Tag Archives: Natalie Slessor

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.

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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