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CSIRO staff fear they will be squashed into tiny, noisy workspaces

The government wants public servants to have an average of 14 square metres of workspace each, about two-thirds of what ...

The government wants public servants to have an average of 14 square metres of workspace each, about two-thirds of what they now enjoy. Photo: Theresa Ambrose

Canberra scientists fear they will soon be squashed into tiny, noisy workspaces that make it too hard for them to do their research.

The CSIRO is set to abandon its headquarters in Campbell, near the War Memorial, and move all ACT staff to its Black Mountain campus.

The proposal involves building a new research centre and refurbishing other areas, and its first phase should be finished when the Campbell office's lease expires in 2016.

The CSIRO will abandon its head office in Campbell, near the War Memorial, in 2016.

The CSIRO will abandon its head office in Campbell, near the War Memorial, in 2016. Photo: Katherine Griffiths

The scientific organisation told a parliamentary committee the new "open-plan" offices would allow 14 square metres of workspace per employee – the goal set for public servants last year – even though the CSIRO, as a statutory authority, does not need to meet the target.

An audit of government buildings in 2009 found the typical public servant had about 1½ times that much space.

However, the CSIRO Staff Association says the plan, which will help cut maintenance costs, will undermine staff's work.

Its secretary, Sam Popovski, said "widespread open-plan office accommodation is unsuitable for the work role and function of many CSIRO staff and that it may lead to reduced productivity and increased workplace absenteeism".

He said scientists, engineers and other researchers needed "isolated spaces for concentration and contemplation".

The association had also observed a trend of staff staying at home to avoid interruption and get more work done.

"There's no objection to shared facilities – scientists often congregate and talk about what they're doing – but they need that quiet space to think and write."

Associate Professor Leena Thomas, of the University of Technology, Sydney's school of architecture, regularly surveys people's perceptions of their workplaces, and says staff often complain about the noisiness of open-plan offices.

However, she said intelligent design could make even a 14sqm workspace suitable for most people.

She said activity-based working – offices with multiple areas that catered for different types of work – was increasingly popular, and had been adopted by companies such as Macquarie Bank and Google.

"So you have spaces for people to talk without disrupting others, and spaces for meetings, and spaces for quieter work that requires concentration," Professor Thomas said.

"In the end, you may save money because you understand that not everyone is at their workstation all the time, though you may struggle to reduce the building size."

A CSIRO spokesman said on Thursday the new offices would meet the 14sqm target while still catering to staff's needs.

"This can be achieved through a mixture of environments, which includes open-work areas, quiet areas, informal meeting and project areas, meeting rooms and offices," he said.

"All these are in the interests of achieving an adaptive workplace to meet the current and future needs of the organisation."

The spokesman said staff would be able to provide feedback on the new design in coming months.

The staff association also fears the childcare centre at Black Mountain will be overwhelmed by the accommodation changes.

The CSIRO says the centre is "sufficient to meet the expanded needs of the site", but Dr Popovski said an extra 470 staff will blow out what is already a "significant waiting list" for childcare.

The consolidation of CSIRO properties will cost about $196 million, but the organisation says it is critical to the sustainability of its operating budget, too much of which is spent maintaining old, dangerous buildings.


  • Gosh, imagine moving from a 1960s era office to to modern open plan layout. I'm sure everyone will miss the wooden panelling and closet space that is used as a tea room. Imagine working in a modern building! Being able to see your colleagues! Talk to them! Being able to impress clients with swanky meeting rooms! I fear for the innovation and collaboration that will come from this modern workspace.

    Date and time
    February 06, 2014, 12:43PM
    • My company is moving us to a new building, where they think a battery hen has too much free space. We will be on desks 1/3 our current size and only a metre apart. Appalling. Open plan is no plan, it is designed to oppress and keep us in check as well as save a boat load of money.

