Growing up but staying Innocent: Interview with John Durham

Innocent Drinks has gained a reputation not only for healthy, great-tasting smoothies, juices and “Veg Pots”; it is a company that is also known for its relaxed yet buzzy working environment, fitted out with quirky touches and Astroturf for carpet.

For the majority of the last 12 years, Innocent operated from the ironically named “Fruit Towers” – a series of one-storey light industrial units that were knocked together as the company grew and required more space. Further growth and a desire to create a space that reflects the company’s life stage – more ‘grown up’, but still youthful – prompted a move to new premises in the Canal Building at Portobello Dock. The move took place over Easter weekend in April 2011, when 200 people moved from a 17,000-square-feet bungalow overlooking a carpark to a four-storey building almost double the size overlooking a pretty West London canal.

Kursty Groves caught up with John Durham, Head of IT and Environment at Innocent, to find out how people are settling in.

KG: Can you explain the rationale behind the move — over and above creating more space for the company to grow into?

We want it to be natural and authentic and still have space for things to change and grow with the people who ‘live’ here. We very consciously said to people: “This is your building – make it your own”.

JD: Up until now we’ve kind of grown as and when we need to, almost spontaneously, expanding by renovating an adjacent unit on the old light industrial estate. But this move involved signing a ten-year lease – which is a real statement about the company’s commitment to the future. Taking on this building included appointing architects Stiff & Trevillion to remove a significant part of the first floor to create a double height communal space overlooking the canal basin, which forms the heart of the workspace. I think this says quite a lot about us [Innocent] taking on a different challenge – we can do things ‘properly’ – there is space built in under the floors to run cabling and insulation in the roof, unlike our old building, for example. We’re really pleased with our desks too. Luckily our neighbour is lighting and furniture design company, Tom Dixon, who created their first commercial desk system for us using low-energy materials. They are simple yet elegant slab benches, which give us the flexibility to spread out or squeeze up as we grow. We now also have more consistency – there are no ‘bad’ desks – everyone is better off, regardless of how much actual desk space they have.

KG: There can often be a fine line to tread between creating spaces that are ‘nicer’ – better designed, newer, etc – and retaining a feeling that people can feel at home. One of the great facets of the old building was how relaxed everyone was in the workspace. How did you approach that challenge?

JD: We were very aware of that. We deliberately did enough to the new building that people felt it was ‘finished’ and had some sense of purpose about it, but not heavily ‘themed’. We want it to be natural and authentic and still have space for things to change and grow with the people who ‘live’ here. We very consciously said to people: “This is your building – make it your own”. In reality, however, it took six weeks to really feel it. It took about two weeks for people to come down to communal areas and start using them regularly. I think that people felt the need to be at desks more [in the first few weeks], getting to know their areas and their new neighbours. Then gradually they started to explore the communal spaces, next the quiet space and eventually all the nooks and crannies.

KG: That must have been interesting (and nerve-wracking) to watch! It takes quite some confidence to sit back and wait to see how people interact with a new space without heading straight in to try to ‘fix’ things immediately.

JD: It was actually a great piece of advice from one of our landlord’s tenants that saw us through: “Don’t change anything for 3 months to avoid knee jerk reactions”. And it worked. When you think about it, it makes so much sense: when something new gets scratched for the first time, everyone then relaxes.

KG: What were some of the space ‘principles’ you used in this new building?

JD: 1. Dial down the space on desk floors to keep community space – the communal space can become the hub and where people interact more.

2. If you have natural light and healthy products/materials you can work more closely together with your colleagues

3. On every work desk floor there is space to move away from desks to make a cuppa, and there are also private spaces – space to hide. It was really important for us to create a balance of different types of spaces so that people can work anywhere and feel comfortable to be themselves.

KG: When you look back at your last building, what are the main things that you would say worked well in the space?

JD: 1. The double-height communal space. That is where we held our Monday morning meetings, informal meetings, people would sit and have food, it was a great place for catching up. I think one of the key reasons it worked was because it was very fluid – not over-designed with some clever wall that you pull back in a static way

2. The big kitchen in middle of office worked incredibly well. It was a thoroughfare and the noise from the buzz of chatter in the kitchen would move out into the workspaces in a good way – it was not hidden away. People would make tracks through the kitchen en route to their desk every day.

