Tag Archives: activity based working

Is your work flexible, agile or autonomous? (and what is the difference anyway)


What does flexible mean to you? Is it the hours you work? Or the place? Is activity based working the same as flexible working? And what does agile working really mean?

These days companies are frequently talking about offering flexible and agile working conditions or environments but what that means in reality can vary widely between different organisations.  If you google “flexible work” in Australia you will find the top links are to the government Fair Work Australia website. Fair Work defines flexible work as “Examples of flexible working arrangements include changes to: hours of work (eg. changes to start and finish times), patterns of work (eg. split shifts or job sharing),locations of work (eg. working from home).” However, one of the key items of note in Fair Works requirements for defining and flexible working arrangements is that everything is documented and approved – essentially it is a contractual definition of flexible.  Definitions from government bodies in the UK and USA are similar.  Is this what you thought flexible working was? I only discovered this definition when I was returning to work part time after maternity leave and I found it very surprising – for years I thought I’d had flexible working arrangements but it hadn’t been this. This contractual or legal definition of ‘flexible work’ does not allow the flexibility of varying hours day to day or with little notice.  It’s not about trust or performance based outcomes, it’s still about watching and clocking the hours.  I was used to travelling, working from home if I had a tradesman coming (or needed to write a submission), taking time off if I worked a weekend or even just arriving at a different time because I chose to fit a yoga class in before work. I would have thought for many people having to contractually defining flexible is almost the opposite – it wouldn’t meet the needs of many people looking for more flexibility in the workplace – such as the ability to attend children’s school events or to care for a sick child while still working. So if flexible isn’t what I thought it was – what is the right terminology to clearly define this way of working, based upon trust and the ability to change the plan? Could this be activity based working (ABW) or agile working?

While ABW is a way of working, it is a way of working which has been very much linked to physical environments.  Often the term agile working is also used to define these types of working environments. But what is the difference between agile working and activity based working?

ABW is based upon the premise that staff choose where to work in order to best perform the task required.  The choice may be in a variety of work settings within the workplace, or somewhere else all together. It’s is generally acknowledged that for ABW to be successful, a different style of management with a higher level of trust is required. If a supportive management culture exists this would therefore seem to lend itself to people also chosing the time at which the work is performed?  But the definition of activity based working is also dependant upon the premise that staff don’t have an allocated desk. So what kind of work is it if you do have an allocated desk but you can choose when and where to work?

I recently started researching agile working and what this term really means, and discovered that agile working is a lot bigger than just a way of working or an environment.  Agile working begins with how you run your business “you allow the established routines within your business to quickly and seamlessly adapt to the quickly changing marketplace.” While agile working does involve the flexibility of time and place, it is also about the flexibility of management, structures and the ability for an organisation to respond and transform itself. (You notice this articl doesn’t use the government/contractual definition of flexibility but the more commonly accepted notion).

It’s also important to understand that agile working is not the same as agile development – it’s not about the post it notes.  Agile development is a project management methodology developed in software development in the 1990’s which in recent years has become very popular across various sectors.  One of the most popular methods is known as Scrum.  Scrum is best known for the daily scrum and scrum task board of post it notes. (Kanban is also similar).  One of the limitations of Scrum is that is works less well for teams whose members are geographically dispersed or part-time – whereas agile working should not be limited by this. Paul Allsop of the Agile Organisation defines “Agile working [as] bringing people, processes, connectivity and technology, time and place together to find the most appropriate and effective way of working to carry out a particular task. It is working within guidelines (of the task) but without boundaries (of how you achieve it).” 

In this article, John Eary discusses he differences between flexible and agile working, and the concept of work-life integration. Work life integration allows staff to choose when and where to work to suit their personal lives, and as long as performance outcomes are achieved.  John notes that “Managing this trade-off is a challenge for employers and employees. For employees the trade-off for more flexibility in working time is accepting greater responsibility in meeting work commitments. For employers the trade-off for staff becoming more responsible and responsive is adopting a relaxed attitude to their staff’ working practices, particularly to when staff choose to work. ”

To me, this says that agile working is really about giving everyone autonomy to chose how, when and where they work. Numerous studies have been published to verify that autonomy is one of the single biggest predictors of workplace satisfaction. Whether it is control of your place and time of work or of your environment, autonomy helps both attract and retain the best and brightest staff. And according to Gensler, autonomy also increases your chances of innovation.

While everyone these days claims to offer flexibility, how many organsisations are truly offering autonomy? When we ask for flexiblity should we be asking for autonomy instead?

Ceilidh Higgins

PS. I’m currently looking for a new role as a lead/senior workplace designer – in an organisation that offers flexibility (3 days per week) and autonomy.  Get in touch with me via the links at the bottom of the about page you are hiring! (no recruiters please)

What will the workplace look like in an automated world?

How will automation impact upon the design of our workplaces?  Is it really likely that our workplaces will cease to exist?

2016 became the year that automation of the workforce went mainstream, with the question “Will a Robot take my job?” becoming common across a wide swath of media and the internet, no longer the subject of only futurism and innovation blogs.  In fact, the changing nature of work, automation and the possible significant job losses associated with it are now considered one of the biggest challenges facing us globally in the next 10 years.  So how will this impact on the workplace and interior design?

For a seriously dystopian view, this video from the Guardian, paints a very different picture from the world we inhabit now – somewhat 1984 meets the Jetson’s – and like both of these, it’s probably a bit too far fetched to be real.  Whilst its true that many jobs or parts of jobs could be automated, the reality is that automation is likely to be slower to take over than we imagine, and that a world without work (and the workplace) isn’t likely to be coming any time soon.  There are a number of reasons for this, reasons that are less about technology than they are social, political and psychological.  We just don’t trust machines.  Our societies are not set up to function in a world of no work – we need to get paid to live.  Its likely that ‘busy work’ will continue for some time after many jobs could have been automated.  Already we see this in architecture, interior design and engineering.  We have students, but not the latest software.  Possibly no-one in the office even knows what the latest software can do, or maybe no-one has had time to learn it yet. Perhaps managers insist that it needs to be done the way it always was, the other way won’t work (or they are scared it will and that they will become irrelevant).  So still the students do the manual repetitive tasks that could already be done by software.  I imagine its the same to some extent in all industries – although construction is one of the worst (see my posts on disruptive innovation and the future of architecture).   Linked to the Guardian video is a great article about how we need to change society before we can get rid of work.  My belief then, is that the workplace will continue to exist for some time to come.

