Do a quick stock-image search of a generic office setting, and you’ll find that the dominant themes are beige and gray, with absolutely no branding. One goal of Alejandro Rivero, senior director of corporate real estate at AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company, was to avoid such a look in the firm’s New York headquarters and its Charlotte, North Carolina, service center.
“We wanted employees to have pride in the space where they worked,” he says. “We wanted customers and vendors to come in and say, ‘Oh, this is an AXA space.’”
Branding is one of the most crucial steps for businesses in today’s market, and a 2012 Forbes article by Scott Goodson gives several examples of how market behavior has demonstrated this: Tata Motors of India bought the Jaguar and Range Rover brands—but not the factories or materials—from Ford for $2.56 billion. Kraft bought the Cadbury brand—but not the chocolate or candy developers—for $19.5 billion. Branding influences customers more than ever, and Rivero knew that branding in AXA’s offices would be a critical piece of building the company’s profile.
After his careful study of progressive office environments, Alejandro Rivero took and incorporated the following ideas into AXA’s new offices:
Choice: Different spaces within the offices, including multiuse rooms, allow employees to choose to work in groups or alone, depending on their needs.
Work-Life: The New York and Charlotte offices each have a lactation room. It’s a type of space that AXA had never incorporated into any of its offices before, and it will help employees
maintain work-life balance.
Transparency: Glass walls and doors are meant to reflect an open, honest business environment to both employees and customers.
Energy: Rivero wanted the New York space to feel modern and cutting-edge, so he worked with designers and curators to include brighter colors and modern artwork from AXA’s collection.
Before Rivero redesigned AXA’s Charlotte office, which was finished last year, a sign outside the building showed the logo, and that was all. So, Rivero worked with AXA’s marketing team to select subtle graphics, colors, and monuments—rather than large signs proclaiming “AXA” in bold letters—to tell the company’s story and purpose in a quiet but effective way.
Rivero studied research that emphasized the necessity of giving employees freedom. “The main philosophical thing you need is to give people choice in how they work,” Rivero says. “That idea is gaining steam.”Drawing in customers and vendors was a major consideration, but it wasn’t the first one on Rivero’s mind when he began working on the spaces in Charlotte and Manhattan with his architect, Barbara Calamusa, principal of Linea Architects PC, a woman-owned firm. Most important was putting AXA’s employees in comfortable offices that would be both efficient and inspiring.
Different people work best in different environments, and, complicating things further, employees often travel, work from home, or spend entire days in meetings. Some work best while talking to coworkers, and others need complete silence. All options have to be available in the work environment, and Rivero, who worked with and received input from a team of colleagues in various departments within AXA, kept them all in mind.
Rivero also worked to incorporate gathering spaces, which AXA had never had before. He added them so that people—even those working in different departments—would bump into each other for quick, informal conversations. The gathering spots are framed by large windows and located near elevators, food-service areas, and an internal staircase that connects the two floors of the Manhattan headquarters. Comfortable furniture in each area encourages relaxation and socialization.
The addition of leading technology and new building products was another important aspect of AXA’s headquarters redesign. There, a digital time line displays the company’s 155-year history, and a digital touch screen Wall of Fame shows the company’s top producers, who are encouraged to provide updates with new information and graphics. Also, new lighting and air-conditioning systems in the space consume 31 and 46 percent less energy, respectively, and rooms are carpeted with 100 percent reclaimable materials.
Some changes were easy—more modern art throughout the building, for example, and brighter colors to keep the company’s brand on employees’ minds—but others, including the conversion to an open floor plan, were trickier. In the old space, senior executives had traditional large offices, some of which even had personal bathrooms, but AXA CEO Mark Pearson didn’t want the new office to be structured this way. “This required a lot of cultural change and transformation,” Rivero says. “We wanted the transparency and openness of our company to translate into our space.”
Rivero’s team spoke at length with the company’s legal staff and senior executives to understand the varying boundaries of privacy and transparency that employees would need to perform their work. Rivero himself even traveled to other AXA offices in Europe and spoke with colleagues in Hong Kong, where open floor plans were already in use, and took ideas back to New York.
The new office is open and bright and has small multiuse spaces with adjustable-height desks and walls made of acoustical glass. Employees are encouraged to reserve these rooms when, for example, lawyers and other teams need privacy to perform their work, or when individual employees need space for private phone conversations.
After employees returned to the redesigned headquarters, Rivero and his team also did an extensive survey that asked what worked and what didn’t in the new space, and from that they made adjustments.
In North Carolina, AXA recently signed a 15-year lease for the Charlotte office. Rivero’s goal was to design something there that wouldn’t look obsolete by 2020, and after he found the right infrastructure, he incorporated the same open-office ideas he had used in Manhattan. Glass walls, lower workstations, and a host of gathering spaces will keep employees comfortable for years to come.