3. Although our former office was open plan, there was a mezzanine that broke up the view and created little pockets where small communities would form. It wasn’t just a sea of open space.

KG: What would you say didn’t work so well in the last office?

JD: 1. Privacy: In the old building, there was really nowhere you can be on your own. I guess when that is the case you feel as if you’re always ‘on show’ and it’s difficult to really be yourself. We now have lots of opportunities for people to find privacy – more than just a ‘quiet room’.

2. Meetings: Our former workspace was great for impromptu, informal encounters, but more structured, formal meetings weren’t really well-catered for. Here we’ve made sure that our meeting room bookings system works really well we’ve focussed more on the way things work – the things you can’t see but make all the difference.

3. Environment: The last building was a light industrial unit – it had no insulation. We’ve moved into a building that has a good environmental rating – a much lower impact. That makes us very happy! Also, about a third of the people in the old office found it difficult to work because it was too noisy, so the individual working floors in the new space seek to address that. However, now it’s sometimes a little quiet! We’re working on getting the balance right between getting ‘head-down’ work done and connecting with others.

KG: I see you’ve kept the Astroturf ‘carpet’, which has become almost like a trademark of your workspace – and copied by many. Was it inevitable that you’d have Astroturf in the new building or did you consider other options? How did you make sure that it wasn’t just a token head-nod to the old office and that it really ‘fits’ here?

JD: The Astroturf is really interesting – it has really helped our office reflect values – if you know Innocent then when you come into our offices you see things you’d expect to see: Oak, glass, grass, etc. The notion that there is grass on floor fits with stuff growing, it’s all ‘natural’. But importantly, it’s also incredibly practical. We don’t have expensive tastes here – lots of things are nice and simple. And everything else in the environment follows that way of thinking: nicely done, simple and not flashy. Nothing contradicts the grass on the ground

In fact, the reality was that we weren’t wedded to the Astroturf – we did look at lots of other options for the flooring, but then we looked at the merits of Astroturf: it’s (very) cheap, doesn’t need replacing for 10 years, which is better for environment, and it acoustic properties are great – it absorbs a lots of sound, especially compared with wood or concrete floors. One of the things we were conscious about was ensuring that the grass runs throughout the workspaces – not just for the place where you ‘have fun’.

KG: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced with the move?

JD: We sweated a lot about choosing the site. It’s just 2.8 miles away from our old office. We did a postcode analysis to find out who would be affected most or least and found with this site that the move was not dramatically different for most people.

We were very aware from the start that, even though the move team was really excited about the new building that any change can be difficult for some, and needs to be communicated well.  Very few people like change when they’re not in control; it can create a lot of angst if not managed well. So right at the start of engagement around the move we created an email address: “ournewhome” where people could send ideas and we asked each team to elect team champion to provide 2-way communication. We also created special storage space for people, as the new building brought with it more ‘clear desks and a new way of managing personal and professional filing.

KG: …And the biggest successes?

JD: I can honestly say that we don’t have the “Sunday night feeling”! This is a place that people really enjoy getting up on a Monday morning and coming to.

We’re starting to see some of that spontaneity that was so great at our last workspace come into this building. Tonight, we’re having a BBQ on the terrace because it’s been a sunny week, for example.

I love that those things are possible and easy. For me, one of the things I’m most proud of is that we have created an environment that people flourish in and respond to. I love seeing people dotted round having meetings, moving around, lots of interactions BECAUSE of the way we’ve designed it.

KG: Finally, what are your plans and hopes for the future?

JD: I hope that as we grow as a business, the building grows and changes with us – that it becomes the place that supports the growth and new ideas for our business – rather than limiting us.

When I look back at the last building – the second generation of Innocent – so much good stuff happened there. It was the place where it all happened – from Fruitstock to This Water to Veg Pots.

I’m excited that this building is going to be the canvas for the next chapter of Innocent.

For more on the thinking behind Innocent’s unique workspaces see my Enviable Workplace blog post: http://enviableworkplace.com/growing-up-but-staying-innocent/