Once upon a time, a quick walk around a typical office floor would allow you to accurately map the workplace hierarchy. Airy corner office: big boss. Dark cubicle near the lift: intern. Still seared in some memories are the good-old-bad-old days when offices had overflowing ashtrays, thumping telex machines, creaking compactuses and even rattling tea trolleys (or cocktail carts, if you were working a Mad Men job).
The digital age has changed everything. Farewell family portraits and trinkets. In and Out trays and their paper trails have gone the way of rotary-dial phones and jumbo phone books. And the agile workspace means never having to say ‘sorry … I must tidy up my office!’
Companies such as KPMG and Commonwealth Bank have moved to agile workspaces in the past decade, and GE Australia and New Zealand has been progressively transforming its office spaces, too, with Auckland, North Sydney, Parramatta, Melbourne and Springfield office in Brisbane now complete.
Global “people architecture” firm Woods Bagot worked with GE to start the North Sydney workplace transformation in 2014, studying the work styles of various different worker profiles and their amenity and space needs, and devising an agile office layout to cater for their diverse needs, from sales reps to data analysts to developers and engineers.
For recent graduates, an agile workspace feels much like uni: no fixed phones or computers, grab some vacant deskspace for the day, meet up with friends in a common area, pop on the headphones if you need to concentrate.
David Arkell, HR Leader for GE Australia, New Zealand and PNG explains the business thinking behind the agile environment, and Giles Rinckes, director of projects and services for GE Renewable Energy, Onshore Wind, ANZ, gives a glimpse how it’s working for his team in GE’s newly agile Melbourne office.
People whine about being desk-bound, but in reality, they’re not so much…
David Arkell: “We did a desk audit before we started in this work, and we identified that on average every physical workspace we had—office or dedicated desks—was being utilised around 35% of the time. For example, this week, I’m in Melbourne for the rest of the week, so if I had an office in North Sydney like I used to, it would be empty four days out of five. When I take annual leave, it’s empty again. Sometimes people are sick, sometimes they work from home, sometimes they work from a customer site. Sometimes they’re in a meeting all day, or in the telepresence room. Today, for every 100 people, we have 70 desks.”
Mixing up departments turns the whole office into the water cooler
Arkell: “Globally, GE wanted to move from a very traditional, command-and-control organisation—the more senior you were, the bigger the office you had—to one that was about empower-and-inspire … flexible, agile, contemporary.
We also wanted people to collaborate more. In our business, we’ve got people in Oil & Gas, Healthcare, Aviation, Power, Energy Connections, Transportation, Corporate, and historically we’ve been a silo-driven organisation. Yet our customers often interact with a number of our businesses. So if you’re a customer like BHP, you might deal with our Power business, our Transportation business and our Energy Connections business. But historically, because we were so vertically siloed, our people didn’t deal with each other. So when you now have this sort of physical environment, where you sit next to a different person every day, you actually just meet people and you talk to them. And that aligns with The GE Store approach, too [sourcing technologies from across GE’s businesses to drive innovative solutions].”
In the agile environment, even the CEO hot desks
Arkell: “We have bookable spaces if people need privacy. If Geoff [Culbert, GE’s president and CEO for Australia, New Zealand and PNG] is around, he can book that space, but it’s not his office. Anybody can book it, and anybody can use it.”
Working agile-style takes a little adjusting
Giles Rinckes: “The new place is much lighter, we’re sitting closer to each other and, with the hot desking, we’re inter-relating more with each other. And that’s an exciting way to be. Though it is quite strange ringing people up to find out if they’re in the office … and them standing up and waving! We’re going to get better at using online tools like Skype for Business, and that’ll help us work and share information. The IT tools are really important.”
Work where you want, when you want
Arkell: “We want to give our people choices of where they work, how they work, when they work … whether they choose to work at our Parramatta or North Sydney office, at a customer site, at an airport lounge, at home, at a cafe. We don’t care, because we’re more focussed on outputs than inputs. In our global address list, you might have an address that says you’re based in North Sydney, but you might work a couple of days a week from our Parramatta office, because your team is there, or because it’s closer to home. Or a business might say, ‘We want everybody to be in North Sydney on Wednesday.’ So the whole team comes into the North Sydney office to work together on Wednesday, but on other days they could be anywhere.”
It’s still possible to hunker down together
Arkell: “We accommodate project needs by having bookable rooms for teams. So if the Aviation team were working together on a big project for Qantas, there are spaces that they can book out for, say, the next two months, and set stuff up in there.”
New ways of working
Rinckes: “My project managers are used to sitting with their project team, but I think working agile might make us more disciplined in holding meetings and keeping records of any issues. It might help us to work in a more structured way in the long run … We work more in digital space, sharing information on common platforms. However, there is a lot to be said for sitting with your team, hearing conversations and making linkages. The change is a challenge and we’re in the very early stages of getting used to it.”
Variety in agility
Arkell: “Some of our engineers said they needed different types of workspaces … double screens and bigger screens so that they could bring up complex engineering drawings. So we’ve got different configurations in some workspaces. At some places we’ve got touch screens, or very large screens, or two small screens. It’s choice. The workspaces don’t all look the same, but the technology is the same, in terms of sitting down and plugging in.”
Backs of Australia, stand up for agile!
Rinckes: “I’m really enjoying the variable-height desks—70% of all our desks are variable now. I can get a sore back if I sit down for too long, so it’s good to be able to stand up and move around a bit more!”