Offices of the future: why Australia is moving away from homogenous design
Sandra Edmunds | 15 August 2016
Australian workplaces have changed significantly over the past decade to become more like Qantas Club lounges or university campuses than homogenous offices, leading designers say.
Companies on the move now look for flexible spaces that enable co-working and agility, a focus on health and wellness, and are conducive to innovation.
“Australia is one of the most progressive markets in the world,” says Woods Bagot workplace leader Amanda Stanaway.
“We spend a lot of time out of Australia and still wholly believe that Australian business has understood how to leverage design as an attractor and retainer of talent and think that many of the big Australian corporates are very good at using workplace culture as an enabler for their business outcomes.”
Stanaway says corporates now look for spaces that are more functional, connected floor plates, and something that differentiates them.
“CBA and NAB are in the market at the moment and looking for new premises,” she says.
It’s about brand differentiation
“I think what tenants are looking for is developments that allow them to really customise their brand. If you look at Google or LinkedIn or any of those brands, they are trying to find unique space that is less than typical – they are trying to move away from the homogenised office development.”
BVN has worked with large banks in Australia and New Zealand including Macquarie in Sydney and ABS in Auckland.
National director James Grose says they look for buildings that are completely flexible, agile and responsive.
“Certainly they are looking for wellness opportunities and many of them are looking for ways to bring in fresh air, creating interior landscapes and letting in daylight – particularly sunlight – into spaces.”
Co-working on the rise
In the United States, particularly New York, and also in Europe, co-working has become the most dynamic new movement in workplace, Grose says.
Although designed for small organisations with 10 or 20 people, co-working is now being embraced by the corporate world to drive innovation.
“The two sort of worlds are coming together,” Grose says. “So in New York, for example, Barclays bank has established a co-working space, which they use as a sort of incubator space outside of their main workplace areas. It’s in an industrial building. It’s a really cool place and it’s completely un-institutional.”
BVN has set up its own new studio in New York’s NeueHouse, a co-working space with amenities including a broadcasting studio, screening room, private dining space and meeting rooms.
“If there is somewhere workplaces are going it’s about creating networked communities,” Grose says. “We find it even in our own workplace that creating networks or being part of a community beyond yourself is really where work culture is headed.”
This means that workplaces need to be designed incredibly flexibly so you can modify space to do different things.
Think university campus
“But it also has to be – if you want to use an analogy – more like a university campus than a capitalised institution … The ability for space to contribute to a culture.”
BVN’s current development at Smales Farm in Auckland is the perfect example.
“It’s a building designed to enable all sorts of people to work in the same place.”
A start-up organisation might sit next to a bank’s incubator space. They share meeting facilities, resources and a concierge service, and gather in the village square.
“If you are from a bank and I’m from a little IT start-up which is talking about gizmos then you might find you are sitting down at the same table having a cup of coffee and you start talking and you realise that together you could turn something into something else,” Grose says. “A sharing community is what that Smales Farm building is all about – it brings people together into that serviced environment.
“It’s a very brave project … It’s actually quite rare to find a building like this anywhere in the world. It’s a prototype for a new kind of shared working environment.”
Woods Bagot is driving the co-working culture and a culture of collaboration in its designs, Stanaway says.
Or perhaps an airport lounge
“The workplaces we are creating are much richer; they work across a different stream, a different typology … an office is more like a Qantas Club lounge now than it is a homogenous office.”
Workplaces are now being designed with flexibility as a key consideration. The old style of office building with the service core – the lifts and toilets – in the centre of the building is no longer desirable, according to Grose.
“What is happening in cities is those buildings are becoming redundant,” he says. “Nobody wants to be in a building where their workplace is spilt by this big lump of concrete. Contemporary buildings have their core to one side creating a big flexible container.”
BVN designed South East Water’s headquarters in Melbourne’s bayside suburb of Frankston with this approach.
“The way that the internal space is configured means that it has huge flexibility,” Grose says. “It creates a space where tomorrow you could completely change the whole space. The building is a container for change.”
Seeing it in context
The structure has been designed in a continuous volume with each floor a step up like the seating in an auditorium.
“When you are on level 4 you can see … a lot of the people on each of the floors between the ground floor and level 4,” Grose says. “You are all in this volume together.”
A grand veranda facing the bay creates new places for cafes in the sun while a garden contributes to the streetscape. Visitors enter the building through a café-style entrance and the bay views are visible from just about anywhere in the building.
“You can’t help but feel when you come in the front door that you automatically become part of a dynamic culture,” Grose says.
Innovation a key cultural driver
Woods Bagot gets regular invitations to design innovation spaces, according to Stanaway. Process-based organisations are moving towards more creative offices in pursuit of problem solving.
“Whether it is CommBank or NAB or Deloitte, all those people have an innovation hub,” she says. “They’ll have a little start-up within it where they can generate ideas and attract next generation talent.”
