The Real Value of Creative Spaces: The Sheila Bird Group

Starting off our ‘Creative Spaces’ series with a bang, I have spoken to Atul Bansal co-founder of the Sheila Bird Group, about some of their amazing projects to find out how they work their magic.

Starting off our ‘Creative Spaces’ series with a bang, I have spoken to Atul Bansal co-founder of the Sheila Bird Group, about some of their amazing projects to find out how they work their magic.

Atul and the boys at the Sheila Bird Group have been front runners in the Interior Design industry for almost 30 years, and they certainly have the work to show for it! The designers of the phenomenal Missguided building and Adam’s fun young office in Cold Feet (…or Social Chain in real life) invited me into their headquarters to discuss all things work space.

It’s becoming increasingly common for work places to have ping pong tables and ball pits - but why? You may assume that it’s just a trend and there are very few benefits of having a slide in reception, and surprisingly Atul would agree with you - if it’s not done properly. 
“We get phone calls from people saying, ‘can you come and help us we want a cool trendy exciting space’ … well what do you mean by that? ‘we fancy a few pool tables and stuff like that’… well actually that’s not what we do.” Atul told me.

“People try and make meeting spaces trendy, so they put a meeting room inside a car or a tent, and all those things really really work because they make people think ‘ooh this is fun - I’m not at work’ but if you aren’t careful these become throw away statements that don’t really mean much. I think people who are at work now are much more attune to what is going on in the world, and can see past frivolous little things.

“If you say to us - we need a space, we want it to be exciting but we’re not sure how to do it. We think we need a pool table but we’re not sure why we need one… I think we are the right people to come and talk to.”

It was clear from the very start of the conversation that Atul wasn’t interested in trends, there is a thought process behind every design and idea and that thought is never ‘this would look cool’ or ‘that would probably be fun’. That of course doesn’t mean their creations don’t have things that are cool or fun - Missguided has a selfie tunnel for instance, but the reason for that is because that’s what the brand represents. There are people in any company that would enjoy a selfie tunnel, but you would never find one in an IT or legal company because that isn’t what that business needs.

Atul talked me through the start of their process, “I think it’s important to understand the business itself first - and to make sure the business understands what it is.

“We don’t focus on the things [the client] wants to talk to us about to begin with, we try and understand what the business is all about and the personality of the business. Understand the age group the business are employing, and what the male/female mix is. That’s really important because that effects how a space works.

“When a business moves or relocates, that’s the only time they question everything they’ve done. What can I throw away? Why do I need 12 meeting rooms?”

The Sheila Bird Group have a very refreshing view on ‘space’. There is a traditional view of an office, there is usually a large main room with desks; some meeting rooms; single offices for bosses; and a kitchen/social space. For some companies, this will remain the case because it works for them, but if your job doesn’t absolutely require you to be in a fixed place (which most don’t), why do we anchor ourselves to a desk? 

Sheila Bird challenge this typical office layout completely, they acknowledge “your job is not just one thing, it’s lots of things - so you have to give people not one desk space, but four or five desk spaces or environments to work in.”

“You have to give people the freedom to believe they can leave their desks by giving them other spaces. If you want to think, you tend not to do it at your desk because your desk is not designed to help you think.

“I think people need other areas to work other than just surfaces. They can sit on sofas, they can stand up and have meetings. I think the whole issue of health at work, not always being sat down, is really really important. We do lots of stuff where you’ve got table tops at a much higher level so you have to stand up and have a meeting, your brain works differently when you’re stood up.

“I think desks are important, just not how we see them. I think people need 4 desks each. They need 4 areas where they can work. One that they call home because we like to know where we are, then lots of other desk spaces around. That could be a surface; it could be something that you sit in; it could be a thing that you climb into, where they are allowed to do their job.”

When I originally began researching creative office spaces, I couldn’t help but think there can’t be a large amount of reward compared to the amount of money companies must throw at these spaces. My second thought was - can smaller companies renovate their office for a minimum cost and gain the same reward?
According to Atul, the answer to that is yes. 

“The most exciting projects are the ones with no budget. We once had a project and the brief that was sent to us was just a music track, that was it, it was amazing. They had no money, so we did it for nothing. Money sometimes gets in the way.

“If a customer came to us and said you can have whatever money you want to do this job, I think we’d find it really hard to do that. It’s not about money, it’s about what you are trying to achieve. As designers, we need boundaries, we need timelines, money isn’t the solution. We can do exciting things for nothing, and we do it quite a lot.

“In the market we work in, smaller businesses are run by 18/19 year-olds. They’ve never been through a recession - they don’t know what it means, they have no rules.”

Youth has a massive part to play in the change in office spaces, there are a lot of young businesses popping up who aren’t afraid to go bust. They rely on investments and they can only plan ahead as far as their next funding stage, meaning the way spaces are let has to change. Previously, people would sign up to leases that were 10 years long, but businesses now can’t commit to that sort of time frame so landlords need to change the way they do things. 

Because of this new flexibility, Atul said “people now question, well do I want to be in an office block? Why can’t I be in a shed? Why can’t I do what I want to do in a space that’s actually a lot bigger than I need. Why do I need to build rooms?

“All the big office blocks are still needed for the massive accountancy firms and bankers who need a more rigid structure, but I think you’re going to see more and more younger businesses changing and coming into spaces that they would never consider.

“I was talking to some people in a conference an somebody from a bank said to me: ‘there are these young people moved in to the middle of our floor space and they are disrupting us, they’re making too much noise we can’t concentrate. What can we do as a business to cope with that? How can we stop it?’
My answer was, ‘well isn’t that the point? What’s wrong with doing things in a different way? You’re looking at them and thinking that they are like children, and they are children to you, the difference between you and them is huge. But they have a way of working which is much more nimble, and actually you should be helping them and working with them. 

“Instead of separating them and putting them in different classifications you should put them all together - that creates family. Why would an old person want to mess with technology when the young guy can do it much quicker? That’s his strength, just let him do it. That’s how office spaces are going to change.” 

The Sheila Bird Group have a fascinating view on spaces, and as you can see they have created some incredible designs. Their influence on the Manchester office scene has been huge - as we will continue to explore throughout this series. 

We’d like to give a special thanks to Atul for taking the time to chat to us and show us his work, stay tuned for Part II where we will really explore some of the Sheila Bird projects.

Let us know what you think on Twitter, do you have a creative office? We’d love to see it!

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