Author: Gill South
Regimented rows of desks are ancient history. Individual offices are too isolating, and too costly. And entirely open plan can be noisy and distracting.
If that’s the past, what is the current thinking in office design? In two words: variety and flexibility.
Those were two of the goals Vodafone NZ was aiming for in its new headquarters on Auckland’s North Shore, officially opened this week. Many of the company’s staff work flexibly, and it was trying to offer a wide range of working spaces to make their time in the office a positive experience.
As was the case when the communications company opened its Auckland Viaduct premises in 2005, Vodafone management is making an effort to break the mould in this extensively refurbished office environment.
Based at Smales Farm, the headquarters is in a building built in 1997, the lease inherited through Vodafone’s acquisition of TelstraClear in 2012.
About 2000 Vodafone staff and contractors work from the building, known as InnoV8 Auckland, from all the company’s major business units.
When announcing the move away from the Viaduct in 2016, chief executive Russell Stanners promised a variety of work environments: open plan, collaborative areas, libraries, private spaces, dedicated project areas and large communal spaces to bring people together.
Vodafone’s head of property, Murray Dobson, says staff are being given a much greater variety of workspaces than at the Viaduct HQ, as the company draws on activity and agile workplace design — an approach where work is about an activity rather than a place, and collaboration plays a major role, all supported by technology.
There are 300 screens throughout the building, with video integration and audio conferencing in every meeting room.
The purpose of the workspaces will be ever-changing, says Dobson.
“We can allocate a number of desks for an initiative that requires collaborative space with whiteboards, and then for other things, it’s effectively an open plan space,” he says.
If a task is more confidential, people might opt for a more traditional way of working, using a private room, he says.
“Staff are sitting at different desks during the day. The digital team might be sitting with the consumer team, then the tech team, then the marketing team — it’s very much cross-pollinated.”
The agile workplace can look “messy and unstructured”, says Dobson, but the intention is to have ever fewer barriers and structures.
“It’s more multi-use, taking from all our lessons over the last 15 years. It’s less structured than we were before, to empower our people.”
Dobson understands that staff are interested in working from home, but believes workers’ needs are more complex than that.
“We have a strong flexible work policy, but at the same time, people still want to engage with their peers and have the team contact, it’s about having that balance,” he says.
The property head travelled overseas to see what the new Vodafone HQ could be — looking at office fitouts in Silicon Valley and Asia that he might want to borrow from, without forgetting how New Zealanders like to work.
After taking a good look at campus-style cafes in Silicon Valley, he opted for a more Kiwi way of doing things for the internal staff canteen — there are facilities for people to bring in last night’s dinner, heat it up and eat somewhere pleasant, and a commercial kitchen with two sous chefs.
And Vodafone, with its love of all things tech, has included a Times Square-style grouping of 60 screens in its main foyer atrium, a hub where clients are brought in for meetings at its retail style cafe.
There is a focus on wellbeing at the refurbished HQ. A room styled like a doctor’s consultation room is available for third party experts such as physiotherapists, who can drop in and see people.
There has also been a lot of investment in recreation areas, says Dobson, with staff having access to a room to do cardio workouts, a climbing wall and table tennis.
There is also access to gaming, so staff can play Xbox or Nintendo in their breaks.
“We are a tech company, we wanted to create fun across the organisation,” he says.
The company has also invested in electric bikes, which staff can grab to go to Takapuna for lunch 1.5km away.
“It adds to the work experience,” says Dobson.
Gabrielle Gatt, from architecture firm Warren and Mahoney, was lead designer on the Vodafone HQ fitout. She advises companies not to get rid of a certain office design if that’s what suits the way they work.
“Open plan is one of those words that mean a lot of things to a lot of people,” says Gatt.
“In a traditional sense it may mean rows of desks in an open plan room. But these days, offices will still have components of open plan, but also offer what Gatt describes as “reprieve” spaces for thinking and working.
Whatever office design style you are using, you can have hybrids, she says — perhaps a mix of open plan and relatively traditional spaces.
She likes to see a mixture of rooms and uses, so staff have choices.
“There are a lot of different models out there, don’t tie yourself to any one too much,” says Gatt.
And whatever office style changes you make, tell staff in advance.
