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Commercial Education Society of Australia

Today’s Workplace Space
Kathleen McKenzie

TODAY the traditional work space in companies is changing. The conventional work space was always made up of offices with allocated seating and stationary desktop computers or meeting rooms. The changing dynamics of today’s workforce are driving this progress.

Companies such as Microsoft, Bankwest, KPMG, PwC, Macquarie Bank and Commonwealth Bank have all moved to mobile devices and seating according to the activity or project that they are working on. The latest department to make the change is the Australian Government Department of Human Resources involving 110 people. This is the first government agency to trial this.

The aim of the trial is to encourage cross-collaboration, team interaction, finding alternative ways of working within the corporate office environment and give staff the opportunity to learn from others by exposure to different business groups. The purpose of this move is to foster creativity and innovation. In the 1990’s this used to be referred to as ‘hot desking’. Hot desking involves multiple workers using a single physical workstation. The primary motivation for hot desking was a cost reduction through space savings — up to 30% in some cases. Today more than ever, workplace design, or re-design, is a way for corporations to attract, maintain and retain employment — they want to re-shape corporate culture.

 . . . if workers are asked to forgo their privacy, audibly and visibly, how can they get their work done?

Today, however, new workplace spaces include those that can be designated for specific types of work, such as quiet spots, spaces for individuals and high-concentration activity areas, and areas where small groups of employees can have private discussions, group meetings, etc.

Sound, of course, can be a big issue. Without doors, walls or partitioning, noise, movement and discussion can present some problems. Using sound reducing materials in flooring and work surfaces is not an ideal way of reducing noise transmission completely.

One solution could be to position workstations in an alternating fashion that reduces the line of sight from desk to desk. This means that people are not in direct vision of one another.

Another approach is to mask sound throughout the entire workplace by using lower tech solutions. These include high performance activities such as conference calls, team meetings, and collaborative work where staff can be encouraged to consider using group spaces instead of workstations.

Who is doing this? The UK government believes that this strategy has the ‘greatest potential to improve civil servants’ day-to-day working lives’ (SMH1), but little progress has been made. In Australia HR staff will be given ‘caddies’ which are movable storage for laptops, work materials, etc. Sabre Holdings, a private international company retailing travel products and providing distribution and technology solutions, is a successful case study. It employs 9,000 staff in 59 countries. Their experience has been a positive one. Their major concerns were productivity, more responsive real estate considerations, innovative and happy employees and environmentally sustainable workplaces. Productivity rose with virtual meetings, flexible workplace schedules, more interaction with other staff members, and electronic filing.

Environmentally sustainable meant that the workplace strategies helped to reduce energy costs and decrease overall space needs. In Sabre’s case, it reduced its space needs by 51% in three years and eliminated 570,000 square feet of headquarter space. Less space meant 61% less energy consumption, their carbon footprint was slashed by 54% and more than 22 million gallons of water saved. The company looked at 1.3 people per work station, which meant a 25% saving on real estate investment.

Now, what about the people themselves? How did they react to change? Some cultures put a high priority on hierarchy so putting executives or top managers into work stations with rank-and-file employees may not be looked upon favourably by employees or customers. In some cases, work-from-home flexibility can be limited by internet access or small homes that cannot accommodate a specific workspace or having children or people at home so that working without interruption is difficult.

On the other hand, not everyone sees the new shared workspaces as a place to be innovative. As Cain2 notes, half the workforce is made up of extroverts, and the other half introverts. The author asks that if workers are asked to forgo their privacy, audibly and visibly, how can they get their work done? More importantly, how can they increase their productivity? Cain believes the solution lies in choice. The design and architecture can provide the cultural and physical aspects of an organization’s work environment through a combination of open spaces and private spaces.

How easily would you adapt to change? If you are used to your own space — workstation, desk, office — how would you find sharing space with others? How would you adapt to using a different workstation, workspace each day? What about your personal space? Your family photos? Your prized football scarf? Your favourite pen holder? Your adjustment to open plan meeting spaces and the sound effects?

Let’s have your comments, your experiences with dealing with this change, how you adjusted, did you grow to love the change? or do you hanker after the old set up?

Send your comments to the editor at CESA News.

Kathleen McKenzie MAA FCES FRSA FIPS
November 2013

1 Clarke, Trevor, 20 August 2013, ‘Mobile trial aims to find best spot to do your work’, Sydney Morning Herald, page 26.

2 Cain, cited in Armstrong, Barbara T, 24 May 2012, ‘Open Workspaces Are Here to Stay. Now, How Do We Get Any Work Done?’, Forbes

© Copyright CESA November 2013