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Space that works – How to create engaging office space with Propellernet

By Emily Cooper on in Design, Wellbeing

If you’ve ever googled ‘great place to work’, chances are you’ve stumbled upon Brighton based search marketing agency Propellernet.

Working closely with clients such as Waitrose, Kuoni, Evans Cycles, Temple Spa, Dogs Trust and Trusted HousesittersPropellernet enable their clients to be found online for exactly what they are famous for. Having won numerous awards for workplace wellness, they have also gained a reputation for having a truly fantastic company culture.  At the head of this seismic shift towards better ways of working is Co-Owner and Managing Director Nikki Gatenby.   superengaged, nikki gattenby, book, amazon, propellernet

An expert in employee engagement, Nikki has recently authored her international best-selling book – SUPERENGAGED. Championing her ‘people and purpose first ‘ manifesto, we snapped up an invitation to their castle square office in Brighton to take a look around their recently refurbished offices.  

Occupying all 4 floors of the building, we were immediately struck by the entrance to the building.  From the outset, you are treated to a window display curated by 9 by 9, an affectionately named ‘side hustle’ founded by an existing employee that supports a collective of artists and fellow designers. The team at Propellernet are openly encouraged to fulfill their entrepreneurial spirit with flexible working practices and creative and inviting working environments. 

Inside, you are welcomed into the building by nothing less than a repurposed waltzer that has been transformed into a reception desk, nestled amongst an impressive display of search marketing, ‘great place to work’ and PR awards. 

In a comfortable armchair in their impressive co-working space, The Foundry, we were able to catch up with Nikki. 

Running such a hugely successful agency is quite an achievement. Could you tell us more about yourself and your role within Propellernet? 

“I’m responsible for ensuring our clients get the highest possible impact work, by ensuring that we have a highly engaged team. I lead the agency with a strong, positive culture; ensuring an excellent work ethic amongst our team, whilst recruiting and developing experts in their fields, to focus on our client’s challenges and opportunities.  

People fascinate me…I’m also an expert on employee engagement. SUPERENGAGED homes in on how to transform your business by putting people and purpose first. Or in short, “if you’re looking to drive more profit, it pays to put people first”. 

As part of this I am a Non-Exec Director for two other agencies. And A keynote speaker and qualified in Cognitive Behavioural Coaching for high-performance leadership”. 

 As fellow Brightonians, we’ve had the pleasure of working with Propellernet over the years and have watched you grown into a hugely successful agency; what was the catalyst for redesigning your offices? 

“It all starts with our people – we ask for specific feedback on all manner of subjects, when we ran our Happier Habitat survey, we got plenty to work on. 

Our values are creativity, innovation, fun, adventure and wellbeing – we wanted a space where we could really live and breathe these and inspire our team with a workspace that is an enabler to doing great work. 

And when we ask for feedback, people often have different (and sometimes conflicting needs) to achieve this; 

For every “I don’t like silence in the office, there’s a “Noise level can hamper concentration”. And for every “When it comes to pitching to journalists, I think quiet rooms would help” there’s a “We could do with a bit more of a buzz – people find it too quiet sometimes to pick up the phone”. 

All of which is fair enough, and in need of being taken seriously. We’ve responded by designing a workplace in which there’s room for interaction and collaboration, as well as for quiet, focused work. Space is important, so we’ve made sure there’s enough of it; personal space, collective space and room to breathe”. 

Used an internal flexible workspace, you’ve been known to invite other likeminded individuals to come in and work alongside you for the day; Can you tell us more about your co-working space – The Foundry

“We’ve taken the idea of free-thinking and collaboration and run wild with it, turning one of our floors into a hip-hotel style lobby called the Foundry. 

There’s no desks, or pod or anything typically ‘businessy’; instead, it has flexible seating, sit-stand sections, lounging areas, a coffee station a fully stock bar turntables and mixer and big screen. It’s fundamentally changed the way we work. 

Being tied to a desk and the same four walls isn’t the way to supercharge creativity having different spaces, open working and the freedom to move around creates better connections and lets more ideas flow. Team members often come to the Foundry to work, to meet, to bounce ideas off whoever happens to be there, or just to hang out in their breaks. It’s a place where sparks fly”. 

What was your experience during the initial design phase and how did that translate into your design decisions? Was there one decision maker or did you design your new space as a collective? 

“Again, it’s back to our people – what did they need to do great work and how could our space facilitate that? 

Knowing those needs, we had our brief to work with two experts; designer Nicola Gobat and building company Build My Home. They turned our brief into ideas and ideas into reality. 

Between Nicola and Build My Home, we discussed a range of ideas, looking at what we could do within our budget, what was essential and what was nice to have. 

There were many compromises along the way, there always are – but the ability to have a mix of personal space, collective space and room to breathe were the non-negotiables. 

We kept the design of the Foundry under wraps until we ‘officially opened’ the floor space, so everyone in the business could feel the transformative effect of the new design. It had the desired effect! 

Congratulations on winning the ‘Best Place To Work’ in the UK at ‘Great Place To Work’ for your 6th consecutive year. Do you feel that your physical workspace contributed to your wins? 

“Yes, the way that you work has a direct impact on the work that you do. Happy engaged people do better work than miserable people. It’s not rocket science but it’s rarely factored into the business plan. 

We are a function of our environment and our space contributed to the flow of ideas, inspiration, focused work and collaboration”. 

Have you achieved your dream offices or do you have more ideas in the pipeline? 

“We’d love some outside space – maybe a roof garden – we’d have to see that the council have to say about that!! 

However, there are plenty of places in Brighton to be out and about, with wifi connection and the ability to work collaboratively, we consider ourselves very lucky to work in this city”. 

For many businesses, investing in their office environment is tricky, especially when they are having a hard time measuring the return on investment. Do you believe that investing in your workspace affects your bottom line? 

“Yes, it’s intentional. Our space is a contributing factor to our overall success KPIs:  

  • 98% of our team would recommend working at Propellernet to others – and actively do 
  • Our staff turnover rate is less than 7%. The industry average according to the last IPA report is over 30% 
  • We average 1 day off sick a year. The industry average is way higher between 5-12 days depending on what sources you look at. 

The last point is particularly pertinent in our industry; where we overwork and burn out are endemic. At what point did it become acceptable for a cerebral career in marketing to cause so much anguish? 

Nationally there is a worrying increase in the number of people absent from work through illness. And if we take the statistics from London alone, according to the Mayor of London’s office, sickness and absence cost London businesses £10.4 billion a year. 

An organisation of 250 people can lose £250,000 a year due to sickness and absence. That’s shocking. And there is so much we can all do about it”. 

 What wisdom or advice would you pass onto other agencies that want to overhaul their spaces? 

  1. Listen. Start with what people need – what problems there are to solve and what’s working already 
  2. Capture. Create the right brief – spend time getting things right 
  3. Commit. Get expert(s) involved if you can to shortcut any learning curves 
  4. Be open to ideas  
  5. Keep asking for feedback 

Nikki Gatenby is an expert in employee engagement. You can buy her book SUPERENGAGED here or read her top tips for creating a super engaged company culture over on the Posture People blog. 

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