Perhaps it is more likely we will see more co-working spaces to provide both individual and corporate tenants flexibility to cater for the changing nature of work. We are already seeing the idea of the freelance ‘gig economy’ (although in Australia at least casual employment has apparently remained at a steady percentage since the nineties). The accompanying growth in co-working spaces caters for both these freelancers and smaller startups.  However it’s unlikely we will all become freelance entrepreneurs. But that’s not to say there won’t be more of us using co-working spaces.

While some predictions suggest that automation could take 30-50% of jobs, more likely scenario is that automation takes parts of jobs – many jobs are a mix of repetitive and non-repetitive cognitive tasks. My job as an interior designer still exists, but certain tasks won’t.  The choices will be to either have less staff or retain a similar numbers of staff but everyone becomes part time (and we all supplement our incomes selling stuff on Etsy…)  Possibly different organisations may make different choices – but with more and more staff sick of working long hours and wanting better work life balance (or perhaps time to make money online) the chances of a larger part time workforce would seem to be high.  Perhaps we won’t just work in one job or place but in several.  Either way we would see workplaces either shrinking or more people working out of co-working spaces part or all of the time.  To some extent, this would mean that current trends of activity based working with its more flexible approach to space per person and co-working will continue.

The very development of co-working spaces highlights the reason why the workplace will continue to exist. It’s social. From my own experience I’ve always found one of the biggest barriers to a remotely distributed team is the random connections and conversations, often referred to these days as the ‘bump’ factor (although they happen just as much sitting at a desk as at a corridor). Neil Usher sums it up really well in this blog “Only when technology begins to absorb unscheduled, occasional, distracted, interrupted and uninvited multi-participant conversation will it begin to scratch the surface. In this respect, forget the cloud, technology needs to be in the crowd.”

Neil also talks about the change in the design of what we consider to be a workplace and the influence of other spheres of design. Our offices are already starting to merge into spaces less dominated by cubicles and computers, with more in common with residential or hospitality spaces. The co-working and activity based working models also bring to this the concept of office-as-a-service, with ideas of hotel style concierges, retail style IT genius bars and perhaps food and beverage options. I agree with Neil, that this trend will continue (although maybe the Genius Bar will be staffed by robots?), and this presents another challenge to those designing (and even more so paying) for the workplace – design trends in hospitality and retail change a lot faster than a traditional ten year commercial lease!

To me though, one of the most exciting trends in workplace design will be the ability to create simulations during the design stages and post occupancy evaluations in real time. The ability to test our designs and how people interact with them creates an opportunity for architects and designers never seen before. Particularly as the workplace becomes a consumer choice (as we can work from anywhere), the ability to create evidence based designs that we can prove are attracting people to use the workplace gives workplace designers so much more relevance than being seen as someone who pretties up the space. Not only that, we can start to generate evidence as to how workplace design contributes to productivity, teamwork, collaboration and wellbeing. I wrote an article on this use of simulations and data several years ago, and now the idea is starting to go mainstream – co-working space WeWork are starting to actually do it, and software giant Autodesk are predicting it to be one of the big industry changing trends.

None of this means that the workplace will look so different after all – except maybe a robot will deliver your coffee. Trends in design and furniture will continue to come and go. Wellbeing, biophilla and plants might still be important design criteria – maybe you might kneel instead of standing or sitting – but probably you will still go to work in an office that has some kind of work surface (I’m hoping for the giant tablet bringing a return to the drawing board), coffee (maybe your coffee robot is not just bringing it, but also the barista) and at least some co-workers.  Maybe some of you would rather Alice’s world…

Ceilidh Higgins

Ps. In my own future of work, next week I am looking forwards to joining the team at Futurespace!

Can we have a workplace of the future without a boss of the future?

No more boss ... by Bousure, on Flickr
For some years now, but with increasing pace – books, blogs and videos are all predicting a new (and often idyllically portrayed) world of work where workers are empowered to choose where and when they work, teams are built on a project basis to find the best workers, and personal and family life are interwoven around the way we work (this example is from Microsoft). The idea of the physical workplace itself, as a service or as a consumer item forms part of this world, along with technology that is now becoming very real – on demand video conferencing (often with holograms).

 I first remember encountering theses concepts some years ago reading Thomas W Malone’s “The Future of Work” which predicted decentralisation of organisations and more freedom for employees to determine when, where and what to do.  At the time I read the book, the technology wasn’t quite real for me yet, but was already starting to change the way we work. In the 5 or 6 years since then, I know that my iPad and iPhone have drastically changed how I can work, in particular while I am traveling.

This new world of work is sometimes given a timeframe as in this study – Workplace 2040. But what’s stopping this from being Workplace 2020? I don’t think it’s technology, I think it’s the people. One of the key things these scenarios all rely on is the independence of the workers and the ability of these people to work together regardless of physical locations. For the majority of workplaces today, these are already no longer technology issues, any difficulties come down to human nature.

Very few jobs are yet structured around only around doing a set amount of work. Most are still structured around an expectation of set working hours, although perhaps these hours are more flexible now than a generation ago. It is still much more usual to see people staying back because the work is not finished, than for them to go home early when all the work is done. One issue in many workplaces, after of years of economic downturn – is that its pretty rare the work is ever all done, and if it is we worry that to leave early would make us a target for redundancy. But most of the time there are simply insufficient numbers of staff for the work to ever actually be finished. The other issue is that there is still a very common view that we are employed just as much to “be” at the place of work, as we are to “do” work. People are afraid if they finish their work and leave early (or even on time) they will be judged both by their managers and their peers as being lazy, slacking off, not contributing or not being team players – when in actual fact they might be more efficient and better at their jobs. To many employees, flexible has come to mean flexible for employers (I know of one firm where when employees raised the issue of flexibility the employer genuinely believed this meant flexibility in how the work was done – in the office, with no idea staff were wanting flexibility in how and when they worked!)

