Wireless Evolution

No longer a dot-com pipedream, the “virtual office” finally works—and on a grand scale—at the new home of Norway’s telecom giant.

Norwegians drink a lot of coffee. A popular theory posits that the habit comes from the need to stay awake through the murky twilight of Norway’s deepest winter. But the custom is at least as much social as it is chemical. Tom Valen Pettersen makes this point over—surprise—a cup of coffee. As facilities manager of the huge new headquarters for Telenor, Norway’s biggest telecommunications company, he serves about six million cups a year to almost 6,000 employees—an average of between three and four doses per person per day. This statistic would be a mere curiosity were it not for the fact that the building, which had its grand opening last September, is actually designed to facilitate a way of working where casual interactions like grabbing a cup of coffee with a coworker are the central mode in which things get done. “The idea is to have informal meeting places, like these coffee shops and the restaurants,” Pettersen says. “So you work in another setting, like we’re doing here, and feel more relaxed.”

You often hear the words office of the future when talking to people at Telenor. What they’re referring to, largely, are three things: wireless technology that allows employees, each equipped with a laptop and cell phone, the freedom to work anywhere in the building; “hot desking” (or “clean desking”), where half of the employees don’t have a fixed work space; and the way these first two aspects combine to encourage employee interaction. Add paperlessness, the Holy Grail of high-tech workplaces, and the fact that it’s all been implemented on a vast scale, and you begin to see what they’re getting at with the “future” claim.

Of course Telenor isn’t the first company to try to reinvent the workplace. In the mid-1990s advertising agency Chiat/Day’s “virtual office” famously, and disastrously, explored many of the same ideas. In both its Frank Gehry-designed Los Angeles headquarters (entered through a pair of giant Claes Oldenburg binoculars) and its cartoonish Gaetano Pesce space in Manhattan, the democratic ideals of open plan officing were taken to absurd heights. Not only were employees stripped of exclusive space, they weren’t even given their own equipment: each morning they would arrive and sign out a cordless phone and a laptop. These, unfortunately, were in short supply—senior staff would send their assistants at the crack of dawn to grab what they could. The staff rebelled in myriad ways. Many staked out permanent spots, rendering conference rooms useless. Others, desperate for storage, used their cars’ trunks as file cabinets. The experiment lasted only a few years. In 1999, when the firm moved into a new space, it was outfitted with offices and cubicles. Telenor—with the advantages of hindsight and a decade’s advancement in technology (particularly the wireless network)—has managed to sidestep Chiat/Day’s pitfalls.

Telenor Fornebu, as the building is officially named, sits on an idyllic waterfront site on the shore of Oslofjord, the main body of water that Oslo is built around. Until recently the site was the main runway of Fornebu, the city’s former international airport, which was shut down in 1998. It is the biggest corporate headquarters in the Nordic region, and certainly among the largest in Europe. Although it currently houses just 5,800 employees, it can accommodate as many as 8,000 in its nearly 2.75 million square feet. For a loosely populated country like Norway, this is a midsize town in a building.

In 1997, when Telenor decided to build a new headquarters, its various divisions were scattered throughout Oslo. “We took a serious look at what kind of locations we were in—everything from buildings built in 1910 through the mid-eighties,” says Jon Fredrik Baksaas, Telenor’s CEO. Between 2001 and 2004 all of these leases were scheduled to come to term. “Out of sheer necessity we had to raise the question, ‘Do we look for a new site or do we continue the old leases?’” he says. “It was clear that the effects of moving Telenor to one location would be tremendous.”

In the mid to late 1990s the Norwegian telecommunications market underwent a transformation. Though still largely state-owned, Telenor—previously a state-run monopoly—completed deregulation in 1998, meaning that for the first time it was open to competition. It also meant that it could seek new markets outside of Norway. In December 2000 it was listed on the Oslo Stock Exchange and NASDAQ; the IPO generated $1.7 billion for the company. Where Telenor’s core function had once been providing Norway’s telephone service and maintaining its infrastructure, the company’s focus had become mobile telephony, Internet services, and satellite communications—both domestically and in foreign markets (mainly Asia and Central and Eastern Europe). “This clearly affects how a telecom company develops services for themselves,” Baksaas says, referring to the concept for the headquarters, where newly available technology allows for novel ways of working. “We were looking for an environment where we could combine new physical surroundings with a completely new IT and data platform.”

“I think the whole idea of Telenor from the outset, at the competition level, was the challenge of reinventing work for themselves,” says Scott Wyatt, a partner at the Seattle-based firm NBBJ, which designed the nearly $600 million building along with Norwegian firms HUS and PKA. “This was forty-some different companies in forty locations coming together, so you’re going from a very noncommunicative setup to very communicative one,” Wyatt says. “A huge transformation.” The architectural competition for the building, which Telenor announced in 1997, included such high-profile firms as Richard Rogers and Snøhetta. NBBJ’s concept called for 100 percent of the office space to be open plan. “Because of this, there’s a real democratic feeling to working there,” says the project’s lead designer, NBBJ principal Peter Pran. “The dignity such a free, open plan provides to everybody who works in it is very important to me.” (Even Baksaas, the CEO, shares the dignity: “I left a big office with a desk and a visiting table. Now I have the same desk as all the rest of the employees at Fornebu.”)

