Statoil’s headquarters: Sending a message through office design
Friday, September 30, 2016
After a quick-fire 20-month construction period, the Oslo headquarters of Norwegian state oil and gas company Statoil opened in 2012. It has been described as the "office of the future" and potentially one of the world's best offices.
What message does it send about the future at the cutting edge of national oil companies (NOCs) and energy corporations?
No ordinary building, no ordinary headquarters
In 2008, Norwegian architects A-Lab won the bidding process to build Statoil's new global headquarters on the outskirts of Oslo. Statoil's new home is by far the most playful office design of any of the global oil majors, and its forward-looking design thinking may say a lot about what distinguishes the company from its peers — both public and private.
Statoil often sets the benchmark for how to run a national oil company. As a beacon of good governance, the company's revenues are funneled into a pension fund worth over $800 billion, which is run both frugally and transparently and refuses to invest in "unethical" products such as tobacco and many types of weapons. The fund is also in the process of divesting many of its investments in fossil fuels themselves.
This environmentally-responsible drive is reflected in A-lab's goal to "balance size and architectural expression with its surroundings." Rather than dominating and exploiting the surrounding landscape (as the oil and gas industry has become famous for), this building takes a more sensitive and reflective approach. The high sustainability and energy-efficiency standards of the new building are in line with this philosophy, achieved through high levels of insulation and energy recycling.
As oil prices have fallen, innovation has been recognized more than ever as the heart of the industry. The need to innovate has been woven into the very fabric of Statoil's new building, which is structured around a central "plaza" designed to promote spontaneous encounters and exchange of ideas — the "friction" that helps to develop groundbreaking ideas that move the industry forward in a knowledge-economy era. The column-less interior can be quickly reconfigured as projects and teams are constructed and deconstructed around rapidly shifting needs.
The Statoil project is also modest by the standards of its peers. Not only does it stay "down to earth" rather than seek to scrape the clouds as many competitors due, its price tag is relatively frugal at 1.5 billion Norwegian kroner (roughly $180 million).
Oil major headquarters around the world
The company's new building, like Statoil itself, is a symbol of the Norwegian values the country exports along with its oil and capital — values of horizontal democratic egalitarianism, sensitivity to the environment, openness and accessibility. But how does it compare to its peers around the world?
The headquarters of Aramco, the Saudi Arabian national oil company and largest oil company in the world, is anything but accessible. The Dhahran camp that surrounds the office is a closely guarded fort where a ring of office complexes surround a surreal residential complex that would not be out of place in any U.S. suburb, with its pristine sidewalks and picket fences.
The headquarters of Aramco, the Saudi Arabian national oil company,, is anything but accessible.
The head office itself is 1990s chic, but the impression is anything but outward-looking and open. However, there is a nod to the future in the recently built "solar car park," where solar panels will cover all 4,500 parking spaces.
The "lightbox" headquarters of Chinese national champion CNPC in Bejiing, completed in 2007, is a sleek if austere landmark for the city. British major BP's Georgian-style headquarters in Central London are — despite repeated rebranding efforts in recent decades — still a throwback to more imperial times (although the company does have its more contemporary "city-facing" offices in the Canary Wharf financial district).
Here in the U.S., Exxon Mobil's new Texas campus was completed in 2015 and covers a vast 3 million square feet. Designed to "represent the Exxon brand for the long term" its "floating" box entrance initially seems to borrow from the Statoil design concept, however the pastoral suburban complex takes a less-cutting-edge approach than first appears.
Using an employee-centered approach, the campus includes includes a wellness center and — in a typically American flourish — ample retail space. Unlike in Oslo, where the Statoil HQ sits delicately within the surrounding environment, this mega-campus was carved out of a pine forest. This attempt to create a self-contained campus with all amenities an Exxon employee might need may have something to do with the fact that Americans typically work 15 percent more hours than Norwegians.
The power of office design for a new energy era
Well-designed office spaces, particularly flagship projects like these, can not only provide a signal to the outside world of what a company stands for, where it is going and how it is positioning itself in the wider industry. Research suggests it can also have a tangible effect on internal operations.
The architecture of office space can remind its inhabitants, as can any architectural space, of some of those "virtues" employees may be unable to summon alone. This makes corporate architecture a powerful tool.
Philosopher and sometime architectural critic Alain de Botton describes, for example, how the Frank Gehry-designed headquarters of German DZ Bank in Berlin serves to remind its banker inhabitants of desirable values — however routine and repetitive their work may be — as they walk toward their next meeting. As they look down at the building's whimsical atrium, the "lithe forms hint at the creativity and playfulness to which their solemn bosses aspire."
Of course, we should not get carried away. Without strong leadership and underlying shifts in organizational culture, the limitations of design alone are obvious. The mere presence of a glass facade cannot prevent information silos forming or "under the table" deals continuing in board rooms.
However, in an age where the energy industry is striving toward higher standards of transparency, inviting greater scrutiny, seeking modes of efficient and collaborative innovation, and finding a new business model for a changing industry, Statoil's headquarters sends a powerful message of where the company stands, and what it stands for.
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