[htxt.africast] Why has Standard Bank built a skate park in its basement?

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“Our only mandate was to ‘Google-fy it,” says Helen Samodien, a user experience researcher at Standard Bank, “We had to really push the designers to be more creative, to the extent that I even turned away furniture as it arrived. It was just too conservative.”

Samodien is stood in an open space between two rooms. To her left is a mocked up bank branch, complete with ATMs, counting machines and chairs for customers to queue. In front of her is an indoor skate park, where staff can take a break by learning how to olly and glide over a short bumpy track. It’s Tony Hawk meets George Bailey, in Rosebank. A bit odd.

Samodien’s job for the last few months has been one to be envious of: she’s been in charge of transforming one of Standard Bank’s branch office spaces on Jan Smuts Avenue in Johannesburg into a space designed to promote innovation and creativity among employees and customers alike. Replete with swings and tasty snacks at the buffet.

According to head of innovation and channel design, Vuyo Mpako, the bank wants to get employees thinking and acting with the energy of a startup, constantly generating ideas which can be prototyped and tested in the Playroom. Mpako uses a lot of language from the startup scene – he talks about lean methods for prototyping “minimal viable products”, and rapid feedback and iteration through agile methods.

“The question is,” explains head of innovation and channel design Vuyo Mpako, “How do we think and act like a 150 year old startup?”

The answer that the bank has settled on involves giving employees a place that encourages creative thinking.

The Playroom, with its desks on bicycle wheels, climbing ropes and seesaws is the most visual element of a transformation Mpako is attempting to push all the way through the ranks of the bank. On the top floor, teams can meet to discuss product designs and brainstorm ideas in rooms with interactive whiteboards, chalkboard paint and large, comfy chairs. It’s light and airy: there’s a 1960’s style roadside cafe van that’s been winched onto the balcony.

As we’re shown around, a man who appears to be a stage magician is giving a talk on product design in one of the glassed up meeting rooms. A colourful slinky appears to be integral to his theories of UX.

Downstairs, there are four product testing rooms complete with one way mirrors and trained observers behind the glass where new ideas are tested and existing ones discussed with customers. The decor here is similarly playful and energetic.

“The chairs here are very comfortable,” explains Samodien, pointing at the overstuffed leather suites, “Because talking about finances can be very stressful. We want to do everything we can to put customers at their ease.”

“The idea behind the Playroom is that we want it to feel playful, a place of creativity,” Mpako says, “You can invite partners here, small startups that we want to work with.”

The Playroom is, with its mix of child’s bedroom and serious workplace, clearly modelled on the infamous Googleplex in San Francisco and the search engine’s satellite offices in London. In his latest book, How Google Works, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt remarks that what he finds interesting is that once you provide facilities like this for staff far from being distracting employees often end up working harder and putting in more overtime – even if they don’t use the recreation areas themselves. It’s all part of fostering the culture of a company that listens to and cares for its employees, he says.

Mpako also references another company famous for its policy of bringing table tennis tables and fussball into a demanding digital workplace, Thoughtworks – which has an office around the corner in Braamfontein. What Thoughtworks and Google have in common, though, is exceptionally tough hiring processes which weed out all but the brightest and most motivated recruits.

Standard Bank is changing its hiring policies: previously its graduate internship program only took on people with a qualifications in business and finance, but this year at Mpako wants at least 50% to be engineers or humanities students, because it’s increasingly important the bank learns to understand people.

The theory behind the Playroom is not just about creating new apps and digital tools: it’s a creative ethos Mpako wants to spread to the farthest and most conservative areas of the bank.

But how do you really transform the internal culture of a giant and staid corporation like this?

In answer to this question, Mpako says that the Playroom is only the latest and most visible part of the bank’s plan to steal the mantle of “South Africa’s most innnovative” from certain three letter rivals. Every employee will be encouraged to submit ideas to an internal social platform called Ideaspace, where others can up or down vote its worthiness. It’s an open system, he says, and management have no control which ideas get to the top.

Those with the most votes are taken to the Playroom for investigation, and the idea originator gets to be part of a team that develops a prototype.

Mpako is keen to emphasise that this isn’t just for the technically literate urbanites who work at SBHQ in Joburg, either. Two years ago, he says, the best internal idea came from a rural branch in the Western Cape and involved improvements to the way foreign currency was received into accounts. The idea originators got to go away with the CEO to discuss it: this year he’s thinking of sending people to Singularity University, one of the world’s leading thinktanks when it comes to digital distruption.

“We’ve spent a lot of time building capability and internal innovation capacity within Standard Bank,” he says, “But the biggest and best ideas will come from our staff. How do we empower them with the right techniques to communicate those ideas?”

Want to know more? Listen to the latest episode of the htxt.africast in which Brett and Adam interview Vuyo Mpako below.

Adam Oxford

Adam Oxford

Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar, Wired.co.uk, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.