrooms are most important. Of course, some employees still want a fixed individual working place. Others are more flexible. If you walk through the offices you will even come across some people who are taking their plants with them. A behaviour I would not have expected – I thought that this would be typical for ministries only. Sometimes I wander about the offices and I am annoyed if it looks chaotic. But then I realise that a small micro-cosmos is created and that you have to allow for it in order to make people feel at ease.
To me it is also very important to leave traces. If somebody leaves the company and someone new comes the traces the predecessor has left can still be seen. The traces shall stimulate ideas and keep the people in motion. If everything is smooth and unprovoking people are not encouraged to think.
Is there any object in your office you especially care for?
Yes, piles of paper. I definitely need paper, I have a very special relation to paper. I am not an electronic person. By necessity I have to work with my laptop a lot, but I love paper. I can define working places also by arranging certain piles of paper around me. And that holds true for every place. If you asked my family they would tell you that they know whether I am at home if suddenly little piles of paper are lying around. Everywhere, in the bathroom, in the living room – then they can be sure that mum is back again.
Apart from the paper the picture with the bulb behind my writing desk is important to me. I only possess it for a short time now and I got it from an English artist. It absolutely reflects the way we are working. It is important to look at it constantly and to be reminded of our work. I always say that we have to be the bulbs.
Do you even make your own rooms available to your colleagues when you are away?
Absolutely. I always ask my colleagues if my office is actually made use of – after all it is the most beautiful room in the building.
How do you succeed in distributing information as rapidly as possible within Boston Consulting?
Our knowledge management is essential. Various layers have to be applied, first knowledge management by means of personal knowledge transfer and second by means of a technical platform. It is easier to communicate via the technical platform. We have a very well developed Intranet, which provides a separate homepage for every topic. Everything relevant to the topic, everything compiled by extern teams or studies is assimilated and made available by means of an extremely powerful search engine. Furthermore, we have special topic-assistants, people who stand in personal contact with those who have once worked on the topic. It is very easy to contact these persons – we have our voicemail and an e-mail system. You can get hold of information 24 hours a day. I work a lot during the night, I am a night owl. During the night I can get into contact with my Japanese or Australian colleagues if I want to know how they solved a problem. Furthermore we meet each other extremely frequently. We advocate the principle that the more virtual the communication, the more important the physical meetings. The upper management level, i.e. the partner level, meets twice a year for one week. During the year sub-groups meet to discuss the various topics. We have meetings which are horizontal and global and meetings which are vertical and local, including all hierarchies. Besides, we have “information days” which are meetings dealing with special topics. It is important that the colleagues get to know each other in order to know whom they can contact on which issues. Therefore, we invest in common training events.
Face-to-face communication is thus still necessary?
Both forms of communication are necessary. You have to bear in mind that we have a growth rate of 20%. Thus we need meetings in order to integrate the people and to get to know them. I do not need any video-conferences, as I know my colleagues, I know their voices and I know their ideas. If they tell me something I know how to put it into a context. But if I have never seen a colleague or talked to him/her I cannot find the right context and I cannot assess the thoughts. We are all working on a very sophisticated level, we are working in strategy consulting and have to solve complex problems or develop new ideas. These requirements can only be fulfilled by means of analytic work and the conviction of the management. Therefore, you have to be able to make subtle distinctions.
Thank you for the interview.
Dr. Antonella Mei-Pochtler is senior vice-president and partner of the Boston Consulting Group and manager of the Viennese office. Her consulting activity focuses on the development of strategies and alteration processes in the consumer goods, trading and media sector. In addition to her studies of business management in Munich she also received a MBA of INSEAD, Fontainebleau, with the Dean’s List Award. Dr. Mei-Pochtler works for the Boston Consulting Group since 1984 and as manager and partner since 1990. She is specialised in Consumer Goods and Retail in the German-speaking countries and head of the world-wide group Pulp & Paper.