Even in organisations which already have activity based working or other forms of agile working, these same kinds of problems are occurring. I heard a story about one large ABW workplace which has a working from home policy, but the main workplace is often too full. Is it full because the environment itself is so successful and staff can’t stay away, or is it because there is a least one manager who wanders about every morning ticking off a role of staff and then contacting anyone who hasn’t been in the office for 2 days?

In an ABW environment, the distrust managers have of workers whom they can’t see can manifest even when staff are working within the office but beyond the managers view. It’s the same emotional motivations that lead to workplaces with beautiful but empty breakout spaces – staff are afraid of being seen as slacking off.Perhaps it’s also this fear behind why some middle managers are also so reluctant to give up their offices, it’s not so much about the work they do, or even the status, but their belief that they have earned  their right to not be watched over by the boss.

Another working model enabled by technology and affected by the same issue is distributed working, where company employees are based in different geographic locations.  I have worked in this model and it does present interesting challenges as a team leader.  Whilst staff may have a manger in their physical location, as a team leader you only know your staff are working on your project by the work they produce. You do have to manage differently for performance based outcomes – if you have your team sitting in front of you they are more likely to communicate with you more directly both with questions about the work, if someone else asks them to do something or when the work allocated is completed. Managing a distributed team does take more work – but not only does it allow more flexibility in team structures, where we can work and deliver projects – but it actually teaches managers and team leaders to be better at their jobs, better organised and better communicators.

Managements fear of the invisible employee is not a problem of architecture or design – it doesn’t matter what sort of office you have or how amazing your design team are. If your managers don’t trust their staff and are not trained to manage remote staff (from on another floor to in another country), then ‘new ways of working’ won’t work for your organisation. Very few organisations actually train people to manage teams, we don’t learn it at university either. Historically managers usually start out on the management path because they are good at the technical thing that they do – not because they are good at managing other people. If they make money for the organisation, they are likely to be promoted further regardless of their people management skills. Maybe at some point their organisation will decide they need some extra ‘soft skills’ but is likely they have developed their style and habits by then, and it’s now long past when they really would have benefited from them. Maybe as part of a new office fitout someone will have realized that a change management program is required. But in a large organisation, is it thorough enough to go right down through all levels of management and is the whole of the organisation seriously aligned to the goal (even when their own bosses are not looking)?

Perhaps a self managed team structure is the answer? Some organisations are now starting to abolish middle management in favour of this idea. I wonder how it will work, will natural managers and leaders start to emerge? Or does it only work if the whole team is highly organised and motivated (in effect naturally good at managing themselves at least)?

Is it possible the fear of flexibility and remote working is generational difference, and one that will simply disappear between now and 2040? I don’t think so. Whilst I see many more younger managers who are comfortable with remote management and who have more trust in their teams, than older ones. But I don’t think its necessarily a distinction of age, but one of culture and of an acceptance that the way we work has already changed. I am frequently shocked that anyone could suggest that we might work the same way now as back in the eighties or even nineties. In the 15 years since I graduated architecture the way we work has changed fundamentally. Not only has technology and software changed, but these changes – in particular the mobility and automation they have enabled means that new ways of working are not something of the future – they are already here, it’s just that some people don’t seem to have noticed it yet.

Ceilidh Higgins
Image Credits: “No more Boss”
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  Bousure 

The death of Activity Based Working?

The Valley of the Fallen

At last week’s Property Council breakfast on Activity Based Working – the panel moderator – Michael Cook, seemed determined to announce the death of Activity Based Working (ABW to the initiated, AWB to many others).  Asking the panel “What’s next after ABW?”  To me whilst it seems that many are hesitating to use the term Activity Based Working to describe their workplace, the way they are working seems very much like ABW.

Does it really matter if you call it ABW, agile or flexible working? Is there that much difference between the 3 (or any other terms out there).  Whilst there may be slight shifts in the focus of each of these ‘types’ of working, they all mean working in a space that suits what you right now. Maybe that at a desk, or maybe it’s in a huddle room, or at home, or even a ball pit. A ball pit?!? How can that be work? Well – maybe what you need to do right now is take a break,move around and have a colleague throw a ball at your head (or imagine throwing one at your bosses head). The question then becomes not only what spaces do I need to do my work but what activities does or should my workplace support and provide? Activities – oh that sounds a lot like we are actually back at activity based working then aren’t we?

The company that coined the term Activity Based Working, Veldhoen, certainly believe that ABW is not dead. In fact they think the opposite – that it is only just being born in Australia. For Veldhoen, ABW is still the future of work and they believe it is for everyone. They are not searching for the next big trend but seeking to make sure ABW is implemented properly. This was the comment from  an audience member from Veldhoen  (I think it may have been Gijs Nooteboom, apologies if I am wrong).  His comments left the panel in a moment of oddly stunned silence and I thought it was a shame that he hadn’t been part of the panel selection.

The morning began (way too early for networking – who wants to speak to people they don’t know at 7am before their first coffee?) with a presentation from Leigh Warner from JLL on the Property Council’s recent survey of ABW and further analysis of the likely uptake of ABW and its impact upon office space demand in Sydney over the next few decades. (You can download it here).  Regardless of what you think of ABW – and unsurprisingly views are polarised – the findings indicate that ABW will not have a significant impact upon real estate demand in Sydney over the coming years. This is due to a mix of factors including the likely uptake of ABW, the mix of tenant types and sizes in Sydney as well as the types of buildings suited to ABW and the rate of lease expiries each year.

