Can workplace transformation optimise the office?

From the machines of the industrial revolution to the Modernist era where the office cubicles reign, technology and new innovation has continued to play a key factor in the shaping of the environment in which we work. We’re once again at a turning point where the workplace is being rethought and transformed, boundaries are being pushed and tested (or in some cases, removed). On top of the physical space, this new wave of transformation is also changing the way we interact and communicate with each other in the work environment.

Workplace Transformation and Activity Based Work
To introduce new ways of working, organisations that have relocated have taken the opportunity to move into a purpose built environment to introduce Workplace Transformation into the organisation. It is regarded as a way to introduce new ways of working with the use of new technology, and to implement cultural and behavioural change. (eg. Wireless and mobile technology to encourage a paperless environment). This is also seen as a way to increase employee wellbeing and their ability to problem solve.

There are a number of different approaches organisations might adopt to Workplace Transformation, Macquarie Bank, Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) and ANZ have adopted Activity Based Working (ABW) which removes the notion of an assigned desk to each employee – about 8 desks are shared between 10 staff members. Between a wide selection of public and private meeting rooms, individual workstations, workbenches, standing workstations, interactive meeting rooms, roof top gardens, lounges and cafeteria, the employee can choose which area or space to use to perform or accomplish a task. This freedom to choose and decide how to work is a key principle in any Workplace Transformation project. No longer are staff tied to their desks in their own cubicles and confined to their team or floor. In companies where they haven’t adopted ABW (eg. Yarra Valley Water, BHP Billiton), they have equally created various spaces where staff can use for meetings, take a phone call, eat their lunch, or to be away from everyone else to focus on a task.

One of the benefits of Workplace Transformation and ABW is that it greatly increases the chance of staff seeing other staff. In many cases, spaces were created deliberately so that staff can walk into one another. By increasing the chance for serendipitous meetings to take place, it increases the chance for staff to exchange and update on what’s happening (both personal and professional), this in turn increases the ability to solve a problem and better relationship ties between staff. CBA now regards itself as a competitor to Google for attracting younger generation of IT workers, where traditionally the banking work environment is seen as dull and unimaginative.

A sense of place
A major disadvantage that has emerged out of Workplace Transformation and ABW is that there is now a sense of a lack of place and belonging to the work environment. There’s an increased sense of transience and impermanence that is more discomforting and unsettling. As humans we like to feel anchored and to address this, CBA has taken the learnings from Macquarie Bank into account and implemented the notion of a ‘home zone’ into their new office. Each staff will be assigned to a ‘home zone’ with their team members in the hopes that this will address the issue and recreate a sense belonging for staff. But in this ‘home zone’, there’s nothing that distinctively marks the space, nor are there any opportunities for staff to personalise or create a sense of identity that’s unique to the team. In addition, many organisations have also taken the step and asked staff to minimise personalisation of the workspace to one personal photograph per workstation and that staff are expected to keep the desk tidy (empty) at the end of the day. This move is limiting one’s expression of individuality, by enforcing the overarching corporate identity throughout the organisation. The primary concern of the office space has shifted to the presentation of the office and about the visitor’s emotional response rather than the worker’s emotional association and attachment to the space.

Based on the ‘home zone’ idea that CBA has implemented, can large organisations allow different expression and display of identities in different zones? At Meld, we’ve been exploring ways that organisation can reintroduce a sense of belonging back to the workplace. One of these explorations suggested that belonging is about people and their ability to make the space their own. By allowing degrees of freedom and autonomy in the making of the workplace, we may therefore recreate the sense of belonging and attachment in the environment. As Lauren says, “Being able to change the space to suit your work allows you to feel a sense of ownership of it, which is in turn a form of belonging.”

Bringing people into the design
Often organisations expect their employees to do business as usual when they were hastened to move into a new office alongside the implementation of Workplace Transformation. I would argue that this is not Workplace Optimisation. A transformation project focuses primarily on the introduction and implementation of change in the office, whereas an optimisation project includes a focus on the adoption and well being that a successful transformation project would add to the employee. Before implementing any Workplace Transformation, organisations need to consider the following:

  • Do we understand the personal practices and behavioural inertia that currently exists in the office?
  • Have we identified the gap between the current situation and the future vision that the organisation is aspiring to?
  • Are we able to communicate the intended change before implementation and to encourage behavioural change prior to switchover?
  • How do we monitor and support staff through this change process?
  • How can we further improve the workplace based on the learnings?

An understanding of the transition rather than the implementation can play an important role in discovering the bugs and benefits of change and growing successful new workplaces.

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