      Date and time
      February 06, 2014, 1:01PM
      • A metre apart - lucky you - we'll get 1.5 metre desks in long lines where we will have to find a new desk every morning to enjoy the snot left on the keyboard from the previous user, then spend the day next to some self-important sales guy bellowing obscenities down the phone line as part of his normal work routine. Meanwhile, we are expected to do work that requires immersion for long stretches. Oh yes, there are a couple of 'quiet rooms' to be shared amongst a few hundred people... BS

        Brenda Loots
        Date and time
        February 06, 2014, 1:36PM
    • Most open plan offices have 'break-out' meeting rooms which are quite suitable for 'contemplative research' that doesn't involve internet browsing, footy tipping or porn.

      History records that Einstein's laboratory was primarily inside his head. I'd counsel CSIRO staff to do likewise..

      Tenez LeDroit
      Nelly Bay
      Date and time
      February 06, 2014, 1:05PM
      • Open plan is awful.

        I am fortunate enough to work in a job where offices are still common. I worked for a major bank at one point of my career in their head office. Unless you were one of the top 10 employees (CEO & direct reports) you were all in identical spaces on shared benches. It was a very unpleasant environment both due to the physical environment and the people around you.

        The only positive were that you didn't feel like there was any sort of hierachical work station plan because unless you were one of the top 10 it was the same for everyone.

        People preach about the benefits of open plan - as a manager I thought it was useful to be able to overhear the way your reports interacted with others. However with that one exception it is all downside - cramped noisy & unpleasant & ultimately its all about cost & cramming more people into a certain floor area.

        Open Plan Sucks
        Date and time
        February 06, 2014, 1:16PM
        • One has to punish these pesky Scientists who believe in climate change, evolution and that the world is round. How dare they try to undermine our ideology. Not having a minister for science has saved space.

          True Liberal
          Date and time
          February 06, 2014, 1:30PM
          • OH So you believe your man made "maths" can solve the worlds climate problems.. Hate to tell but Nature does not have a calculation that can be applied to it and if "Science" could predict weather patterns then my Iphone weather report should be a lot more accurate than it has ever been!! I would like proof that any equation can be put to nature calculate me a tree for Instance and it leaf pattern??

            Fake Labor
            Date and time
            February 06, 2014, 3:26PM
          • @Fake Labor,

            You don't get to pick and choose which bits of science you "believe". If you don't like science, feel free to hand back all of the products of science (like your iphone and pretty much every other thing in your life) and go back to casting bones and praying to the gods instead.

            Date and time
            February 06, 2014, 6:01PM
          • @ Fake Labor, you do understand that the Bible was written by men, right? And it was written three hundred years after Jesus was crucified, you understand that don't you?

            Jesus didn't write it, God didn't write it. Men did. And they also excluded certain parts of the bible because it didn't match their view of what the religion based on Jesus' life and teachings should be, 300 years after he died. And he wasn't white either, he wasn't born on Christmas day, he didn't die at Easter. These are all modern myths and are well documented in theological circles. How's that for exploding a couple of 'everyone knows' myths.

            Man didn't make maths, it was discovered, there's a massive difference. Counting wasn't invented, it was discovered.

            The CSIRO is not just about climate change, you do know they hold the patents for wifi, right? That they earn us as Australians, an income in the form of patent royalties, right? They successfully sued for $600 million in lost royalties, you know that as well, right?

            They're smart people, putting them in open plan areas does not improve productivity, it hinders it. There is not a university on the planet that would put its academic staff into lines of tables and expect good work. Numerous studies have shown how awful open plan offices are on productivity. The human ear just cannot drown out the noise or ignore other conversations.

            Date and time
            February 06, 2014, 6:02PM
          • Fake Labor, Science and mathematics regularly predict weather patterns. Sure its not perfect but it steadily gets better. Perhaps you need to get a better weather data provider for your iPhone.

            As for "calculate me a tree for Instance and it leaf pattern", too easy, look up L-Systems for starters, been around since 1968. You could also look at more recent work done on calculating biomass using fractal geometry.

            The fact that you were able to add your comment at all is also directly attributable to science and mathematics.

            By all means go back to reading tea leaves and entrails for your information if you so desire but my vote goes to scientists and mathematicians amongst whom I do not number but for whom I have geat admiration.

            Date and time
            February 06, 2014, 6:25PM

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