Professor Richard De Dear from the University of Sydney then presented the University of Sydney research that made headlines last year, in its findings that ‘open offices are bad for you’. (My personal favourite headliner, Open-plan offices were devised by Satan in the deepest caverns of hell). In a very quick summary, the study covered 42,000 occupants in just over 300 buildings in the USA, Canada, Finland and Australia. Occupants were in a mix of enclosed offices and open plan cubicles with high, low or no partitions. The majority of the occupants were in enclosed offices or open plan cubicles with high partitions (and were in the USA). The findings were that across a range of measures from comfort, to furniture, to lighting and acoustics even through to interactions with colleagues, the people in enclosed offices were more satisfied. I”d seen this research online last year, and it is frequently accompanied by the suggestion that its quite likely the data is skewed by the fact that people in enclosed offices are more likely to be more senior and have more autonomy as well as higher overall engagement and satisfaction, as well as being fairly irrelevant to actual Australian office conditions of today, which differ substantially from US cubicle farms. Richard also presented some preliminary findings of Australian research which included the workspace type of flexi office.  He commented that the enclosed office was still rated higher by the occupant – but the graphs indicated that the flexi office did actually outperform the enclosed office on at least half the measures.

Putting these 2 presentations alongside one another, unsurprisingly, the densification or reduction of leased office space and its impact on employee satisfaction was a key topic for the panel discussion. The panel included Natalie Slessor from Lend Lease and Emily Dean from Telstra in addition to the speakers. Whilst there were no designers on the panel, there were certainly many in the room. You could almost hear the collective gasp across the room when Michael Cook suggested that designers were responsible for this densification – and thereby implying also, the low level of satisfaction of many office spaces. It has certainly been my experience that the densification of the office is driven by my clients, and not by designers. We work from what is possible and desirable through a range of options to get to the required number of staff. There are very few clients that engage designers before they agree to their leases. By the time we get involved, typically they have signed up for their 3,000m2 and they know they have their 250-300 staff – it is our job to fit them all in – the best we can and by educating our clients as to the options as to how to achieve this. Almost always there is compromise somewhere, a breakout room is shrunk, the number of meeting rooms reduced, or those desks put right in the circulation path to the toilets because at the end of the day they need to fit a certain number of people into their space.

Whoever may be responsible for this densification, the panel all agreed that companies that are reducing spaces and only looking for cost cutting are making a mistake in the longer term. It doesn’t matter what style of working we call a workplace, we need workplaces that match the business purposes and ways of working. A workplace in which staff enjoy coming to work and can do their best work meets these needs. Both Natalie and Emily agreed that the workplace projects that achieve these outcomes usually have a great leadership strategy. As Natalie Slessor put it nicely in response to Michael Cook’s question “should be talking to the corporate real estate team or the staff?” – “We should be talking to the CEO about what business question they want their workspace to answer”.

But getting back to the death of ABW. I think in some ways Veldhoen are right – ABW is certainly not dead. And perhaps nor is it quite the fad that many people want to call it. Do we call the open plan office a fad? If you think about it, we called a space full of high walled cubicles an open office, we called a space full of bench workstations an open office – and most ABW offices – well they are an open office too. Any office where the majority of staff are not sitting in cellular enclosed rooms is by definition an open office – even if we call it something different. This perhaps is the direction ABW is heading in, that it can have many shapes and appearances, but it is about spaces for activities.  Perhaps ABW is in fact a rewording of a design philosophy even older than the open office – form follows function!

Are you designing Activity Based Workplaces? Or are you calling them something else? And what about where you work – is an Activity Based Workplace suited to architecture, interior design or engineering? I find it intriguing the number of architects and designers who say no! Personally, I’m all for it.

Ceilidh Higgins

Image: This is one of my own, taken at the Valley of the Fallen on a recent trip to Spain.  Its a beautiful but strange place with an amazing tunnel like church which seems to have been dug into the hill, it was constructed by Franco as his own burial place and monument.

PS.  Its coming up to that time of year again to get your Revit fix!  I am presenting at RTC in Melbourne 29-31 May and Chicago 19-21 June.  Hope to see you there.

The social life of workspaces

IMG_4930 Recently I read this post on Office Insight and it reminded me to watch again one of my favourite architectural documentaries – The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. So I thought I’d also share it with you. You don’t have to be an architect to enjoy the film at all – anyone interested in human behaviour and cities as well as architecture, urban design, landscape architecture or interior design would find it interesting. In actual fact, I first came across it on recommendation of a friend who is a banker.

There are a couple of reasons why I love this film. The first is that it is really entertaining. William H Whyte has a deadpan sense of humor, with some memorable quotes describing the characters and of happenings in these urban spaces (personally I love the bit about the groups of men classed as “girl watchers”) and also the way he sometimes uses humor to state the obvious – like one of the “surprising” findings of the study – that people sit where there are places to sit.

The second reason why I love this film is that its all about people, and why people use certain spaces more than others. For me, its always been this interaction between people and space that has been the most interesting part of architecture, and one of the reasons why I gravitated towards interior design, as one area of architecture that is particularly people focussed and human in scale.

One of the things about this film is that it proves that essentially people don’t change that much, and, that what they want in an urban setting is very similar to what they want in an office space. The film dates from 1979, well before current popular terms in workplace design, such as sustainability and activity based working had been coined (or the concepts much discussed) – but interestingly enough, many of the key tenants of Whyte’s findings for small urban spaces are now routinely applied to office design. Choice of seating spaces, access to daylight, plants, food, art or entertainment and connections with circulation routes have become hallmarks of the best work environments 30 or so years later.

