BUILDING GREAT WORKPLACES Flooring the Critics – Bumper growth in space race

When Vodafone finance director David Sullivan sets off for work he may choose to kayak. He may never make it past the airy plastic chilli-filled lobby of the new downtown Auckland headquarters. Or he may recline on the company’s green beanbags, slither down the white plastic recliners or meet colleagues by the jellybean panel on level three.
Vodafone reckons he’s still capable of packing in powerful day’s worth of work. It’s all part of growing series of changes in the workplace, encompassing everything from deliberate attempt to minimise the company’s environmental footprint to ensuring people work in the most relaxed and productive atmosphere possible.
In Auckland, the changes are being spearheaded by raft of blue chip corporates such as Vodafone, KPMG and Air New Zealand. In Wellington, Statistics New Zealand is totting up the cost of settling in to brand new premises at the new CentrePort business park early next summer. The Ministry of Research, Science & Technology is treating its Reserve Bank Building offices to facelift. Even our beleaguered Defence Force will march into new headquarters in early 2007.
They’re big organisations with big budgets to match. Across the land smaller firms are signing up for makeovers too. Not surprisingly, image-conscious early adopters such as architects and ad agencies are leading the way. APR Consultants has remodelled an old Rotorua hotel into new office space incorporating natural spa pool, atrium and British style pub. In rural Warkworth architect Graeme North works out of his company’s revamped old villa, complete with earthen interior plaster on the walls, and attached to an ‘eccentric’ new earth house. George Bettle, owner of Hamilton agency Bettle Advertising, walks across Zen bridge to get from his studio space to the administration area.
In part, it’s sign of relatively benevolent economic times. It’s also whopping big hint that the days of palming staff off with ‘perks’ consisting of water fountain and free tea and coffee are dead and six feet under.
As Richard Mantel, managing director of global recruitment company Robert Walters, commented earlier this year, one of the outcomes of employees spending an increasing number of hours at work is that they are demanding better environment. Top of the list, in Mantel’s book, come offices with plenty of natural light, access to quiet areas, and proximity to local services and amenities such as gyms, carparks, restaurants and shops.
Along with that comes seismic shift in thinking about how people interconnect. Forget the corny concept of drinking coffee because you’re thirsty or want caffeine jolt. Colliers International director Rob Bird sees his company’s new coffee bar as an “interception and meeting place” where staff have “more informal brush contacts” – in the process cutting down on internal phone calls and emails.
“Bump spaces” are on the rise. Specially designed to up the odds of informal contact with relevant others, they challenge the concept of clear demarcation lines spelled out by the individual offices of yore.
Coupled with growing use of mobile technology, this thinking is transforming ground-floor lobbies – “cold, sterile places with no purpose at all”, as Bird describes them – into places for casual contact and opportunities to fire up the laptop for inspirational thinking.
Today’s office design is more about public space and less about individual cubicles of power.
Is this just another fad or is there logic behind the buzzwords? Dean Croucher, managing director of working environment and property strategy company Dow Group, notes there are lot of misconceptions around the term ‘open plan’. “We’ve probably gone from perception in the ’90s that open plan meant reducing space per person and jamming in as many people as you can. That was driven by reducing cost and was model adopted from overseas.
“Now we’re saying that if organisations want to provide environments that help support people, and encourage collaboration and productivity, then they need to provide little bit more space. They certainly need to provide more amenities. So there’s lot more demand for meeting and project rooms, cafes, crèches and gyms.”
That, in turn, flows into plethora of other changes such as the proliferation of videoconferencing and wireless technologies, more flexible HR rules and procedures on how people can work, greater acceptance of staff working from home and flexible hours. “Creating lot of collaboration, or bump, spaces is part of this,” says Croucher, “and helps encourage lot more informal socialisation.
“It’s not rocket science. It’s all part of how we’re working in 2005. We’re working differently.”
It’s not one-size fits all, of course. Croucher says the trick lies in balancing how an organisation wants its people to work and how it wants them to change versus what individuals’ personal requirements may be.
Vodafone has clutched that concept to its corporate bosom. When finance director David Sullivan stepped through the door on his first day with the company couple of years ago he immediately spotted an opportunity to champion the shift to new premises.
The spiffy new building in Auckland’s Viaduct Harbour may be monument to the latest thinking in corporate space but, according to Sullivan, it’s also based on what three key stakeholder groups want.
It’s physical manifestation in glass, concrete and 30,000 plastic red chillies of the combined needs of staff, the company’s brand promise and what customers expect.
Sullivan says organisational behaviour, furniture and technology all had to change in tandem. On the people side, this means staff are now classified as either homers, foners, roamers or zoners. As the names suggest, homers spend most of the working day at their desks in the traditional mode and so are allocated their own workspace and PC. Foners (a clever new word for contact centre staff) can choose to sit at any of the desks in the contact centre. Nothing much new there.
But when it comes to roamers, who spend 90 percent of their time away from home base, Vodafone argues, not illogically, that they don’t need fixed venue – just the chance to touch down somewhere, anywhere when they call by. These people get laptop computers with wireless network access and orders to grab any desk when they drop by. In similar vein, zoners – who spend around two thirds of their time floating between meetings – get access to numerous un-allocated desks in variety of “collaboration” and “backyard” areas.
Croucher notes that most New Zealand companies don’t make the connection between business objectives and the physical environment. That, he says, stems from organisations’ traditional view of property as an administrative matter. At best, property may be seen as low-level, non-strategic function and not, historically, on par with other functions such as HR, IT, marketing or finance. In that regard, we’re level pegging with thinking in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, he says. The challenge is to get senior managers engaged with the topic.
Dow Group has been working over the past 15 years to raise awareness among senior managers of the strategic importance of property and working environments as key tool to help shape their organisation. Vying with myriad other pressing issues to get in the headspace of busy execs, timing is crucial. The best opportunities usually coincide with some sort of major event: “a merger, acquisition, major lease expiry, growth, sometimes new chief executive or major change programme. There may be number of catalysts – not necessarily just property one.”
Bear in mind, too, that the environment is quite personal to individuals. In Croucher’s mind, when company asks 100 individuals what they would like in their physical environment it runs the danger of simply getting 100 different responses.
How much should company insist the look and feel match its organisational ambitions and how mu

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