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Seamless spaces

Seamless spaces

Today’s offices are not necessarily measured by square metres and may not even exist at all. Is this the harbinger of tomorrow’s workplace?

Early this year, the offices of the Auckland office of systems integrator Gen-i were gutted, to make way for the move to a new office — in the same building. When the employees returned, the cubicles of old and the warren of rooms were gone. In place were open-plan areas with desks that can be used by anyone, ‘quiet rooms’ that can be used for up to two hours, meeting rooms and phone booths.

The new environment was designed to make the staff, who are based in three levels of the building, work “more collaboratively”, says Jo Allison, general manager marketing and strategy.

“That was the starting point,” says Allison, who is also the executive sponsor of the project. “How do we break down silos, and how do we encourage people to be more collaborative and more team oriented when they are working with clients?”

She gathered a team of staff who were keen to get on board the project. “We really think we need someone to understand the culture change,” explains Allison.

Sonia Harris, who has worked with Telecom, Gen-i’s parent company, for 19 years and is now business manager, Auckland corporate sales at Gen-i, was chosen to lead the design team. Gen-i brought in Sarah Ram of Agile Planet, a change management consultancy that has been involved in similar projects here.

Fixed and free addresses

One of the things they decided was to determine the new work environment. “We analysed how people worked, profiled their roles, asked questions like how long they spent onside all the functions and came back literally with a list of people that would have a fixed address and people with a free address,” says Allison. “The first was for people who spend the majority of their day in the office and didn’t have many meetings,” says Allison. They are required to be at the same desk everyday to be a ‘team anchor’.

The ‘free address’ people are those who spend a lot of time on clients’ sites and hold lots of internal meetings. They can work where they need to and sit next to who ever they need to, in order to do their job effectively. Each team has a storage space, while the ‘free address’ staff have personal lockers.

Harris says there was a lot of work around how they would call these two profiles, and the new setting, now called ‘Dynamic Workplace’.

The way we describe things to people was very important,” says Harris. “We wanted it to be really shifted up and a notch above from just hot desking, and be inclusive and collaborative.

Allison’s marketing team was used as a test for the new work environment. “We wanted to see how it would work and take some lessons from it and feedback those lessons into the wider Gen-i group.” The project, she adds, is “ultimately a pilot” for Telecom New Zealand.

A team of “champs” was chosen for the different groups who were the “eyes and ears and feedback mechanism”, says Allison. “We took big questions to the champs and asked them to solve it for us.”

A different defragging

Harris is aware they are moving into new territory with the shift to a dynamic workplace, with different technology requirements and work protocols. The decision was made for a phased rollout of the project.

“We were asking a lot of our people from a change perspective. People change is often the most complex, so we didn’t want to overlay them with IT changes.” “It was about making people comfortable, it wasn’t about forcing something upon them,” says Harris. Communication was critical and briefings and weekly updates were held for managers and staff “so there were no surprises”.

But first, the offices had to be cleared. “We ran a programme called defrag your desk,” says Harris. “We were great hoarders and to practice what we preach around sustainability and the environment, we needed to clean up our act as well.”

They gathered 100 boxes of old technology and stationery that were recycled back to the business or donated to charities. It is interesting all the things that were handed back, says Harris, such as soft toys and lots of staplers. “I was one of the culprits,” she confesses. “After 19 years you collect a bit of stuff. It was quite an experience for me as well.”

Harris estimates the savings from the project will be “considerable” in the long-term, not only on cost but from sustainability and environment perspectives.

“One of the things we have learned is that you have to create brand new work practices,” says Allison. “You could not move from our old desk into this new environment and expect to walk in Monday morning and operate in the same way.”

She spends half an hour on Monday morning sorting out her schedule and making sure the meeting rooms are booked for her meetings. “You are able to create new working practices that enable you to operate in that environment and you have to actually physically think the way you want to work,” says Allison.

Object lessons

She says the Dynamic Workplace project has three pillars, each critical to its success. They are communication and culture, property (the physical environment) and ICT.

“If you don’t create the right environment, there won’t be enough spaces for people to go and do their work,” she explains. “If you don’t create the right ICT infrastructure, your business will go backwards from a productivity perspective. If you don’t take your people on a culture change programme, they will reject it and fight it.”

Allison adds a fourth pillar — support from the executive. “Make sure your leaders are walking, talking, doing [it], because people will look at them and say, ‘do I really need to do it’?”

Chris Quin, the group general manager, belongs to the fixed-address group. But he does not have an office and utilises the meeting room, says Allison.

She also made that decision not to have an office. “If I am going to ask my people to do this, I better be doing it myself.”

The setup was tested when Gen-i had to finish an urgent proposal to a major client. Allison says the proposal had to be finished in six weeks and involved people based at different levels. “What we said was, see those six free address workstations there? You as a team are going to focus on being there every day for the next six weeks.” A poster of the client was put up in the area. They won the account.

Sidebar: The world is my office

Angus MacDonald returned one day from a holiday and discovered his office had been cleaned out.

“I was told you never use it so we packed your things downstairs,” says MacDonald, whose work as chief technologist for Sun Microsystems in Australia and New Zealand takes him across different time zones.

However, MacDonald was not exactly peeved, because he actually discovered his office was ‘missing’ three weeks after he returned from his holidays. Prior to the clean-up, MacDonald has already been using technology to be able to work from anywhere he wishes to.

“I have no need for an office,” he says. “I can work out of the Sydney offices. I can work out of Wellington, anywhere in Australia, anywhere in the world for that matter.”

He says technologies developed by Sun allow him to be able to do this. Under the Open Work platform, he can use Sun Ray to work from home, an internet kiosk or from a hotel.

On a recent trip to Auckland, MacDonald resumed his work including the email he was typing halfway from his home in Sydney. “It gives real mobility, it is akin to the old hot desking concept. The thing we added to that is a process we called secure global desktop. It enables me to get all the functions of the Sun Ray on an ordinary PC or a Mac or some other environment.

“I can access anything I need from inside Sun and when I finish and log out of that, it makes sure nothing is left within the kiosk, security is very strong.”

MacDonald says a lot of government and military agencies are interested in the concept. “That is why it is called Open Work, it enables us to work pretty much from anywhere.”

Among the changes in his work habits is that he does not get a lot of paper documents, because most of the stuff comes to him via email. He converts important documents into PDFs and scans invoices.

The skills needed in this flexible workplace relates to time management, according to MacDonald. If you get in the habit of working this way, he says, you find yourself sending work-related emails at night.

“I think the only real challenge is to make sure you don’t let the work really override the life,” he says, then adds, “I found that easy to manage.”

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