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.

Worktech Melbourne: Let the User Decide

847622286_b1a0789077_oIf you think about all the images you have ever seen of a Google office, you will realise that very few of them picture any desks – ball pits, slippery sides, cars turned into meeting rooms, sleep pods, gardens, game rooms, footsal tables, and of course kitchens full of free food – but not very many desks.  So it may come of some surprise to learn that at Google, each Googler (they really do seem to call themselves googlers) has their own desk. When Hayden Perkin spoke about the design process for Googles New York City offices,  at last months Worktech Melbourne most of the attendees at the event hadn’t been expecting to hear that Google still has allocated desking.

Hayden’s presentation focussed on the importance of the philosophy of “Let the User Decide” particularly in the design of the actual workpoints.  Let the Users Decide is part of the Google workplace design guidelines – which can be described more as a Google vibe than a strict set of standards with limited options.  As part of the Google NYC office project consultation the googlers were asked about what style of workpoints they wanted – and around half were in favour of enclosed offices! This certainly surprised an Australian audience, as even in our most conservative client offices (outside of legal) cubicles are almost considered outdated and the idea of 50 percent of staff having an office would be unheard of for quite a while.

Enclosed and assigned office space is only really suited to very static work environments with very little change in organisation size and structure, teams and small movement of people. The way that Google works needs this flexibility. Typically googlers work in teams at workpoints that are assigned for the duration of projects. Movement and reconfiguration of people and space are frequent – on average people move 4 times per year. So, while we can let the users have input, in this case not all the users got what they wanted – exactly. Given that the other half wanted open plan work environments, Google made  the decision that the open plan environment would suit their operational needs better.  But Google wasn’t quite done with the user input to design.

Taking the user involvement further than your typical consultation sessions, Google determined to allow the users to custom design their open plan environments. So while you couldn’t necessarily have an enclosed office, you could make choices such as how high the screens are or what type of desk layout or accessories you have at your workpoint. Google worked with Haworth to design a workstation system that allowed the users maximum control over their own micro environment, and that looks something like a desk sized meccano set. The system is based upon a post and beam system, with worktops, screens and accessories to attach. The attachments are made via coloured connectors (google colours of course). Hayden described the system as “controlled chaos”.

Within a certain set of rules (for example different carpet colours delineate fire egress paths that must be kept open) each team got together to plan their own defined workzone. The groups have come up with many different solutions and have used the components to build not only workstations, but semi enclosed office areas, park benches, canopies and toys. Some people were not interested in building their own desks and Google now offers a selection of standard models for these individuals or groups.

The result is certainly not at all a designed aesthetic, this is saved for the cafes, libraries and nap areas – those images of a Google office with which we are all familiar, still exist as part of the NYC office, but were not the theme of Hayden’s presentation. As an interior designer, I’m still not sure how I feel about this level of user design and customisation. The flexibility and choice it gives to the user groups is fantastic and I’m sure this allows Google to make more googlers happy with their own work environments. It certianly also works in an environment where teams are constantly moving and reforming.  As a designer, I would also certainly love to never have a discussion about workstation screen heights ever again.

Visually however its not the sort of environment that I like to work in. That said, I also know that within days or weeks of the client moving in, any office environment can quickly turn into the same level of controlled chaos. I’ve never quite figured out if its just rules or also culture, but even the most uncluttered aesthetically designed office environment can quickly descend into something else entirely. Archive boxes build up around desks, collections of trolls pop up on top of partitions or other paraphernalia starts to take over the office (I had one previous boss that insisted upon keeping dusty models of some of Sydney’s most hideous buildings) and then the controlled chaos is not really much different to that of the create your own work point office.

I guess this point brings me back to one of the biggest issues of workplace design and user consultation – it doesn’t matter if your workplace is fixed seating or an agile workplace. Choice, customisation, control and personalisation are big issues for the workplace occupants. They are issues that don’t easily mesh with the visual control of interior design or the flexibility of standardised corporate space allocations. So the question which applies equally to interior designers and those within client organisations responsible for procuring workplace design (whether facilities or project management, human resources or finance), how much do you let your users decide?

PS. Come Out to (Midnight) Lunch – If you are in Sydney (or will be on Friday 11 April), I have decided to organise an opportunity for followers of this blog to meet and network.  If you are interested in having a drink, meeting new people and talking with fellow The Midnight Lunch followers about workplace, interior design, architecture, BIM or collaboration in our industry – come to Chicane Bar at 10-20 Bond St in the city from 5.30pm on 11 April.  (Note: This is not a sponsered event, so you will have to buy your own drinks and food!)

Image Credits
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  TitaniumDreads 

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?

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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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