The first time I watched the film I remember thinking of some of these similarities. This time, one of the aspects that really struck me was that of choice. By providing different kinds of spaces, different levels of sun/shade, different heights/types of seating or different levels of noise – more people are likely to use the park or plaza. Of course with the park or plaza – people are making the choice in the first place to be there, whereas historically, for the office this was not always a choice. This is changing. The office becomes more and more one place amongst many which we might choose to work. In the same way the pocket park or plaza becomes a place where we might also choose to work. In this way, offices now compete with urban spaces, coffee shops and our homes as a place we might choose to be. While this shift is occurring, it is still the case for many people that the office is still the place they are expected to be most of the time they are working. By giving people choice of a variety of environments, we are likely to be improving their working day. Choice of where and how to work not only gives people a feeling of empowerment leading to positive emotional outcomes, but its also better for us physically as we move around and adopt different postures as opposed to sitting statically all day in one place.

One of the aspects Whyte mentions that hasn’t become a common feature of workplace design is water. Now there are a lot of reasons for this – its obviously complex, messy and expensive to introduce water inside your office building. However maybe we do need to look at one of the benefits that water brings – white noise. A common complaint in many an open plan office is the noise levels and the disruption that overhearing others can cause. Perhaps a waterfall might help reduce that feeling of overhearing your workstation neighbour? Being serious though, white noise is something that is quite underutilised in workplace design.

There is one of the big differences between urban space and work space – in the work place we do need to get work done. Perhaps one key is to recognize that Whyte is looking at the social life of urban space – and while the workplace needs spaces for a social life, it also needs spaces for isolation too. (I looked up what word I might use here to define the opposite of social, and I was actually surprised that most words were really negative!) Whyte noted that the main activity going on in these small urban spaces is “people watching other people”. Obviously if this was to be the main activity in the workplace we’d have a pretty dysfunctional workplace. Generally in the workplace most people don’t want to feel like their being watched (particularly if its by the boss!). There is obviously a need for more quiet secluded corners in a work place than in an urban space, a fact that is often compromised in the design of many kinds of open plan offices – activity based working or assigned seating. Although I think that the main desirable features – and in particular, the element of choice and variety is again what is important in creating these more concentrated (I don’t like to say anti-social) spaces.

Anyway, I encourage you to set aside an hour (or even just part of an hour to get an idea), sit back and enjoy the film and let me know what you think about urban spaces and workplaces.

Image Credits: This is actually one of my own, taken last year in NYC.  It is late in the day, so its not so surprising that the space is empty. I also went to a few of the main spaces featured in the documentary Paley Park and the Seagram, but didn’t have any good shots.  The same refreshment booth is still there in Paley Park, but I don’t recommend the coffee!

Are you sitting in a half empty office? What would you do with all that vacant space?

vacant 2 by devlon duthie, on Flickr

Two weeks ago I attended the Retrofit and Refurb conference in Sydney at Australian Technology Park. This is the first time I’ve attended this conference, and it’s a very diverse conference in terms of both the speakers and the attendees. The speakers were a mix of architects, engineers, sustainability consultants and suppliers, with the topics as diverse as the speakers and including energy upgrades, environmental upgrade agreements, GreenStar, workplace design issues, hotel refits and project case studies. I would say the target audience was building owners, however there really was something for anyone involved in refurbishing existing buildings – maybe not 2 full days though. The other feature of the conference program was that the sessions were not grouped in any logical fashion but different topics were spread across the two full days. So, for example you couldn’t choose to attend just a half day session to hear the topics about workplace design and GreenStar interiors. I assume this was deliberate in order to encourage attendees to spend the full two days at conference mingling and networking and visiting the supplier expo booths. For me it did mean a couple of sessions on my iPad catching up on emails and replying to comments on my blog – I’m not quite so interested in the detailed operations of air conditioning system upgrades! However, I certainly did find many of the presentations interesting though and have gathered new ideas for this blog as well as meeting some new people and catching up with others.

It was the first presentation of the conference which has inspired me this week. Simon Wild from Cundall’s presentation on multisite integration was one of the most interesting presentations of the conference covering a very diverse range of issues around building refurbishments and sustainability, with a focus on how integrating systems across multiple sites can offer environmental benefits (he has a great blog too). The case study presented was the Sydney Central Westfield, where by combining services systems across retail and office towers greater efficiency was achieved due to different functional uses and different peak loadings. Simon then spoke about how his could be taken further if larger numbers of buildings could share services, which is now becoming possible even remotely for electricity, due to remote transmission infrastucture where electricity is shared over data networks rather than physical transmission (I have heard a bit about this lately…but don’t ask me to explain any more than this about how it works!).

This discussion about multiple uses better utilising services got me thinking during the presentation about utilisation of office space – and how underutilized it is especially at night and on weekends…And then later in the presentation, Simon raised this very issue.

First some facts from Simon’s presentation:
A 1000 person activity based working (ABW) fitout with only 800 desks is equivalent to 15 years of the office operating carbon neutral.
Approx 50% of space in the CBD is vacant at any one time (and I think this is during work hours!)
City wide ABW in Sydney would save as much energy as making all the buildings in Sydney 6 star Nabers rated.

This week, this vacancy rate certainly made sense in my office, with a large number of staff away due partially to the exodus that seems to occur in most offices every school holidays or the week of long weekends. ABW starts to reduce this underutilized space belonging to a single organisation, but creates more empty space as organisations downsize their tenancies. We therefore have 2 kinds of space to consider – the space left vacant by tenants downsizing their tenancies and the temporarily vacant space by people in not being in the workplace.

So, how do we manage all this vacant space, what do we do with it? One suggestion at the conference was to convert commercial buildings into residential. But I’d like to contemplate how this could impact upon the way a traditional office or commercial building is designed and programmed, and how perhaps it could accommodate tenants working in an ABW a model, but other tenants as well, because ABW won’t be the answer for every workplace. Also how could such a building could accommodate other aspects of the changing workplace, such as the ageing population, more flexible working arrangements, options for working parents, and a closer integration of work and life. The commercial office tower as we know it really dates from the early to mid 20th century when western life was base around a separation of work and life with male workers with a stay at home mum and a couple of kids out in suburbia. The fact that these buildings stand at 50% empty consuming resources isn’t so surprising given how different our lives are today.

