To the incessant roar of cascading water, you push your way through the turnstile and enter the street. There's a buzz around as a number of busy-looking young men and women, the men with backpacks in tow, head to work. You walk by slowly, passing a Lakme salon on your right; to the left are a couple of bank ATMs. A little ahead is a well-stocked store, where shoppers are looking through the shelves for the latest in FMCGs.

Further up, past an idling florist, is a busy café with tables strewn around the street. Young executives are sitting at these, laptops in hand and in animated discussion. A meeting is in progress. Further up, your eyes light up at the sight of a Kwality Swirls ice-cream parlour and tempted you are to buy one and sit on the many benches dotting the street to feast your eyes on the green, soothing landscaping all around. Well, if you don't want ice-cream, right opposite is a Knorr soup counter, if you're in the mood for something hot and spicy.

We are not in a park or a public street, but on ‘The Street' at the Hindustan Unilever office in Andheri in Mumbai. You enter as in a hotel these days, bags scanned by smart security personnel who keep an eye on you, as you walk through scanners into what HUL calls the ‘Drum', a high-domed atrium with water cascading to the basement, which houses a vast, two-level parking area for the 1,700 people who work here.

The Street is the heart of the building and all staffers have to walk through to enter their office space, which one can see in tiers all around, four storeys high. Either side of the street is glassed in, allowing lots of light to stream in. One side of the building has been designed so as to preserve a 100-year-old cashew tree, Shaweta Pandey, Employee Services Head, tells us. So, one can see lots of green all around, the landscaping inside the air-conditioned Street (designed in a way that the coolness is felt only two storeys high!) and on the outside as well.

The HUL offices in Mumbai and the foods division from Bangalore were consolidated in this building when it was occupied last year in January. The office, which spans 7,83,200 sq ft, including the basements, has come up on 14 acres of land that HUL had acquired in the '50s and which housed its research centre. As Leena Nair, Executive Director, HR, points out, an office as expansive as HUL's would have been impossible to conceive in Mumbai if it didn't own this vast tract of land.

The IT companies, she concedes, had set the trend in many ways for ‘younger' campuses and HUL's office too reflects the transformation the company has been undergoing in the past few years. “But, it wasn't just senior management who decided how this office was to be. We brought in people from different functions and teams and quizzed them on what they expected from their new workplace. What emerged from all these discussions was that it should provide for lots of connectivity and should be an open office. So all these things that you see in the street, the ‘brand verandahs', places with sofas and chairs to sit and have informal meetings, enable that. To get to other parts of the office, you need to go across the Street. So, you're part of a large, connected team. Otherwise, as part of a large organisation, you can get lost,” elaborates Nair.

Another shift was the philosophy of ‘work where you are'. “I must say the young took to it soon. The building is 100 per cent WiFi-enabled. People can use their laptops while sitting on the benches outside, or work under a tree on the lawns,” says Nair. Another mindset shift is to get management level staffers to work out of home at least once a week or fortnight. Nair says they even force company MD & CEO, Nitin Paranjpe, to work out of home occasionally so that the message goes down the organisation!

The third important thing for HUL's office being built around the street “was you must think and feel consumer and brands. We are really a simple organisation meeting the simple needs of consumers everywhere. We sell soap and soup. We are not trying to send a man to the moon. So a lot of our brands and consumers are on the Street.” And, the first critical consumers, of course, of any new products, are HUL staffers themselves, who get staff discounts to buy all the HUL brands at the U Shop, with around 1,000 stock-keeping units across categories. It has the highest footfalls on the Street.

Nair points out that the Street is also a mini-incubation centre for its brands. The Bru World Café, for instance, which stocks a wide range of premium gourmet coffee (and, where we repair to later) such as Colombian and Costa Rican and which uses brewing methods from around the world such as the French Press and the Italian Moka Pot, also offers a wide range of rolls, pies, sandwiches and desserts. The Café was first tried out there and now six such cafes have come up around Mumbai.

So too the Kwality Swirls Parlour which offers a lip-smacking range of smoothies and sundaes and flavours of ice-creams. That too was incubated here before being taken to market. “So brands and consumers hit you every single day and you can touch and feel the brand. Every product is launched here first. So the people here experience it first and give instant feedback,” says Nair.

