David Rolls has seen first hand how a well-designed workplace can radically improve business outcomes. He was a senior executive at Lend Lease 10 years ago when it moved into its state-of-the-art headquarters at The Bond in Sydney.
The premises’ novel concepts included a huge internal staircase.
“I remember standing on the stairs on the day we moved in and grabbing two people I needed,” says Rolls, now group executive of commercial development, at Mirvac. “We solved my issue in five minutes when it would have taken two weeks if we’d had to align diaries for a meeting. It totally changed the way Lend Lease worked.”
For the past 12 months Rolls has been working on ideas for Mirvac’s new Sydney headquarters. As one of Australia’s biggest office developers and landlords, Mirvac knows that the biggest trend in workplace design is maximising chance encounters between people through shared work stations, central atriums and funky cafes.
“There is no one-size-fits-all. You must incorporate the DNA and the culture of the organisation into the design,” he says. “That requires a deep-seated understanding of how the organisation works and how it wants to work. HR people need to lead it organically because they understand the nature of the business.”
Cutting-edge workplace design is supposedly all about attracting and retaining the best talent and improving collaboration, productivity and innovation. Flagship projects in California such as Google’s transparent ‘canopies’ and Facebook’s hangar-like shed for 10,000 workers, designed by Frank Gehry, are based on staff moving around and mingling, using laptops and mobile phones, rather than sitting at a dedicated desk. But is there any evidence that the ‘bump into’ factor really achieves these aims?
Well, yes, according to Work Spaces That Move People, an article in Harvard Business Review last October. The authors argue that new technology such as sensors, activity trackers, smartphones and network analytics can measure if chance encounters help improve overall business performance. Citing several case studies, they conclude that face-to-face interactions are by far the most important activity in an office and that chance encounters such as hallway and water cooler conversations improve performance. But the article also warns that organisations require much more data before making design decisions, and they must be clear about what they are trying to achieve, whether it be higher productivity, greater creativity or cultural change.
It’s this type of evidence-based research – facilitated by HR – that can avoid disappointments such as the emerging backlash against the design darling of the past few years: activity-based working (ABW). The theory is that workers choose different places to work, depending on what they are doing that day. The problem, according to Tony Armstrong, associate director of global commercial real estate company CBRE, is that some companies have introduced a “fake” version, with no quiet zones.
“Some corporates have created great ABW spaces,” he told the WorkTech15 conference in Melbourne. Examples included Commonwealth Bank’s Darling Quarter premises in Sydney, software provider Intuit’s custom-designed headquarters in Sydney and ANZ’s head office in Melbourne’s Docklands. “Others have said they’re doing ABW, but really it’s a cost-cutting exercise, packing people in elbow-to-elbow and saying this encourages collaboration. People also need private space.”
Armstrong also presented the findings of CBRE’s global survey late last year on the future of work and the workplace. A key finding was the expectation from younger workers that their work space would help their health and wellbeing.
Armstrong cited the new global Well Building Standard, finalised last year after five years’ research. It measures seven categories: air, water, light, fitness, nourishment, comfort and mind. Some relate to the physical design of workspace, such as plenty of natural light, while others are about employer-provided extras, such as healthy snacks and yoga.
It’s all about what workplace design expert Kelly Robinson calls the “vibe” of an office. Robinson, whose clients include AirBnB and SoundCloud, told the WorkTech15 conference that “people have to love their space” and that workplace design plays a big part, providing open, flowing spaces and a “heart” or cafeteria where people interact.
As Rolls points out, workplaces of the future require careful management to ensure they are delivering on the promise of greater collaboration, productivity, innovation or cultural change.
“Only half the work is designing and moving in,” he says. “The next half is curating the space and making sure it works. The HR job never stops.”
A presentation on ‘How to design an office that builds organisational capital’ will be hosted at AHRI’s National Convention August 26, 27.
This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the June 2015 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘Inside story’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here.