Mixed use commercial buildings are pretty common these days – the building that doesn’t have a coffee shop in the lobby is a rarity (certainly in Australia anyway), and it’s becoming quite common to have a couple of levels of retail and a food court beneath an office tower too. This is all great, but what else could we insert into our office buildings? In particular are there functions which would operate after hours or support the lifestyle choices of workers? Maybe all these extra functions shouldn’t all be at the bottom of the tower either? In Japan it’s not uncommon for common for restaurants and bars to be located within office tower buildings. Personally, I’m a big fan of a bar in the lobby – so much easier to convince your colleagues they do have time for a drink when they don’t have to go anywhere and maybe you will be able to pull in few more as they pass by.

At the other end of the healthy lifestyle scale, perhaps our office buildings can support some healthy choices too – some buildings already have commercial gyms, how about yoga, massage or acupuncture as well? Some of these kinds of spaces could even become flexible use spaces – meeting rooms during the day and yoga studio after work.

Currently, these kinds of facilities are either provided commercially or by single tenants for the use of their own staff, within their tenancies. Is there the opportunity for these spaces to be provided in a different model – either by the landlord, or perhaps by one large tenant but benefitting all tenants? This could enable better use if space throughout a building and enable landlords to fill up otherwise vacant space and entice new tenants. Maybe a landlord could provide a series of well being rooms suitable for massage, physio, doctors or acupuncture. Individual practitioners could rent the rooms perhaps on differing short or longer term arrangements. Maybe some operate commercially selling their services to individuals but maybe others are paid for by the corporate tenants as a benefit for their staff.

Landlord provided spaces and services, or commercial tenancies are quite straightforward in terms of who pays, the security of the space and shared access. Management of the spaces becomes the issue, with a landlord having more diverse functions and infrastructure to manage and operate. But how about tenants sharing out their tenancy space? What are the issues? And could the landlords actually help with this too?

Whilst the landlord could manage a major meeting and training facility for the use of all tenants, maybe this is better off managed by one of the tenant organizations. Perhaps they have a very high level of in-house meeting needs, specific expectations of service, or they are a training provider. Firstly, if this is to be a shared service, then the costs of the space and servicing it have to be considered – in my view it’s the landlord who is best placed to manage this, through rent discounts for tenants providing services such as this, and maybe a higher rent to other tenants. I’m not convinced these models should be a direct user pays system based on booking, but maybe that could work too – Although I think as soon as something like this becomes user pays, corporates just start to build their own.

The meeting facility is usually a discrete space though – what about letting people in to use all those vacant desks, informal breakout areas or casual meeting places? Or perhaps even breaking down the idea of one organisation, one tenancy? Traditionally the tenancy is required as a secure container for stuff (refer to my blog post on Natalie Slessor’s talk on the future workplace for more on this). More recently, this stuff was also electronic – data servers and computers. We had to protect our equipment, our papers, our computers and our data from being accessed by outsiders. What we could never really separate from outsiders was our people – today, it’s our people that are the most valuable asset. These days although we still want to protect our data, we don’t keep it on servers in our offices (creating yet more vacant space), we keep it on the cloud or in data centers. So why do we need that company network anymore? What if IT was provided by he landlord, as a utility, like electricity? Then there is no technical reason why I can’t come and work in your office for the day if it suits us both (oh, I didn’t mention, we have gotten rid of all those fixed computers and phones we need to keep secure too). The only reason left is confidentiality, which I think is mostly only a concern held by those who are up to something dodgy in the first place – or if it is a genuine issue – needs genuinely confidential space, not open plan offices anyway.

Does this help fill up the vacant space though? If I have just moved from my office to yours because you have better coffee and a bar and a massage room, we still might have some vacant space? Though it really does encourage choice, and highlight which offices are popular and place of choice to work then doesn’t it?

Maybe we can fill up some space with some more diverse functions, that encourage other things and parts of our lives too. Just a few more random thoughts – a commercial kitchen could be used by office caterers during the day and charities at night (I know there is one in Sydney OzHarvest that cooks for homeless), a model making workshop for the architectural practices could also replace our individual home garages and workshops, childcare shortages are a big issue in Australia and it would certainly help more women return to work if more centers are provided within workplaces…I’m sure you can think of more ideas? With the growth of the sharing economy and of co-working perhaps we will start to see a whole range of different ideas.

Is your workplace half empty right now? How would you share your office space? What kinds of facilities and services would you like to see in your workplace? Who would pay? Who should operate them?

Image credits
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  devlon duthie 

Do our clients see interior design as a product? Do we as an industry?

enduro cart by i k o, on FlickrFor me the next question that then follows, if our clients do see interior design (or architecture) as a product, or if we do, is that a problem anyway, and does it change the way we design?Last time I wrote I compared some aspects of the workplace to a Chanel handbag, but it wasn’t actually connected thoughts that lead to these questions and title of today’s post. The musings in this post are based upon some comments at Sydney Indesign’s WorkLife day held recently as part of the new and expanded design festival that used to be Saturday InDesign (for some highlights of the more traditional showroom side of the event, visit yellowtrace). The WorkLife day was subtitled with what has become the most popular seminar/talk theme this year – of course it was “The Future of the Workspace”. It was the third event this year I have attended with a similar title (and I missed the recent similar event hekd at the Museum of Sydney – which despite being over $400 for the day apparently sold out). I’m very pleased to see so much focus, discussion and education happening around workplace design in Australia right now, and I thought that having a more formal program alongside the indesign showroom and exhibition event was a great idea. I will say though whoever holds the next workplace design seminar probably needs to think of a different title – I will suggest you could use the “trend” key words collaboration, serendipity and authenticity instead perhaps? Certainly if you are directing your message at an industry crowd.

