In a fortunate confluence of adventures, I finished reading Emily Yellin's excellent "Your Call is Not that Important to Us" while the guest of one of our sponsors, Siemens Corporation, to visit a building used as a call center for Santander bank, and located in Queretaro, Mexico. (Siemens is the enabling sponsor of our site, SustainableCitiesCollective.)
This stunning piece of architecture, which resembles more a futuristic stadium than an office building, was completed two years ago for a considerable cost (in Mexico) of $250M. Designed by the Madrid-based firm Lamela, it houses one of the banks' principal, Latin American customer call centers on what was formerly an abandoned industrial site. The building has one of the most advanced cooling systems in the world (heat not being an issue in this climate), which is integrated not only into the automation system (designed by Siemens) but also into a sophisticated, and quite elegant, design for its primary "skin" - along with excellent execution of green roofs, air silos and other more accepted forms of sustainable design.
This particular call center was designed for 2,000 employees and currently has 1,200 working in a comfortable, open interior that could have been found in the pages of Dwell. The open roof accommodates workers having lunch (or smoking, since Mexico now outlaws indoor smoking in public spaces) with open walkways through a diverse, garden-like environment. Fuel efficiency is embedded into an elaborate water-cooling system, and although solar panels were not implemented in the original construction, there is a plan to easily add them to large "umbrellas" which top the cooling silos.
But why does Emily's book come to mind? The employees in this center, which serves all of Latin America except Brazil, are rightly viewed as Emily would view them: important to the banks customer satisfaction, loyalty and ultimately, its profitability. "Knowledge workers", as we began calling them in the long-ago eighties, are now a valuable commodity the world over, and keeping them is an important goal for global service organizations. That means a comfortable and pleasant, if not inspirational, working environment. Here's Emily's view of working environments:
"Smart companies are realizing that the working conditions in their call centers are a significant barometer of the regard they have for their customers. You can't just throw some workers in a badly-lit room with uncomfortable seats and half-baked management, and expect them to take good care of your customers. Instead, you have to pay attention to details and make sure your call centers are easy, pleasant places to be for hours at a time. It's a wholistic thing. Any company that believes customer service is important, had better give this kind of consistently stellar support to their employees. It is becoming the only way to go, since it has always proven to be the most intelligent and sustainable way to ensure that those employees are then inspired to give amazing service to your customers."
Of course, the center, which was built for 2,000 employees and draws workers to a non-residential area, raises the issue of how sustainable commuting is for the long term. As Kaid Benfield here on SustainableCitiesCollective and others have pointed out, reducing commuting through better plannng or by telecommuting is becoming more popular for reducing traffic and promoting sustainability. But supporting customer service workers at home may not yet be practical in developing countries. In the meantime, great architecture and a supportive work environment goes a long way toward creating less stress in the workplace and eliminating the wasted "energy" of customer frustration.
Here's a good article from Siemens own magazine about Mexico and green building, along with excellent photos of the Queretaro building.