How organisations are rethinking the open-plan office
From focus pods to a clever campus model, we find out how ANZ and Urbis are rethinking office design.

Open-plan offices promised big things – better collaboration, less hierarchy and engaging workplaces that would attract vibrant talent. But then came the cakes, the loud talkers and revolving door of distractions impacting productivity, focus and employee satisfaction.

Forward leaps in technology and greater flexibility around how people work have shifted what’s expected, and possible, from a workplace. A job is now something you do – not necessarily a place you go to.

Many companies are now opting to change their workplace design to better reflect work practices and respond to the needs of their people. It can be a significant financial investment to modify a workplace, but the question to ask is – can you afford not to?

Be an enabler

Dr Donna Wheatley is a strategy director at WMK Architecture, which designs workspaces. “Businesses spend a lot of money to attract and retain very talented staff, only to put them in a space – that they have also spent a lot of money on – that no one can focus in. So, what can we do to enable them to do what they were hired for and are capable of?” Wheatley says.

She says a redesign should consider productivity and function, but it’s important to do what works for your people, not follow the trend of the day. Getting the whole company’s involvement in the decisions is crucial.

The agile or activity-based way of working provides an array of options for people but can sometimes divide teams and mean missed opportunities for interaction and knowledge sharing.

Giving up individual desks for a shared arrangement can be hard for people to grasp, but Wheatley says most will adapt easily once they see it in action, if the design supports their performance.

“People want to be productive; they want to leave the day satisfied and feeling like they have done good work,” Wheatley says.

The Urbis micro neighbourhood

WMK Architecture helped urban planning consultancy Urbis relocate more than 200 staff to a new Sydney office.

They now go to work in a versatile ‘micro neighbourhood’ with shared desks, focus pods, meeting rooms, quiet areas, stadium-style seating and an indoor/outdoor terrace. Teams retain a home base to enable the face-to-face collaboration that pre-design surveys found employees valued.

The benefits were evident within six weeks, according to Urbis director David Hoy. A post-move evaluation found increased internal collaboration, improvements in staff ability to focus and concentrate and significant time saved attending meetings. Paper use in the office was slashed by 42%.

Hoy says a carefully planned and communicated change management strategy was the key to a smooth transition. Staff were empowered to own the change and engaged enthusiastic emerging leaders to be knowledge sharers. New technology and flexible seating arrangements were implemented six months before the move, and company directors were intentionally among the early adopters of the new system.

The ANZ campus model

When ANZ moved into a building just 50m up the road from its existing HQ in Docklands, Melbourne, it came with an opportunity to integrate almost 10,000 employees into one area and establish a sense of community. Desks are free flow, spaces are designed for different needs and staff can work out of either building but have a home base they can consider their own.

ANZ’s General Manager of Property, Kate Langan, says with five generations in the workforce it’s important to acknowledge the many different ways people want to work, and to give them variety. “Lots of people choose to sit in the same place every day, and that’s enabled. It’s the freedom to work how they want to,” she says.

Langan says giving employees a voice by identifying ‘people’s champions’ within each group created a network they could turn to with their concerns, fears or approval about the changes. Those champions sit as an independent committee.

“We need to remember that our job is to enable the business to enhance productivity. Workplaces are so diverse these days the only way to do that is to have a workplace that is adaptable,” Langan says.

The health benefits

For the past three years Dr Christhina Candido from Sydney University’s School of Architecture, Design and Planning has been researching successful workplaces.

She found the workplace design can have a substantial impact on employee health and wellbeing – whether or not it’s open plan, hot desking, agile working or some other design.

Companies that were most likely to succeed had been bold and brave enough to listen to their people, had a permanent change management process to prevent employees reverting back and help newcomers to adjust, and identified ‘champions’ of change.

“If people are productive, they are satisfied to be in that space and reported higher health related benefits,” Candido says. “Why wouldn’t you invest in offices that properly support people?”