Thinking glocally for tomorrow’s office environments

Offices throughout the world are becoming increasingly globalized. This trend is promoted by multinational property consultants whose activities extend to architecture and interior design. In Milan, Kinnarps Magazine talked to a key figure from the global leader in real estate services.

“A company like ours obviously contributes to spreading an international viewpoint. But the picture is more complex than that. Powerful forces are also working to safeguard local cultures.”These words come from Marcello Panizzutti, Head of the Building Consultancy department at property consultants CB Richard Ellis Italia in Milan, a glocal player combining global competence with local know-how. The Italian company is part of the Los Angeles-based CB Richard Ellis Group, CBRE, the world’s largest real-estate services company with about 300 offices in 57 countries. Panizzutti, who originally trained as an engineer, has worked both in the UK and Italy.

We meet in a sparsely furnished office in Milan’s historical Brera district, the densely built-up quarter behind La Scala opera house, where many of Italy’s best-known design and fashion names have their head offices. This traditional and trendy location is also well suited to global giant CBRE, ranked on the prestigious Fortune 500 list. The company has been present in Italy since 1989 and now has astrong position there with offices in Rome, Turin and Milan, the country’s pre-eminent business centre.

CBRE Italia offers a broad range of services. It acts not only as a broker and financer – an advisor in sales, purchasing and valuation, financing, administration as well as legal and technical matters – but to an increasing degree also as a building consultant, in effect as the long arm of the building contractors. This is a dynamic field showing a strong growth trend, even in times of crisis when conventional brokerage services experience a falloff in demand.

A couple of hundred CBRE employees in Europe deal with building consultancy, whose scope includes project management as well as architecture and interior design. “It’s becoming increasingly important not only to find the right premises, but also to develop and adapt them to the customer’s needs,” explains Marcello Panizzutti.

He sees openness and networking as key features of today’s offices. A striking number of companies are going for ultra-modern premises with an international touch. Large open-plan areas, an office landscape rather than a series of tiny enclosed spaces. Highly connected-up offices, where everything happens on monitors, are also becoming increasingly common. Cables, flexes and the old kinds of telephones are disappearing, personal desks are becoming ever rarer. All in all, a type of environment that is not always easy to create in a city like Milan.

“Especially in the central, historical parts of the city there are lots of older, often listed buildings that are simply not built for these kinds of environments,” he says. But changes are on the way. Not least because Milan is organizing the world exposition Expo 2015. A major building project called “Citylife” is under way, involving plans for new buildings and city districts, ideally some distance from the city’s inner core. A new sort of urban thinking is taking root.

“We are getting more top-notch contemporary properties, where there is no need to compromise with historical values,” he explains. It’s the same type of development as in London and Paris, where the centre is increasingly home to exclusive, smaller offices and upmarket stores. In contrast, large modern establishments are being built further out, such as in Canary Wharf or La Défènse. Through its Building Consultancy department, CBRE Italia also has close contacts with what is happening in the worlds of architecture and interior design and can influence these developments. Paradoxically, the well-known Italian flair for design does not always have the same strong position at home. “Much exclusive Italian design is addressed to the international markets,” says Marcello Panizzutti. “At the same time, here in Italy we have always been greatly attached to our own heritage, not least as regards architecture. So we have held out for a long time against what we call international ‘starchitecture’.”

And in fact it was only a few years ago that international star architects such as Richard Meier, Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas actually entered the world of Italian architecture. But that barrier has now come down.“Nevertheless, we encounter many different attitudes among our customers,” he explains. Whereas some request an international style, others have a more deferential attitude, willing to adapt to what is felt to be right locally, to what Italians normally appreciate.

There are also examples of sheer culture clashes, not least as regards office layout and design. Americans often have a different viewpoint from Europeans. The tradition in the USA makes it conceivable to work in small box-like offices only a few square metres in area, without windows. But that does not work here in Italy, and it’s part of a building consultant’s job to get that across. And what about office furniture, what’s the view there?

“The often large international companies we work with have a distinctly professional view of furniture,” says Marcello Panizzutti. “One of the most important points is that the models should not merely reflect transient fashions.” It must be possible to add furnishings afterwards without changing the style.

This means that the suppliers with whom CBRE Italy works cannot be too small.They must be well represented throughout the world, be able to keep furniture series in production for many years. They must also be able to offer repair and customer support services in a flexible way.

“All of that is important to us if we are to do a good job,” says the head of CBRE Italia’s Building Consultancy department in Milan. He personally goes for a spare minimalist style. At the same time he has noticed a definite break with past trends in recent years, with a return to cosier furniture, preferably in wood. Generally, natural materials are becoming more attractive, as is a friendly and cosy ambience. Customers are moving away from an excessively clinical look in their work environments. He sometimes wonders whether all that cosiness is good for business morale. If more and more offices begin to resemble laid-back lobbies, that may not be the best way to promote efficiency. At the same time, he has noted that various corporate cultures play a big role in this respect. In some contexts, a distinctively relaxed atmosphere can go hand in hand with high performance.

An informal environment can act as a spur for individualism and efficiency. “It’s partly still a question of generations,” he says. Younger people are more used to connected-up laid-back environments and networking is undeniably part of the future.

Ingrid Sommar