Workspace is a hot commodity in my building at UBC. Outside of having a part-time workstation, I’ve drifted from desk to desk, never achieving personal attachment to a space and the peace that comes with it … until a week ago.
I’ll never forget the day my Director offered me an empty office. I had a door and a window, not something one takes for granted, though essentially I was able to sit with my team, at my own workstation, with a butt-load of screens.
Have you ever noticed hotels including “opening windows” in their amenities list? I thought it was funny to note that, until I went without them in a government building. “Opening” is key.
I knew the office was a temporary solution to a larger office accommodation challenge (the next reality TV show on HGTV), only I didn’t know how temporary.
2. Increased self-worth
Almost instantly, I felt more productive, more focused, and more professional. I may have reached self-actualisation for a brief moment.
Jump forward one week – I must vacate the office. My colleague, Chris had an office once too. He says it best:
“It’s like sitting in coach your entire life and finally making it to business class. Then the flight attendant taps you on the shoulder and tells you to go back to your seat.”
We’ve both put on brave faces, but it will follow us into the future.
Within the first 24 hours of receiving the news, I had an epiphany. The week of ups and downs reminded me of a conversation I had with my Uncle Tom, who works for Macquarie Group at One Shelley Street, Sydney.
He told me about his experience with the Activity-based Working concept, developed by architectural firm, Veldhoen+Company. Where he works, the traditional hierarchical workplace is dust and collaboration, accountability and flexibility reign. He and many others are converts to the model.
“I was pretty sceptical about it before we moved, but now could not imagine reverting back to the old traditional assigned-desk way of working … Each day you’ll find yourself sitting next to someone you wouldn’t ordinarily sit near and collaboration and information sharing has increased dramatically.”
Employees’ workstations and offices have been replaced with a laptop and a locker. They’re free to work anywhere within the building each day and can choose to work from home.
Would you like to work in the Garden? the Library? the Playroom? the Tree House? There are seven “plazas” or “neighbourhoods” to choose from depending on what you want to accomplish each day. I can see myself lounging in the Coffee House most of the time.
“Create the best circumstances for that activity and the employee will be able to carry it out to the best of his or her ability. That means creating a sense of harmony, simplicity and empowerment for your employees.” ~ Erik Veldhoen, Founder at Veldhoen+Company
Managers have been transformed into leaders and now judge an employee’s performance on their output, not the amount of time they’re seen at their desk.
“Trust became a large factor to deal with as managers no longer had a direct line of sight of their teams and were forced to “let go” of their staff.” ~ Tom
Meetings still take place. You can use a “meeting pod” or choose from booths, benches and lounges.
Energy consumption was reduced by 50% and the open staircase reduced the use of elevators by 50%. Mail is scanned and distributed electronically and by using follow-me technology, the headquarters has reduced printing by 85%.
“I guess that was the toughest change for many people, the challenge of not being able to accumulate heaps of paper and documents. I had to be aggressive when it came to trashing documents and learning to live without them.” ~ Tom
I asked Tom how anybody actually found each other. It was a foreign concept to me that people couldn’t just walk up to your regular desk to chat.
“We use Office Communicator to “ping” people we need to find and speak with. Of course everyone has a laptop and either a Blackberry or mobile phone so operating electronically is made very easy.” ~ Tom
I realised I shouldn’t be upset about losing an office, I should be bothered that it felt so incredible to have one.
It’s a matter of time before technology, social responsibility and sustainability cause more organisations to modernise relationships with employees and clients, but will higher education lag as usual?
How would higher education administration take on this model? Can floors have different themes based on student needs? Is it so hard to imagine employees moving around freely within those floors? Signing into an app that shows students where to find them?
Imagine students enter a bright and spacious building like One Shelley Street to connect with us, and thanks to technology, our current location is displayed on a board. Students are also greeted by a friendly face who helps them locate specific services – is this level of customer service so unreachable?
Macquarie have proven the model to be a good investment. It can be applied (if somewhat adapted) to higher education administration. Advising offices can still exist, private rooms for counselling can still exist. Queues? Do away with ropes, have students sign into a virtual queue and sit on couches while they wait. And why are we still keeping paper records these days?
It may be an expensive task and will include a lot of staff training, but it doesn’t need to be rolled out all at once. We love our “pilot programs” in higher ed.
Open space, natural light, collaboration, flexibility, sustainability – all good things that when applied to the working environment improve the lives of employees and the culture of the organisation.
Down with the traditional hierarchical workplace!