Shaweta Pandey and Prasad Pradhan, Corporate Communications head, take us on a tour of the office complex, which was awarded a green rating for integrated habitat assessment at the National Conference on Green Design. All informal meeting spaces overlook the street. The formal meeting rooms, she points out, do not have an entrance from the workplace but have been positioned out in the corridors. “The meeting rooms, where you have to work with other teams, are separate ‘bookable' rooms online. Otherwise, in meeting rooms located within the work space, you come out to take a call and disturb several others outside.”

The furniture is all in white, even though Pandey says it's difficult to clean it, it was a deliberate decision. “We wanted the vibrancy to come from our people, the clothes they wear and didn't want the environment to be overwhelmed by the furniture.

Pandey runs a tight ship. Everybody follows a five-day week and she doesn't allow the air-conditioning to run during the weekend. If meetings have to happen, then there are meeting rooms in the ‘Drum' where one can meet before entering the Street. Agency and supplier meetings too happen in this area and most visitors don't need to enter the office. Air-conditioning is switched off by 7.30 pm. “With the swipe cards I get a report on who stayed late everyday and if this goes on, the department head is informed to tell their teams to go home early.”

She points out that the perils of an open office are to keep information confidential and they don't want too much paper flying around. So printers can be activated only when one flashes an employee card. “I can wire a print from my desk to a printer on another floor where I have a meeting and flash my card and take a print there.”

The annexe of the main building has many other facilities. While it houses a training centre, there is a badminton court, a swank gym, and a day-care centre which many working mums at HUL really appreciate. Pallavi Bakshi in the HR function has put her three-year-old daughter in the day-care and says it's a huge relief to be able to go in and check on her daughter whenever she wants.

Already, Leena Nair points out there are over 30 babies in the day-care and many more parents are waiting to admit their children there. Says she: “It gives them the comfort … today's generation, men or women, have a hard time balancing their work-life, because of dual careers and the absence of family support. So, whether it is a day-care or employees' physical fitness, we as an organisation felt we had to provide it.”

Employees are monitored on their health parameters and are encouraged to get fit. Thirty-eight-year-old N.P. Seetharam, who works in the research wing, for instance, shed 15 kg over a year working out at the gym four days a week.

We return to the Street where 29-year-old Arvind Iyer, brand manager for deos, is waiting at the Bru Café to talk to us. Iyer is the fulcrum of the HUL rock band — they even had a show in the Street a few months ago, to a rocking audience. HUL's Executive Director, personal products, Gopal Vittal, too is an enthusiastic member of this group.

Iyer begins by asking us, “What do you think of our deo brands? Do you use Sure?” When we tell him that we hadn't tried it, he slips into marketer mode: “Try it, it works much better than any other deo. I don't use anything else. Let me know what you think.”

This eagerness to receive consumer feedback was evident in every one of the HUL staffers we met, whether they were from finance or HR. As Leena Nair explained to us, “Anyone can offer really good consumer insight or an idea that catalyses a brand or a category. That's why we are putting so much effort into making sure that every employee has the means to gain these insights and stay connected to the consumer.”

That is first evident from the many trappings on the Street where HUL employees can stop by and get a fix on what the consumer is saying or thinking about Lever products at any time. There are ‘listen-in' kiosks with headsets where any Lever employee can tune in to the “Voice of the Consumer” — recordings of calls made by consumers to the company's brand helpline. Then there are live video feeds from CCTVs located in mom-and-pop stores around the country, where one can glimpse live a harried housewife doing some comparison shopping, before settling for a Rin bar or some other brand.

But do employees really put these facilities to use as they rush in and rush out of office? “Nitin (Paranjpe, the CEO) is very keen on this initiative. He loves to walk by and see employees tuned in… that prompts many of us to do it,” says a mid-level executive we met on the Street.

Apart from bringing the ‘Voice of the Consumer' to its Mumbai HQ, HUL also pushes its employees from across functions to make field visits a part of their routine travel plans. The company's Chief Financial Officer, R. Sridhar, mentions how he spent 3-4 hours visiting retail stores during a recent Delhi trip, leading to the happy discovery that Dove was among the fastest selling brands across categories.

Then, there is Mission Bushfire, a periodic exercise in which Lever executives from across functions can enrol and travel to remote locations to oversee a product launch or the rollout of a distribution initiative.

And, of course, the U Shop, also provides a ready consumer connect for HUL's brand managers. The store does brisk business in everything from broken basmati rice — HUL exports the rice — to HUL-emblazoned white T-shirts. On ‘family days' hundreds of HUL families turn up, to shop and use the stores on the Street. The Lakme Salon just next to U Shop is a big draw too. How cool is it to get a quick makeover at your office salon before you sashay out to that weekend party?