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Gen Y shuts door on open-plan century

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Catherine Armitage

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Technology and a younger workforce are reshaping the office, writes Catherine Armitage.

Number 1 Bligh Street, Sydney CBD. A new six star Green building, currently occupied by Law firm Clayton Utz.

Number 1 Bligh Street, Sydney CBD. A new six star Green building, currently occupied by Law firm Clayton Utz. Photo: Lee Besford

Here's something new for the ''prairie dog'' office workers with their heads up over the partition, sniffing the workplace wind.

The open plan office is on the way out, falling victim to dramatic shifts in the way people work and better understanding of the relationship between built environments and behaviour.

''I think the so-called open plan office has seen its heyday,'' says James Grose, national director of BVN Architecture. ''As a generic applique it is very simplistic and that is now being exposed.''

Number 1 Bligh Street, Sydney CBD. A new six star Green building, currently occupied by Law firm Clayton Utz.

Number 1 Bligh Street, Sydney CBD. A new six star Green building, currently occupied by Law firm Clayton Utz. Photo: Lee Besford

Frank Lloyd Wright dreamed up the open plan prototype for the Larkin Soap Company in Buffalo, Texas, in 1902, then refined it with his ''Great Workroom'' for Johnson Wax in Wisconsin 30 years later. Ever since, it has been the layout of choice for employers. It is cost effective, supposedly egalitarian, conducive to worker collaboration and makes it easy to keep an eye on employees.

But workers assailed by the constant racket of their colleagues have had less reason to like it than bosses content in their quiet perimeter offices. Despite partitions and cubicles, open plan has never resolved the conflicting requirements of chatty collaboration versus concentrated quiet work.

Now, mobile work technologies have done away with the need for fixed work stations. Health studies have conclusively shown the inadvisability of sitting for a long time in one place. Up and coming Gen Y workers have made clear their disdain for traditional work environments. So it's farewell, open plan and hello, activity-based workplace, or ABW.

Forget allocated desks and offices. In its purest expression, the new ''workplace philosophy'' pioneered by Dutch consultancy Veldhoen + Company does away with territorial work spaces so people can ''work independently of time and place''. The mantra, as adopted by Microsoft, is that ''work is a thing you do, not a place you go''.

Microsoft, Macquarie Bank, the Commonwealth Bank, GPT Group and Jones Lang LaSalle are among the large corporates to have adopted ABW for their Sydney offices. In practice, it means creating diverse work environments so people can choose where and how they work at any given time, whether at a workstation, in a lounge area, a cafe, a quiet area or a meeting space, according to what they are doing and how they are feeling.

''People are increasingly conscious about the quality of the space they work in and don't want to be locked away in the same area,'' says Simon Swaney, a joint managing director of leading interior design firm Bates Smart.

At the same time, the social movement for work-life balance is encouraging employers to judge workers on the basis of performance not attendance. The limitations of communicating by electronic means alone are well recognised, and management is realising ''the benefit that arises out of knowledge sharing and collaboration''. It all adds up to more flexible working environments, says Swaney.

With wireless technology, a laptop and a mobile phone, ''everyone can move from space to space and hardware isn't an inhibitor'', says Amanda Stanaway, a senior associate with Woods Bagot, who did the ABW fitout for Macquarie Banking and Finance at 1 Shelley Street, near King Street Wharf on the western fringe of the Sydney central business district.

The spaces place greater emphasis than open plan layouts on collective or collaborative work, but not at the expense of quiet solo time.

''The key to these environments is bringing people together [with their laptops] to do things together and get an outcome. Instead of a meeting ending with 25 things on the to-do list it is … actually doing the work,'' Stanaway says.

A ''pretty compelling cost advantage'' is propelling companies towards ABW, according to Grose. With studies showing about 40 per cent of the workforce are out of the office at any given time, companies are loath to pay for redundant space. By trading off individual territory for shared areas, their floor space requirements can be reduced by 20 to 40 per cent. Macquarie estimates its space-saving through ABW at 20 per cent.

Technology companies with their Gen Y workforces have been early adopters of the activity-based workplace. But designers caution that it doesn't suit all kinds of work. Says Niall Durney, senior design architect of PTW Architects, ''Software industries tend to have a huge amount of playful stuff where staff can disconnect from their work, like Google playing table tennis as a meeting to discuss ideas.''

''The software industry, because it is such a younger generation, they are comfortable having a skateboard going around the place, whereas you're not likely to have that in a bank where they are all suited and booted.''

The worry, Grose says, is ABW becoming ''just another excuse to roll out product''. Add lounges, bean bags, cafe furniture, libraries and interactive whiteboards to your standard workstation order. But the companies that get great results are those that ''engage very deeply into the organisation, talk with everyone, and importantly, everyone participates''.

''If you want potential out of people, you don't foist something on them but engage with them and let them … craft the solution which is appropriate,'' Grose says.

The law firm Clayton Utz spent four years ''getting our culture right for the move'' before shifting to 1 Bligh Street in the Sydney CBD less than a year ago, says Julie Levis, who oversaw the shift as managing partner and is now a real estate partner. Staff focus groups worked to identify the firm's culture and vision for 20 years hence, with the fitout designed to match by Bates Smart.

Levis says the legal staff, accustomed to individual offices sized according to status and seniority, had ''zero appetite'' for open plan. But a solution to retaining acoustic privacy while gaining a greater sense of connection with colleagues was achieved with glass offices, all of standard size, radiating 270 degrees around a central ''village'' of secretarial support staff.

Glass offices, glass lifts, a central atrium allowing views to other floors, all means ''you really do feel part of a bigger whole, you can see everybody''.

But does it make for a more productive workplace? Levis acknowledges she has no numbers to prove that the new workplace has led to improved work. But the staff are ''very happy'', there has been ''enormous positive feedback from staff and clients'', and ''it certainly feels like we are all working together really well in this building''.

The assumption that a desirable workspace leads to higher productivity lacks an evidence base, Stanaway explains. ''It is actually a really grey area'', she says. The difficulty is separating the effect of changes in work practices - such as using less paper, collaborating more, moving around the office - from the effect of changes in the spaces themselves.

''A lot of the work we are all doing at the moment is to actually find a way of really strongly attributing it to workplace, because obviously lots of different factors go into major productivity change,'' Stanaway says.

''Architects are not the ones that say productivity increases,'' Grose says. ''Architects say that if people are in respectful environments, creative environments, human environments … with humanly appropriate materials, people will automatically feel more centred or comfortable or at ease. Therefore you can say on a very, very broad level, space can affect behaviour.''

''But space will not affect productivity,'' he says. It's the human factors - ''how people are treated and what their intellectual satisfaction is'' - that count.