Approached from the street, it isn’t immediately apparent how large, or handsome, the building is. It’s not until you’re in the football field-size plaza, amid the 92 illuminated striped pillars that stud it at regular intervals (one of the project’s many art installations, this one by French artist Daniel Buren), that the sheer size of the complex makes itself known. On either side two vast glass-fronted crescent-shaped buildings—angled to catch as much sun as possible—curve toward each other but never quite touch. From these extend eight wings of office space—four on either side of the plaza—each entered through its own soaring atrium. Although the plaza seems to be at grade, it’s actually lofted over two floors of parking.

Connecting the atriums are two indoor “boulevards” that run the length of the building. Like all the other public spaces shared by employees, they are designed to encourage chance encounters and an informal sharing of information. To allow for this, 225 meeting rooms of various sizes are scattered throughout the building, pretty much everywhere—off of the cafés and restaurants, for example. And because no one is tied to a desk by a computer or telephone line, people tend to be out and about more. “If you see someone you need to speak to you can walk over and say, ‘Give me two minutes,’ and step into a quiet room,” Dag Melgaard, Telenor’s chief press spokesman, says. “The whole thing is done in five minutes instead of planning a meeting, which can take you an hour. Or you can say, ‘Come on, take your PC,’ and grab a cup of coffee and do the meeting there, and you both are hooked up and can exchange files and be quickly done with it.”

“It’s very, very progressive officing,” Wyatt says. “The coordination of software and server, the ability to move around with your laptop and cell phone and work anywhere, the idea of building 6,000 desks for 8,000 people, these are progressive notions of working.” Allocating fewer work spaces than there are employees makes sense because at any given time some are traveling, some are in meetings, some are working from home, and some—because of the flexibility of working wirelessly—choose to work in nontraditional areas like the nearby beach. The advantage of this arrangement for Telenor is that each employee takes up far less space, resulting in substantial real-estate and energy savings. Additional savings come from the building’s many green features: water from the fjord is circulated to cool the building in the summer and heat it in the winter; the southern wing’s facade is one story shorter than the northern one’s, so the sun hits more of the building even when it rises very low in the winter; window shades raise and lower automatically depending on the position of the sun and the temperature in the room.

The wireless network, among the largest in the world, is set up so employees are instantly connected no matter where on campus they open their laptops. Not only do they have access to e-mail, but because of an innovative electronic file-management strategy they also have computer access to all the documents that would be stored in paper form in a traditional office. “The number-one benefit,” Baksaas says, “is the access to knowledge, the access to other people, the possibilities that these buildings offer for informal discussion. In the atriums, in the meeting areas, I can constantly see that people are teaming up in small informal groups.”

“It’s very, very progressive officing,” Wyatt says. “The The reduction of paper is crucial because without permanent offices or cubicles there’s nowhere to keep it. Employees are assigned to one of 200 work zones—each of which accommodates about 40 people. Here they have small lockers for their effects and any paper they simply can’t bear to part with. Incoming mail, unless it’s personal, is scanned and arrives not in a physical mailbox but on computer, along with e-mail. Instead of a photocopier, each work zone is equipped with a multifunctional device—custom designed by Hewlett Packard—that scans paper and sends it as a PDF file to any employee’s computer in-box.

The interior architecture of the work zones was done by Norwegian firm Dark Design, which also designed the building’s public spaces. “NBBJ made a perfect building with these work zones,” Dark principal Elisabeth Paus says. “Four hundred square meters is a perfect kind of area. Not too big, not too small. If there are forty people working together, you probably know if someone’s mother has died or somebody had a baby.” The work zones are all outfitted with the same furnishings. The layouts vary but are similar: each contains individual desks that can be raised and lowered, allowing the user to work standing up; a project area for group efforts; meeting rooms; quiet places for working privately; and, of course, a coffee bar/kitchen. A clever feature makes it possible for people to adjust the temperature in each area from their computers by inputting a code printed on the nearest duct. “I’m very fond of the desks and the seating,” Pran says. “The lightness of the furniture further underpins the architectural ideas.”

Prior to the move Dark and Telenor established a pilot project where they converted four of Telenor’s groups to the new way of working. “We tested all these ideas out at full scale,” Paus says. “One group was thirty-four people with just nineteen worktables but a lot of meeting rooms, a coffee bar, other places to work. And these thirty-four people worked very well for two years. That was very important because what we did was actually educate a whole lot of people about how to work in these places, and they became ambassadors to the other employees.”

Because of the volatility of the telecommunications industry, Telenor Fornebu was designed with flexibility in mind. “From one day to another, if we want to move, say, a thousand people, the only moving expense is to put up new signs,” Baksaas says. In fact, it turns out that the building, designed in relatively flush times, is now too large. But because each of the eight office wings has its own entrance, renting out part of the building is possible. “We’re looking at renting out between ten and twenty percent,” he says. “We have an attractive offering for other companies. One of the prerequisites is that we are offering the same infrastructure we’re using to others.”

“Telenor was looking for a more communicative environment, a more collaborative workplace,” Wyatt says. “Doing that and still maintaining an effective solo work environment is not easy. Half the workforce could feel manipulated rather than inspired and motivated. You don’t want to turn your headquarters into a Dilbert joke.” To ensure that the employees understood what working in the new headquarters would entail, Telenor trained them on a virtual-reality model of the building, created with NBBJ’s Jonathan Ward and JinAh Park “And people were ready for it,” Wyatt says. “Rather than it being a joke, people got there and loved their workplace.”

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