Thursday, 16 November 2017

Designing better workplaces

Last night’s talk was organised by the University of Technology, Sydney’s Information and Knowledge Group as part of the seminar series called Information Innovation @ UTS. The subject was activity-based working and the technologies transforming workplaces. There were three speakers. Angela Ferguson is an interior designer with 20 years’ experience who works at Futurespace. Stuart Munro is a workplace change specialist, his clients include Investa and Transport for NSW. James Dellow is a human-centred designer.

Ferguson said she became an interior designer because she loved being outdoors. Her mum thought TV was bad for you and Angela spent most of her childhood outside riding bikes. She had seen offices, so when she became old enough and when people asked her what she wanted to do she realised that she didn’t want to end up in an office. She started to have an inkling about the built environment and how it makes you feel. She believes that people are a product of their environment. She went to RMIT, and since graduating she has been with Futurespace since 2009.

She said, “Workplaces need to be humane.” Futurespace designed the Google offices in Australia between 2007 and 2009. She said their workplaces “are geared toward hiring the best”. They wanted to make spaces where people want to be. They made the first sustainable Google office in the world. They also designed the Microsoft office, “For people to come together to collaborate.” It has three times the number of collaborative settings than any other project they have done. They also did the Jones Lang Lasalle office, which became the Property Council of Australia’s ‘workplace of the year’. Flexibility was built into the design because you could not predict how the workforce would grow over the period time of the office space lease.

Futurespace also did the REA Group ( office, “Aligning the principles of agile software development with the workspace.” Here, the physical environment had to allow the team to be open and flexible. With the office the key driver was aligning the brand with the physical environment, including behaviours and culture. The founders were passionate about travel, so the building was a heritage structure and embodied the ideas of travel and discovery. Futurespace also did the Magellan offices. For the MYOB offices in Melbourne, they brought the development engineers into the same precinct as the rest of the company. Previously, the engineers were outside Melbourne in a shopping centre. They moved the tech people to a warehouse in Richmond, allowing them to be part of a broader tech community.

For the KPMG Innovation Hub in Barangaroo they decided to move away from standard corporate office buildings. Thus, she said, it is an island amid the towers of Barangaroo where people can innovate in a safe space. For the Richard Crooks construction business, a family business, the owners wanted the workspace to feel like home. Futurespace also did the PEXA offices. PEXA software does the conveyancing part of property transactions. Managers wanted a space to support the business as it grows.

“Australia leads world in workplace design worldwide,” said Ferguson. The next frontier, she went on, is spaces where clients will interact with the company. So, physical space is more important than ever. Over the past 18 months her firm has worked with PWC in Sydney and Melbourne to redesign their spaces. Now, clients can collaborate with PWC as if they were back at their own offices. Design, Ferguson said, is more than just the appearance. It is how the thing works. She believes her firm can improve people’s lives.

Stuart Munro, who works at Montlaur, said the focus should be on the people component. Work has changed so much over the years and workplaces have too, he said. For London’s strategic plan for the period from 1900 to 1925, to give an example of how fast things can change, the first item for city managers to address was what to do with horse manure but by 1920 there were no more horses used for transport. Organisations have and will continue to be disrupted, he said, and brought up a slide showing the average length of life for companies over time, as measured by the time spent on the S&P 500 share index in the US.

He said organisations need to work differently to solve tomorrow’s problems. By 2020 66 percent of Australian companies will have adopted an agile work style, and activity-based working, which gives employees a choice to work where they see fit. Sharing space is important within this paradigm. There are also more interactions. You can choose to sit next to different people on different days. You introduce a human scale to the work environment via neighbourhoods, so that you do not have people dispersed over enormous campuses.

There are three things to focus on, Munro said, pulling up a slide: the virtual component, the physical component, and the people component.

But he said that different organisations are more evolved than others. It was about recalibrating the workplace.

He pointed to a leading brand agency that his firm is working with that wants to stay relevant. The company wants to bring people together like threads to form a strong rope.

He said that the employer wanted to use the “bump factor” to bring people together in the workplace, so that they would meet each other during the day in unexpected encounters. Also, mobility would allow you to access different knowledge, he said. The other aspiration for the workplace was that it would be multi-dimensional, where people do not stay at one desk, and where more choice enhances the way they work. He cautioned that commercial office-space leases are normally for 10 years, but workplaces may change a lot in that time.

James Dellow is focused on designing better digital workplaces. He said that you need to deliver something that doesn’t just tick off the functional requirements list, but that rather is inspiring. He said that going to work on the train is still desirable because it is better for networking, and enables employees to find a community. We hold technology firms up as the pinnacle of practitioners when it comes to workspaces, but it is not necessarily the case in reality.

He said that you have to tailor digital workplaces to the company, and technology can change how you work but that virtualisation is a scary concept.

He said that there is still a huge value in physical workplaces, but all people can’t be in the same place all the time. The thing is how to make workplaces perform better. Wordpress shut its head office because no-one was going there. He also pointed to a collaboration between Microsoft and furniture maker Steelecase, which he called, “Nice but not a gamechanger.” The question is how to use technology to nudge and augment and encourage workplaces to be better. You have to engineer serendipity, he said, and help fight social isolation. It is important to create inspiration with technology not just focus on meeting rooms, by putting people at the centre and making the workplace experience-driven. We need to make unconventional choices but that does not necessarily mean workplaces become more expensive. You have to think of offices as platforms for work.

Angela said during the question-and-answer period that there are probably 20 true activity-based workplaces in Australia. Munro said it is cheaper for big banks to have activity-based workspaces because it means less floor space for the same number of employees. Angela emphasised: “First, survey.” All workplaces surveyed were vacated 40 to 60 percent of the time. Dellow said that previously IT came in to fit stuff at the end of the design process but now it is being thought of as more crucial to the process. Angela said that activity-based workspace environments are less about ownership of space, and more about what you have to do. You have a locker, a home base, and a neighbourhood, and you work within those parameters. She said that at Jones Lang Lasalle, 70 percent of people thought that they were more productive after they started working in an activity-based workspace, when surveyed. They are collecting more data than before. Dellow said that corporate culture has changed, and you don’t need to be at your desk between 9 and 5 anymore. Munro pointed to the Leesman index. He also said that redesign projects are not just fixed projects anymore, but they evolve after months or years. He added that you can’t wait 10 years before you make changes. Angela noted that workplaces have protocols so things left in spaces will be collected and kept aside to be collected later.

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