Working out: The office that’s also a playground

It’s not unusual to see the managing director of Labman sliding down a fireman’s pole to get from first to ground floor.

Labman Automation employee Jamie Marsay on the climbing wall inside their office at Seamer near Stokesley

“It’s an enjoyable way to travel and it’s quicker than the stairs,” says Andrew Whitwell, who heads up the robotics company.

Down on the shop floor, staff often take impromptu breaks to play a game of table tennis or pool, or if they feel the need to burn off more energy, they’ll don a hard hat and tackle the full-size climbing wall. If anyone fancies a blast of fresh air, then a spin round the go-kart track or flying the remote-controlled helicopters outside usually does the trick.

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Relaxing is also encouraged. Gaming on the firm’s PlayStations and putting your feet up in front of the telly in the contemporary refectory are both good options.

Eisha Home (left) and Ivana Nanut playing table tennis

This unconventional approach to employee welfare sounds more Silicon Valley than an industrial estate in Seamer, near Stokesley, where Labman is based. Like some of America’s best-known high-tech companies, it sees the value of helping its employees to work, rest and play. Studies show that this makes people more productive, creative and happier.

YouTube’s offices have a swimming pool, putting green, free food and a slide, while Facebook has a nine-acre park on its roof. However, Andrew insists he has not been influenced by the US.

Many of Labman’s extra-curricular ideas, he reveals, come from its workforce and he just makes them happen when funds are available.

The incentive is known as “Play dough”, not the plasticine but cash to spend on fun things.

Labman Automation owner Andrew Whitwell sliding down the fireman's pole inside their office at Seamer near Stokesley

“We work very hard and when we finish a good contract we’ll spend a bit of the money on making this a great place to work.

“We want people to like being here. Plus I want somewhere that’s nice to be. I spend half my life here,” says Andrew, who adds that the investment also makes good business sense.

“We have to make money and to do that we have to attract and retain great people. Having an environment like this helps us do that.”

And that’s the difference between his firm and some others, which pay lip service, if that, to employee satisfaction. The recession has compounded the issue with companies taking advantage of “grateful slave” syndrome. Asking the boss to fork out for anything more than a kettle is anathema to many businesses, where even taking a lunch break is impossible.

“Here, people take a break when they want to. It might be that they need time out to help clear their head. It’s not a problem and people don’t take advantage,” says Andrew whose bushy handlebar moustache is a sign that he is not afraid to do things differently.

The latest facilities were made possible by a move to new premises. The firm was founded in 1979 by Professor George Carter, and is now run by Andrew and a board of directors. It specialises in automated machinery for laboratories, factories, universities and the oil industry.

Its clients include AstraZeneca and Unilever and its robotic systems are all over the world from Australia to the North Pole. Its innovation and attention to detail has fuelled success and expansion over the past few years.

Its site in Seamer was an industrial tin shed with five acres until Andrew’s wife, Joanna, an architectural designer, transformed the dark and depressing looking building. Her efforts have been recognised with an award from the Rural and Industrial Design and Building Association.

Outside, she clad it in cedar and created a curved frontage. Inside, she has made a light-filled, largely open-plan space. Portholes were punched in the side to bring in natural light and there are desks on the mezzanine level, while the reception and manufacturing machinery are on the ground floor.

“We didn’t want people locking themselves away in offices so it’s as open plan as possible and we hot desk. It helps communication and everyone knows what’s going on around them,” says Andrew. Noise isn’t a problem for the 54 members of staff, thanks to sound-cancelling Bose headphones.

Product development manager Alex Driver has worked at the company for six months and he says: “It is unique and dynamic and they actively encourage work-life balance. It’s clear they want a happy workforce. That’s why we have all these toys around.

“Things like the table tennis and the climbing wall get your blood pumping and they also require you to work in pairs, which is good for building relationships in an uncontrived way.

“At other places I’ve worked they organised team-building activities and days away, which all feel a bit false. Here it happens organically. Basically we work hard but working here is a pleasure. Who doesn’t come out smiling after bombing round a track in a go-kart?”

The “toys”, along with the innovative interior and beautifully designed exterior, have paid off in other ways.

“If clients visit it is a memorable experience for all the right reasons. It says that we are a modern, creative business,” says marketing manager Jo Baty.

More expansion is on the way and Joanna Whitwell is designing an extension to double the space at Labman HQ.

Staff have been asked to compile a wish-list of what they want. Among the suggestions are a giant slide and a swimming pool on the roof full of robotic sharks.

“The slide is something we definitely want in there,” says Andrew. “I mean, why not?”