Beyond hot-desking: inside the Barangaroo vision of high-performance workplaces

By Stephen Easton

March 26, 2018

A group of University of Sydney researchers are hailing three high-end new towers in the Barangaroo precinct with an unusual study highlighting how the building’s owners can contribute to the organisational performance of their tenants.

Their research paper published on behalf of the building owners, introduces the concept of a “positive-built workplace environment” to describe the best kind of office buildings:

“A PBWE is one that is designed and operated in a way that provides the optimal physical conditions and resources to enable employees to consistently deliver high performance and maintain personal and organisational wellbeing. PBWE promotes sustainable high performance – both organisational performance and employee well-being.”

Led by coaching psychology professor Anthony Grant, the study, which appears to be a promotional exercise for the three new towers at Barangaroo, describes the buildings as a “world-class textbook example” of the PBWE concept.

It goes on to provide an interesting discussion of the academic literature and propose a couple of new ways to measure how well an office building and its managers keep the people who work there happy, based on self-determination theory and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

The key findings are not very surprising — that new, well-designed offices with clean air and green credentials can significantly improve employee health, wellbeing and cognitive performance, leading to higher productivity.

Perhaps more interesting is the focus on what accommodation providers might do in building, leasing and managing the property and how this could affect the teams that work there. A press release says:

“According to the study, a PBWE puts the onus on the building property management team to move beyond the mere profit motive to actively promote positive values such as inclusiveness, respect and engagement.”

Personal desk still issue for government workers

Office layout and the built environment can obviously have a big psychological effect on employees, both negatively and positively, and most organisations consider these factors, but often it’s the most economical use of space, energy efficiency and location that are most important.

When public sector unions recently squared off with the Australian Taxation Office in the Fair Work Commission over its introduction of activity-based working in some regional offices, for example, both sides made arguments about the effect on staff wellbeing and performance.

The ATO says it considers how to create “a healthy working environment that improves flexibility, agility, collaboration and productivity” whenever it opens new offices. The Community and Public Sector Union said there was “plenty of research” showing that hot-desking lowers productivity by damaging morale, on the other hand.

Change can always damage morale, of course, and the switch to a new office environment needs to managed like any other kind — with a lot of two-way communication and as much flexibility as possible, based on listening to genuine concerns raised by staff.

Desk-sharing is part of a wider trend towards what are termed “activity-based flexible offices” in the literature. These also have private rooms for individual work and for meetings, and sometimes large shared meeting tables for collaborative work, among the rows of desks.

“This is facilitating a shift from a hot desk set-up to a more genuinely cooperative workplace environment,” said Grant, who established a coaching psychology unit in the university’s school of psychology in 2000.

Spiral layouts, architecture and psychological wellbeing

The paper notes other research has found employee satisfaction can vary widely between outwardly similar offices based on the latest modern designs. It reports one study found “critical success factors included a spatial layout that supported and facilitated communication and concentration, an attractive architectural design, visually pleasing and ergonomic furniture, as well as adequate storage facilities for personal effects”.

Other factors for psychological wellbeing were “privacy, thermal comfort, and exposure to abundant daylight, as well as access to a pleasant and stimulating view” but Grant’s model adds to this, placing more emphasis on the way the building is managed and operated. There is value, these days, in demonstrations that the building is “socially responsible” such as use of sustainably sourced products, the paper suggests.

“In a very real way, the contemporary property manager needs to display good positive leadership if they are to establish a true PBWE.”

So, in giving a lot of attention to the role of the building managers and related service providers in helping tenant organisations achieve high performance, the paper includes these actors in a strangely expansive concept of leadership:

“Values-based leadership is important at all levels including the tenant organisations, the building designers, the building management team and the building service staff, and congruency between all of these adds significant value to the experience of working in the building.

“The values and positive culture demonstrated by building managers can add a significant sense of purpose, pride and wellbeing in building tenants and their employees.”

The aim of the tower owners, according to the report, was to create something in between a co-working space and a traditional office building — which they branded “the Carpe Diem community” — by selecting a diverse mix of tenants:

“The idea here is to foster collaboration and interaction between organisations that would not normally come into contact with each other. The hope here is to foster a creative hub that transcends normal ways of occupying and working within a building and its associated precincts.”

The paper also notes that the leadership of the tenant organisations has to be on board with this unusually holistic vision of what an office accommodation provider can do for them and their employees. “In short, there needs to be a strong alignment between the values of the building management and those of the tenant organisation,” the paper contends:

“In the current case study this kind of alignment was achieved by the building management taking time to ensure that potential tenants thoroughly understood and subscribed to the cultural and philosophical values central to the ‘Carpe Diem’ approach, as well as encouraging employees of tenant partners to undertake the ‘Carpe Diem’ induction process.”

Among some gushing testimonials for the shiny new towers are a few confirming that regardless of how cool the new building is, office workers are still quite often reluctant to move to a new layout, or a different part of town.

The paper notes that “differing needs for privacy and interaction, and a need for some level of personalisation and space ownership” remain the most common difficulties in shifting to activity-based work environments.

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