The format of the day was a series of 4 panel talks with time in between for networking and exploring the exhibition hub of Sydney Indesign – Galleria (at Australia Technology Park, Eveleigh). Whilst the amount of time for the sessions was fine for panel talks (around 45 mins), I felt that towards the end of the day the panels were losing focus and perhaps we could have gotten more out of the day with more prepared presentations or specific project images and discussion, in order to give the panels more to focus on. The line up of Australian interior designers and other workplace consultants was impressive including team members from most of the large ABW projects completed here in the last 10 years or so. (For the full program see the WorkLife website) Paul McGillick from Indesign did do a good job at keeping the panel members talking and trying to get contributions from everyone involved, but there are times when even the best moderators can’t stop those determined to put out their own message (We don’t really want to be sold product at these kind of events). The format of the event didn’t really lend itself to a narrative blog post summarizing each speaker and so I’ve been pondering over the last week in what format I would share it with you.

In the end, one of the discussions that has stuck in my mind the most, was during the first session of the day – “Who’s Afraid of ABW – Is the Party Over?” – with Matthew Blain (HASSELL), Rosemary Kirkby (formerly MLC, NAB & GPT) & Stephen Minnett (Futurespace). It was Rosemary who raised the suggestion that there is a danger that the term Activity Based Working has now in Australia become popularized and many organisations wanting to define themselves as progressive will start to say to their designers – yes I’ll have one of those thanks. Stephen agreed seeing that we are in danger of jumping to another stereotype. The old stereotype was open plan workstations, low partitions and a breakout area with “kindergarten furniture”. He believes that ABW will fail if done as a copy paste, within conventuals time frames without engaging with business leaders and HR. It will fail if drive by the “wombats” in FM and procurement. (I loved this comment and was very tempted to use a wombat image for this post – and in case there are any of you in FM and procurement reading – I would say the fact you are reading a blog about interior design means you can rest assured that you are not one of the wombats).

It is really from these points that my own thought process starts to take over, influenced by other comments and discussions throughout the day as well as my own experiences with clients and designers. At some level, no matter how we feel about it, I believe design is a product. Particularly to our clients. Our clients are engaging us to provide solutions to their problems – and at the end of the day – more often that it these solutions are physical spaces. This is partly because of the procurement process – if we don’t provide a physical space we don’t earn fees, but it is also because that is what we are trained in, and what we know. Sometimes as interior designers and architects we can make the mistake of thinking that design can lead a greater program of change, be that at the office of the city level. I going to be bold and say, it can’t. It can’t lead such processes, but it can be a key part of successful change. We as interior designers don’t have the business background or the necessary skills to lead our clients in changing their workplaces or their technology. If at the end of the day, they don’t engage in the idea that ABW is about their business processes at a much bigger level than just a new office – we can’t make them. As designers, we can’t change their IT systems or their management structures, or their workplace culture. We can educate and influence them perhaps, but they need to come to the party (and bring their whole management team, HR,IT, FM and the rest along with them) if they want a successful ABW solution.

Like Le Corbusiers Unité d’Habitation which inspired so many inferior copies that became the model for apartment slums, are we in danger of the same thing occurring with ABW offices – design solutions which take the physical appearances and funky furniture settings of ABW environments – but not the business change, the use data and the problem solving behind the design. Will these be the workplace slums of the future (this is an idea I’ve had tucked away for ages and had been looking for the right blog post to share it in!) I guess the real question could be, is that any worse or any different to how workplaces are designed today? As Stephen point out, ABW could be next in an already long line of trends.

I thinks perhaps this is not so much a danger, as an opportunity. Yes, ABW could end up another trend, but this is perhaps more due to clients attitudes than things we as individual interior designers or architects can control. Our clients frequently treat workplace design as a product – separate from their business. So many of them do view it as “buying a new office”, a task best left to facilities and procurement – not HR and management. Perhaps sometimes it becomes something management wants to be involved in, and they start to treat it like buying a new car or their own home. Whenever we are engaged because we are the cheapest or because the client wants our practice for their name or their brand – we truly are a product. But to me, at our end, if our firms talk about”house styles” or we specify something just because no one else has it yet, we see ourselves as a product. If we don’t understand that our clients are buying a product and we give them what we think they need without questioning or engaging with them and their business needs, then we are giving them an inferior product. If though at the end of the day, we give them a design which meets their current perceived needs, then that’s ok too. That’s a product they want to buy. If we can work with them to deliver an amazing design solution that enhances wellbeing and productivity, it doesn’t matter if we call it ABW or something else, then that’s a great outcome, but at some level – it is still a product.

Being a product isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If its a crappily designed and produced product that people don’t enjoying using and want to send to landfill the next week, then yes it is a bad thing. But consider that the iPhone is a product too – and is both revolutionary and great design. I think I’d be happy if my next fitout was compared to an iPhone – wouldn’t you?

Image credits:

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License by i k o

What could a workplace and a Chanel handbag have in common?

My first ever Chanel 2.55 by rosebennet, on FlickrRecently I attended a de.frost* event, the topic was The Future of Workspaces, featuring Natalie Slessor, Head of Workplace at Lend Lease. Firstly let me say I think the concept Frost* have putting on these events is great. I guess you would describe Frost* as a graphic design agency (but they seem to be much more than this could mean) and once a month they organise an event in their office with a speaker, put on some drinks and nibbles (all pretty low key) and invite a bunch of people that they work with ( clients, architects, designers, project managers, builders). This was the first of their events I’d been to (although it is up to number 15 apparently) and I thought it was a great event. I had the chance to catch up with quite a number of people, meet a few new ones and hear a great speaker, I thought it was a really good mix – and that they got a good balance of time between the formal part of the evening and the informal mixing and networking – which often seems to be something that event organisers find a difficult balance.