The new generation, according to Grose, is incredibly interested in innovation as opposed to development. “
You don’t develop a product from something and it turns into another evolution of that product. You innovate. You start again and you say, ‘What is the opportunity here?’”
Younger people are recognising that innovation and culture are networked, shared and based on community contribution.
“So innovation is the key cultural driver which is creating communities,” he says.
The wellness wave
Health and wellbeing, and the elements of an office building that affect the performance of workers such as air quality, are increasingly under the spotlight, Stanaway says.
Last year NAB’s new headquarters at 700 Bourke Street, Docklands, was rated Australia’s top-performing workplace environment in the Building Occupant Satisfaction Survey Australia.
The University of Sydney and the University of Technology Sydney measured the performance of 60 Australian buildings from the occupants’ perspective and the Woods Bagot-designed NAB building scored the highest in air quality, comfort, noise, temperature, connection to the outdoors, and the effect on health and productivity.
Movement and mental health are big trends this year, says Stanaway.
“We are seeing a really massive focus on end-of-trip and wellness facilities in workplaces,” she says. “Taking it to a gym, country club kind of level and adding on other services with that, be that massage or mental health…”
Sitting is the new smoking, so move!
With sitting becoming the new smoking – workplace design has a real focus on getting people to move instead of being deskbound in meetings for 90 per cent of their day.
“We are doing a project for Tencent in China, we are doing one for Google in Singapore, there’s indoor walking tracks for walking meetings to get people moving,” Stanaway says.
“Gilbert + Tobin in Barangaroo has 100 per cent sit to stand; every lawyer has a desk that goes from sitting to standing and people are encouraged and taught the right way to move.”
WELL gets lots of airplay
The WELL Building Standard is getting a lot of airplay, Stanaway says, with Macquarie and Lendlease on this path. This impacts on all sorts of factors including food consumption.
“That’s an interesting paradigm – no soft drink in an office that has a WELL rating – but also you want your employees to have choice.”
The influx of young people – who consider health endemic to their lifestyle – is leading the charge, according to Grose. And this emphasis on wellness is the catalyst to a greater awareness of the wellness of planet.
“People are demanding that their buildings have fresh air, they are demanding the ability to effect their own environment – in other words they can open and close windows whenever they wish, the materials aren’t toxic … the materials have longevity, they are recyclable.
“So human sustainability is actually the key line because sustainability where people refer to sustainability in buildings – while energy consumption and the greater effect on greenhouse gas emissions and so on through the plant and the ongoing maintenance of buildings is an incredibly important issue – it all starts centrally with human sustainability.
“If you are not concerned about the human condition, there is no way that you are going to be concerned about the environmental condition to which you are contributing.”
South East Water’s headquarters is constructed from brick, concrete and timber – materials that don’t require maintenance.
“In all of our projects at BVN we try very hard to make buildings which are as maintenance-free as possible because there are huge not only [financial] costs but there are huge environmental costs in maintaining buildings as well,” Grose says.
Who is driving the agenda?
It’s a combination of people including human resources, facilities management, the technology team and the “C-suite”, Stanaway says.
“Who drives the agenda varies far and wide I would have to say, but certainly the most sophisticated businesses will understand that it has to be driven by more than a facilities team or more than an HR team,” she says. “They have to have those groups of people together and really driving that from a holistically point of view not just one segment.
“Some of the guys we work with like Google allow the employees to pretty much drive design holistically; in other cases to a less extent. Very few clients don’t allow some employees some input or buy-in – that is fundamental to the change process.”
Grose says HR is in many ways anachronistic to what is happening in workplace change. He believes the new ways of working are a product of the new generation who have developed as curious individuals through the education process.
Work culture must change too
Grose says a fundamental shift in building design can drive cultural change within an organisation. For example, South East Water’s move from several traditional office spaces to one flexible new development in Frankston.
“For a corporate entity it has been quite a radical change in the character and the personality of the business,” he says.
“I’m not saying that buildings like this can change cultures of organisations because culture has to be driven by people and the leadership and so on but the building as a receptacle or a container can serve as catalyst for cultural change.”
Over the past five to 10 years, almost every company has undergone some pretty significant process and cultural changes to enable the next generation of workplace, according to Stanaway.
“Even if they are not agile, even if they are not co-working, or not using the space super-flexibly, almost every company that we are now working with is much more mobile in the way that they think,” she says. “There’s been an acceptance in the market that there’s a new way of working.
“We are very focussed on making sure the workplace culture and the processes are aligned with the space that we create. There’s no point in making someone go incredibly agile if they still haven’t moved three quarters of their processes out of paper based, or if the leadership is still very hierarchical, or if they haven’t got KPIs set up that can manage people remotely…”
Just about every workspace consultation ends up with a conversation about how technology, leadership and behaviour enables a new workplace.
“Fundamentally if these three things aren’t in place … there will always be a disconnect between the physical space and how it’s used,” Stanaway says.