Sky Central: is this the start of the non-doctrinaire workplace?

The award-winning Sky Central workplace in west London is based on not telling people how to behave. Does its easy-neighbour design mark a backlash against the high-concept cultural approach?

Sky Central, the spectacular new west London workplace for entertainment giant Sky, has been garnering plenty of praise in recent months – and it is not hard to see why.

With its low-lying three-storey structure boasting expansive floorplates to accommodate 3,500 people in 45,000 square metres of space, its 18 diverse neighbourhoods, its central street for events and amenities and its wealth of sympathetic natural materials, Sky Central is the complete, light-filled, wood-lined antithesis to the stacked corporate tower.

Sky Central is a three-storey structure with an abundance of natural light which suits Sky’s fluid work culture

The British Council for Offices, which gave Sky Central an award for London’s best corporate workplace in April 2017, described the scheme as ‘a genuinely unique and hugely dynamic working environment’ in its citation.

Workplace interiors are by Australian practice Hassell, which worked closely with architects ALA, Mace and Arup to create a building to suit Sky’s flexible, fast-paced way of working.  This is the office as a city complete with a cinema, cycle shop, genius lounge, technology vending machines and the UK’s first cashless supermarket.

But for all the design innovation readily on show, it is the relaxed and intuitive way that Sky teams have occupied the space that is the real standout.

According to Sky’s workplace director Neil Usher, who masterminded the project, Sky Central is ‘the opposite of a high-concept, doctrinaire approach’.

Be good neighbours

Usher explains: ‘Our guidance on how to use the space was very light touch. In creating neighbourhoods, we simply asked people to be good neighbours. We avoided issuing rules, protocols, etiquette training. We banned the word “adoption”.’

The open space design mirrors and complements Sky’s flexible, fast-paced ways of working

The non-doctrinaire workplace, according to the experience of Sky Central, is to ‘let people go on their own journey and stop telling people how to behave,’ says Usher. ‘We have to accept that the workplace will always be in beta mode. It will never get fixed.’

There are 2,500 desks and 2,500 alternative settings for 3,500 people. What Sky does so elegantly is to allow its teams to do their own thing. The allure of the different neighbourhoods, each with a rope-themed home zone, makes exploration easier.

Three types of worker

There are essentially three types of worker in the building: corporate workers who are the most mobile, software developers working in agile scrums, and tech creatives requiring large desks and lots of connectivity. But you’d never recognise these distinct typologies from looking across the large, open work landscapes

On a show round, I ask Neil Usher which teams are occupying which spaces. He neither knows nor cares. The whole point of the non-doctrinaire workplace is just to act naturally and sidestep those change programmes that specify a big cultural reboot.

It’s a trend that other organisations may well study and emulate, even though the behaviour of media teams can be exceptional compared to those in other business sectors. Sky has its own word to describe its new west London workplace – ‘grown up’.