So onto the speaker, Natalie Slessor. I’ve seen her speak before (at GBCA’s Workplaces of the Future Summit, see my previous blog entry) and she is a great presenter with a very interesting point of view on the workplace. Natalie is an environmental psychologist at Lend Lease – not a consultant that is common on our workplace project teams in Australia (or I think even in psychology here – I know quite a few psychologists and I’ve never met another environmental psych working in Australia. Maybe we don’t train them? Natalie is from the UK and the only other ones I’ve met or heard of are from the UK too…)

As I mentioned, Natalie is also a great presenter, and I’m starting to see that she likes to use different presentation structures as a storytelling technique. The presentation this evening was structured around a single slide with a grid of images with each row and column connecting ideas. It was a very effective technique,and I’m sure whilst it looked simple it must have taken a lot of work to simplify such complex ideas down to a 2 way grid of 24 squares! You can view the slide below.

PowerPoint Presentation

The key question of Natalie’s talk was “What is the Workplace for”.  Now I didn’t take any notes at the talk and I’m going to try and retell the story based on the images alone. So any misinterpretations are entirely my own,and I’m sure I will have missed some great points but perhaps some of my readers will have something to add (I know a few of you were there!). Following Natalie’s presentation there was plenty of time for discussion and questions, some of which I’ve woven into the story – there was of course plenty more form many viewpoints and those of you that we’re there can add your own stories of the night to the comments. (Or even if you weren’t – now you can be part of the discussion).  I’ll also state here that the references to the Chanel handbag are my own…but you will see the link.

First like Natalie did I’m going to explain what each row of the grid represents. The first row is the history reasons why the workplace exists. The second to fourth rows are about where we have been, where we are now and the direction we are moving towards. The fifth row is about psychology and the final row is what Natalie believes we should be aiming for in a workplace.

Now the first image is easy to remember – the workplace was created as a container. A container for the tools and machines to do the work, that were too expensive, too large (or too dirty?) for us to have in our homes. Gathering all these tools and people together created efficiency (this is what the cogs represent). Until recently, work meant physical things – whether it was a product or a piece of paper – so by co-locating eve white collar workers, efficiencies were gained – I can hand you that paper rather than mail it. So the office was also for gathering people together, as shown in the third image. The final image represents the workplace as being inspirational. Creating a place, creates part of the company identity, and historically inspiring loyalty was also part of the workplace equation. This row of images was why the workplace was created, and to some extent the second row, where have we been, covers a lot of the same ground. The workplace was a manual process (film), where ever more process efficiencies were to be gained (a portrait of Taylor – well known for applying production process thinking to workspace design known as Taylorism or scientific management). Buildings were designed as statements about the companies they housed with branding part of the building design. The Money Box building in Sydney was home to the Commonwealth Bank and I’m sure you recognize the Chrysler Building, one of the most branded buildings I’ve ever come across (I recollect there are parts inspired by hubcaps as well as other car parts and the Chrysler logo, I think also it was one of the first buildings to use metallic materials that were more akin to cars at the time). Part of this design ethos was also giving employees something to aspire to – I will climb my way up to the top floor or the corner office.

Not much of this seems quite so relevant today does it? Buildings are anonymous and owned by investors not branded for occupants, and who as a Gen X or younger would ever picture (or likely even aspire to) a corner office with an ensuite? Moving onto the next row of images we are living in a digital world and over the last few years have moved towards more and more mobile technology – Samsung “life companion” pictured. (From this point in the presentation Natalie was moving down the columns not across the row). The future workplace no longer needs to be a container for the tools, however the tools are just as important as they ever were for getting the job done. One of the things that can lead to the most stress is not having the right tools (eg slow or unreliable Internet connections).

With more mobile technology and as what we do for work has changed into knowledge work, the ideas of efficiency are no longer what they once were. Work is not necessarily the place where we get our best work done or have our best ideas. Whilst many offices are laid out like a place to house computers and well suited to a life of email, they are not well suited to either focused work or face to face communicative work. Natalie sees activity based working as a possible solution. Giving people a choice of an environment appropriate to the task should allow people to get more work done, and therefore reduce stress levels. Whilst there is a big focus on collaborative work and spaces in many ABW fitouts, its just as important that ABW design solutions don’t forget spaces for concentration and focused work either (and places for email too I guess).

As the workplace has become more varied, so too have the places that we work. Work has spilled out of the offices and into coffee shops and public spaces (MLC center pictured). The choice of where the workplace is and what facilities the surrounding area offers is becoming more important. No longer do most people want a workplace that is surrounded only by other workplaces. They want access to cafes, shops, entertainment, parks, childcare – places to go during breaks or after work, access to services. New precincts such as Barrangaro (Natalie’s admitted this as her one little plug for Lend Lease), a whole new piece of the city, need to be designed to consider people’s fulfillment and wellbeing, not just as workplaces.

Balance is what many people are seeking, rather than climbing the ladder. Social responsibility is also going to become a moe important driver for future generations (for me this slide/statement didn’t quite seem to fit into the flow of the narrative). There was some discussion also of the authenticity of the workplace design, and the importance of the workplace design being meaningful to what the company actually does and represents.

What will inspire us in the workplace of the future? Can we create more buildings and workplaces that in themselves inspire us by their design? Design that helps us to get work done, to focus or collaborate, to promote wellbeing and reduce stress. And it’s of all design that inspires. And this is where the link to Chanel comes into the story. The last slide is an image of a temporary building designed by Zaha Hadid as a Chanel exhibition. It was demountable and traveled around the world. Whilst obviously not very sustainable, Natalie found the building and the project inspirational. This is where my link to the Chanel handbag comes in, I also see a connection here with the first row, the container and the aspiration to the corner office – maybe now we don’t need a workplace container, or to aspire to space, we aspire to the handbag which also happens to be a container for the technology? (For women anyway) or we aspire to some other symbol that travels with us (Shoes? Laptops? Clothing? Maybe not such good containers?). So perhaps the office doesn’t need to provide these anymore. I know I’d certainly rather see inspiration and wellbeing than corner offices in my workplace anyway.

What would you like to see in your workplace if the future? Do you think we can design to reduce stress and increase wellbeing? What would this look like to you? We know we can design buildings to inspire – what are the hurdles which prevent all buildings and workplaces from being inspiring? Or do you still want the corner office with ensuite plus parking? Would this motivate you to work harder?

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