No matter what environment a company goes for, it has to properly explain a new office design to staff, says Lizzi Whaley, chief executive of SpaceWorks, a commercial interior design and fitout company.
Whaley remembers when companies started using workshop spaces, or focus areas, and people didn’t know what to do with them.
Her advice is that a team leader or an influential person in the office — someone others will follow — should be given that task, rather than someone from management.
“There needs to be a change management champion who can say, this is how you use the space,” she says.
Staff aren’t stupid about why certain office layouts have been introduced. Whaley, no fan of open plan for herself because of the noise and distraction, says it was always about saving costs, even though it might have been presented differently. In reality, open plan spaces make it very hard to get any work done, she says.
“I like to work in a variety of different places — when there is a battery hen of desks, that’s when it’s demotivating,” she says.
Whaley is welcoming the introduction of some small spaces in offices, where staff can have a private conversation and get some thinking and writing done.
She is seeing quiet pods, or “war rooms”, where small groups can congregate. She also welcomes what she calls “little space booths” which are very useful for private conversations or Skype meetings.
Meanwhile, homes and offices are beginning to look more like one another, says Whaley, with a lot of the formality being stripped away in new offices and comfort becoming more of a priority.
“Everything is becoming the same. Where we live, eat, shop and where we work, the divisions between all of these are changing because people are so much more mobile,” she says.
“I think it’s a good move, you will see a blurring.”
Meanwhile, co-working communities such as WeWork are growing globally, offering a space for start-ups and freelancers to work from. Clark Pritchard, principal interior designer at architecture and design firm Peddle Thorp, sees a trend for businesses to take inspiration from such spaces.
Having a more flexible workspace, as co-working hubs do, can help a business better handle the ebb and flow of work activity, he says.
There is the knowledge that if the business shrinks, the company has the option to lease out space and turn it into a co-working area, says Pritchard, who thinks it will change the way some buildings are configured.
He has also seen cases where a head office aligns itself with a building that has a co-working area on the ground floor.
“Your workforce may be on level six, but on the ground floor, where the cafe is, you can apportion it to people from out of town, which gives your staff exposure to other businesses in the area. You rub shoulders with other people in the community,” says Pritchard, who says he sees this happening in Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter.
Pritchard has worked on projects where businesses are brought together — one where 14 companies were brought under one roof and the offices became like mini campuses.
“They are like-minded businesses, co-working and learning off each other,” he says.
Richard Goldie, director and architecture lead at Peddle Thorp, says in a very short time there has been a shift to co-working, where physical boundaries are no longer required between businesses. “It’s all about digital barriers,” he says.
Office design is mirroring what is happening in people’s homes, he says. “The thing is to build the authenticity into new buildings.”
Goldie and Pritchard are seeing companies move their offices out of city centres and into the suburbs — for example, Auckland’s North Shore. That sort of move has become easy to do with Wi-Fi, and can be popular with staff who don’t want to travel into the city centre.
Fancy offices — nice, but only part of the answer to engaging staff
The talent war is real, but nice offices are only part of what goes into attracting and retaining staff, says human relations expert Clare Parkes, who consults on organisation design and employee experience at Auckland-based Beyond Performance.
She sees the trend for companies to try to provide modern, funky and collaborative spaces for staff.
These initiatives appear to be an attempt to force certain behaviour through the design of the office, says Parkes. And when you try to force humans to behave in a certain way, things might not always go according to plan.
“There’s going to be a balance. In some workplaces, it will be the best thing they have ever done; in others they will see staff behaviour returning to normal,” says Parkes.
For example, in a work environment where there are not enough desks for everyone, those who want a desk will just get to work earlier, so they can be sure of having one.
“Having a very flexible workspace, with no set seating, people are unable to personalise their workspace, and for some people that’s really important,” says Parkes.
The HR consultant says something she doesn’t see employers doing is asking staff what they would like, because flexibility means different things to different people. And companies might not want to hear the answers.
“The key to all of this not is about the environment — I think, can we talk to each individual about what they prefer or need,” she says.
Meanwhile, she asks, is this agile working doing the trick with today’s workforce?
Whether it’s collaborative spaces, huddle areas, stand-up desk areas, walking meetings — there’s not enough research yet to show those things are working, says Parkes.
Environment is important, but it’s only part of the answer, she says, and there are many other things that promote staff engagement.