Office design in the time of coronavirus

Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. Or in this case reinvention, as people behind BPI-Philam Life Assurance Corp., led by its CEO Surendra Menon, felt that it was high time to renovate the company’s headquarters along Ayala Ave. in Makati. The move was done not just to keep in step with the times and comply with regional standards but also to provide its hardworking employees with an environment that’s conducive to promoting good health and productivity, as well as spurring creativity.

In the process, the company tapped Total Ventures as contractor and Goudie Associates for its architectural and interior design services following BPI-Philam’s four core values: innovation, uplifting spirit, authenticity and grit.

Working in close coordination with these firms were members of the company’s marketing team who revealed that they’ve taken inspiration from different sources — from Google Philippines’ actual offices to images of various office interiors found on Pinterest — in overhauling and upgrading not only the headquarters’ interiors, but also its floor plan, space allocation and furniture pieces.

More Responsive Space

“Apart from the aesthetics, there was really also a functional reason for the renovation. As a company composed mostly of young people, we needed something better and more responsive than what we had,” Menon shared.

BPI-Philam, a strategic alliance between the Philippine American Life and General Insurance Company and the Bank of the Philippine Islands, occupies the entire 15th and 12th floors as well as part of the 10th floor of the BPI-Philam Building in Makati. Since Hong Kong-based AIA is Philam Life’s parent company, BPI-Philam is expected to conform with standards and industry practices set by AIA, especially in matters relating to safety and security.

Before the strategic alliance 10 years ago, BPI-Philam was known in the industry as Ayala Life. Within less than a decade, it has become the third biggest company of its kind in the country. Prior to its renovation, which was done in two phases from July till end of 2019, BPI-Philam’s offices hadn’t been touched since it was last renovated in 1999.

Red-brick wall accents reminiscent of American brownstone buildings also temper the profusion of colors and patterns.

Apart from reflecting the company’s core values and meeting AIA’s security and safety standards, Menon and his collaborators also felt that they needed to give employees, a big chunk of whom belong to the marketing department, a place of work they deserve.

“They’ve worked very hard and done very well,” the Singaporean CEO attested. “Out there, it’s a jungle! When they’re here, I want the office to be like an oasis for them.”

Bright Colors

Thanks to the strategic use of bright colors, geometric patterns, intuitive icons and local references such as Philippine provinces and festivals, BPI-Philam’s offices could now easily be mistaken for a hip ad agency instead of a staid company dealing in insurance.

Employees have every reason to stay beyond office hours, with BPI-Philam’s generous areas such as pantries, TV rooms and karaoke rooms, fitness area, and showers to name a few.

Even the poor air flow, which many believe caused mini outbreaks of infectious diseases before, had to be addressed by cleaning, overhauling and redirecting the air-con vents. With the outbreak of COVID-19 overseas, one can never be too overzealous about these matters.

“Before, most employees were usually out by 6 p.m. Now, because of the change in environment, they’re staying longer at the office. Health-wise, before, when one gets sick on the other side of the floor, we have reason to believe that the virus easily went around causing more people to get sick. That isn’t the case anymore,” said Celeste Joy Linsangan, BPI-Philam’s head of customer experience.

While at it, the refurbished air-con vents have been equipped, just like in five-star hotels, with scent dispensers that emit a citrus-based scent mixed with hints of coffee on all three floors. The purpose is to promote an atmosphere that relaxes and at the same time keeps employees energized and alert.

A strategic use of bright colors, geometric patterns, icons and Philippine references such as festivals.

Employees have every reason to stay beyond office hours, actually, since apart from a generous area devoted to a series of clean, well-lit pantries, their places of work now boasts of unheard of features in most other offices such as a fitness area, karaoke room, TV rooms and his and showers, among others. The fitness area has stationery bikes and a ping-pong table. Those who go out for a run before or after office hours, for instance, could return and go back to work or simply chill in their work stations after a quick shower.

Three adjoining training rooms on the 12th floor, thanks to their sliding doors that double as walls, can be converted into one huge room for small parties and Zumba classes.

From a series of either cramped or disproportionately huge offices for the big bosses “with a 1940s feel in a bad way,” said Menon, the company’s new corporate digs now exude a light, airy and youthful ambience seemingly inspired by Scandinavian aesthetics. This is achieved through the use of mostly of light, walnut-veneered desk and tables as well as lightweight and streamlined chairs.

Meeting rooms are color-coded. Orange rooms are for smaller meetings.

In lieu of solid walls, almost all the meeting rooms use opaque glass to maintain privacy. Vibrant pops of color such as lemon yellow, electric blue, neon green and orange in the form of writing boards and industrial-style ceilings, for instance, keep the entire look from appearing too stark or monotonous.

Fiesta Atmosphere

In keeping with the fiesta atmosphere, triangles in various sizes as well as the classic beehive motif are recurring patterns found on certain walls and floors. One must either be Filipino or Latino to make the connection that those ubiquitous triangles are actually inspired by the shape of banderitas (small flags) that hang overhead and flutter in the wind during fiesta season.

Most of the walls were knocked down and all of the top management’s rooms, including Menon’s, were either resized into smaller, more manageable spaces or eliminated entirely to make way for bigger common areas and open office spaces for middle managers and rank and file personnel.

“The only person who has a room in this office is me,” said Menon, as he led us to his private space, a scaled down version of his former office, which is noteworthy for its picture windows offering a magnificent view of Ayala Ave. as well as its turquoise blue wall-to-wall carpet and fuchsia wall accent.

Apart from the lone boardroom, the company has a number of meeting rooms that are color-coded (blue for medium-sized meetings and orange for smaller meetings) named after some of the country’s provinces such as Capiz, Batangas and Aklan, among others.

Colored signages in vivid shades of orange, yellow, green and blue (AIA’s colors) with corresponding icons are posted together on each floor to help employees and visitors alike find their way. Red-brick wall accents reminiscent of American brownstone buildings also temper the profusion of colors and patterns.

“The brick walls have actually become a favorite spot for employees to take selfies and their OOTDs,” said Linsangan.

Whereas the old meeting rooms and boardroom were devoid of natural light because they were located in the middle of each floor, they now all bask in sunlight and boast of magnificent views of Makati’s skyline after they were all relocated by the building’s windows.

Colored panels (complete with technical reminders such as Pantone numbers and percentages) found in the marketing area aren’t just for aesthetic purposes, as they double as actual color guides for marketing paraphernalia.

Lest They Forget

During renovation, all the old, bulky furniture pieces had to go. All but one of the artworks, a masterpiece by the late National Artist Cesar Legaspi, had to go as well. Legaspi’s painting, an untitled abstract in gradating shades of orange, rust, yellow, gray and brown, has earned a special place of honor on the BPI-Philam’s 15th floor.

“We will put a title below the painting to help us remember our roots,” says Menon, referring to a customized metal plate the company ordered. “The words written on it would be ‘Lest we Forget,’ a simple reminder of our past.”