Andy Kelk

The power of place at work

Almost exactly five years ago I wrote a blog post about the power of the office environment which related to some of my experiences working at the REA Group offices with a team transitioning from traditional ways of working to a more collaborative style. This week I attended the Foenander lecture at Melbourne University which was given by Rosemary Kirkby. The confluence of those two experiences also got me thinking about the REA Group’s impending move to new premises at 511 Church Street and the effort and creativity being put into designing the workspace.

One of the most inspiring sections of Rosemary Kirkby’s lecture was her reading of a memo that she wrote in 1997 when she was at MLC/Lend Lease. Entitled “Imagine“, it sets a vision for how the building could be used and how it could support and define a new way of working. Listening to Rosemary read this out I was startled by how relevant it is to workplace design today and how much we can still learn.

Here’s the relevant piece from the lecture.

Having worked in some pretty ordinary spaces in my career, I am very interested in how clever design and use of space can affect how people work. I recently read Peopleware by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister and I particularly identified with the sections on the office environment – the furniture police and the cost of reducing space, the difficulty of getting work done when there’s others in your space and the workplace patterns from the Timeless Way of Building.

Offices that I’ve worked in over my career seem to have swung wildly between very office-heavy (large rooms for single occupants with their size and position conveying status) or very open-plan (large, noisy spaces where everyone is accessible at any moment of the day). Somewhere in the middle is where I think the right balance is. When building an adaptive culture and using adaptive leadership, the space you’re occupying also has to be adaptive. Certain types of work need certain types of space. Sometimes you need silence, isolation and privacy; sometimes you need large spaces for people to generate ideas in a group; sometimes you need intimate spaces for a small group to work on a problem; sometimes you want to chill out and chat with your colleagues.

When I first started with iProperty, I had my own office with a door and a desk. I hated it. I felt so isolated from the teams doing the work. However, when I moved out into the open space, I missed the chance to shut the door and focus or to have a private conversation without booking a room. There were times when I needed to be close to one team or another; and some cases where I had to collaborate with an entirely different set of people. To me, the key is flexibility and having a variety of spaces that everyone can use.

These days there are plenty of spaces to look to for inspiration – from Spotify’s team rooms to Bankwest’s flexible working spaces to the cathedral-like spaces of the ANZ centre in Melbourne.

There are a few key takeaways for me from the lecture and my own experience. First is that if you’re lucky enough to be designing a new workspace, consulting with the people who are going to be working there and finding out what matters to them is hugely important. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone’s going to like what you create; if you’re trying out new ways of working where people don’t have a home desk, expect resistance. I wrote a bit about that back in 2009 and even now one of the things I hear from my team is “stop making me move desks”. Rosemary Kirkby put it well: “Increasingly, desks are an old-fashioned notion”; certainly the days of having a desk which is yours for the length of your tenure is going the way of the job for life. The other takeaway is that the workplace design is far too important to be entirely outsourced; yes, you need experts to do the plans, to create ideas and to manage the execution but as guardians of the culture of your organisation you need to be heavily involved in the process.

Being “at work” easily takes up half of your waking hours; isn’t it vital that you’re working somewhere which supports you, which inspires you and which nurtures you?

If you’re interested in the topic, I definitely recommend listening to Rosemary Kirkby’s lecture – there is a video available on the Melbourne University website and the talk starts around 6 minutes in.

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