Exploring limits of collaborative workspaces

Published April 15th, 2014

Justin Carroll relished the privacy and security of having his own office – a space dedicated solely to his working needs.

That changed last year when PwC relocated from QV.1 to Brookfield Place and Mr Carroll lost his office, which had signified his status as the firm’s managing partner.

Since then, he and up to 600 staff have been working in what’s referred to as an ‘activity-based’ style; dedicated offices and desks are gone and working hubs, conference tables and shared desks have taken their place.

It means that Mr Carroll could start his day seated next to a new recruit in the tax division, and a few hours later he could meet with a client in PwC’s collaboration and meeting area, which could easily be mistaken for a West Perth cafe.

Activity-based working (or ABW as it is increasingly becoming known) emerged from Dutch design firm Veldhoen + Co, and gives employees the choice of where they want to work, at what sort of desk, and with (or without) whomever they please.

The first Australian example of fully fledged activity-based working was the Macquarie Group in Sydney, which recognised its potential to reduce real estate costs; by making ‘accommodation’ shared, Macquarie only had to rent space for 80 per cent of its staff because, at any given time, 20 per cent were routinely out of the office.

Driving more productivity out of expensive real estate was only a secondary motivator for PwC, however. Mr Carroll said an increase in collaboration, which was inevitable with the new ad-hoc work style, was the primary reason for implementing activity-based working.

“I genuinely believe that our clients are better off when there’s more collaboration internally amongst different parts of our practice. It’s a much more kinetic environment so people are moving around a lot more, and by dint of that you will have people bumping into each other … you can only talk about the footy score so many times before you end up talking about client matters.”

The Commonwealth Bank of Australia was also an early mover on the east coast, which was followed by its subsidiary, Bankwest, implementing the design at its Raine Square offices through close collaboration with Veldhoen + Co. Its 2,700-strong workforce has been without dedicated desks and offices for about 18 months, and Bankwest chief information officer Andy Weir said there was no looking back.

“The office is no longer a place where people simply process and execute tasks, it becomes a place where people meet to collaborate and create,” Mr Weir said.

“Employee feedback regarding the adoption of ABW has been emphatically positive, irrespective of generation, gender or role. More than half of all employees believe they are now more effective at Bankwest and surveys show they feel more inspired.” In terms of business benefits, Mr Weir said Bankwest had benefited from reduced expenses in floor space and energy used and a significant reduction in paper usage.

Companies in the financial and professional services fields are often considered more suited to the flexible working style than others, but even those initially considered unlikely candidates are now making the shift.

The legal sector, which has traditionally been wedded to hierarchically devised office layouts, is a case in point. Squire Sanders and King & Wood Mallesons [11] have both adopted elements of activity-based working.

Meanwhile, Corrs Chambers Westgarth has begun a national rollout of offices with “collaborative capabilities”, starting with its Sydney office last year. Its Perth office will open in 2015.

These legal firms primarily adopt a hybrid of new and traditional office layouts, still with dedicated desks, but open plan and with more collaborative areas. King & Wood Mallesons said the practice needed to retain some traditional elements for its 150 staff, but separate offices were unnecessary.


To retain confidentiality it has made use of technology to enable seamless movement from desks into soundproofed offices, which partner in charge John Naughton said was a better outcome.

“It’s fair to say that most offices I’ve been in are actually not very acoustically satisfactory … so confidentiality in an office environment is more apparent than real,” Mr Naughton told Business News a few days after the firm moved into the new QV1 office in February.

“Here, the places that we do go to are acoustically proofed so you can have a genuine conversation … I’ve found it easier to talk freely.”

King & Wood Mallesons worked with interior design firm Geyer to settle on the hybridised outcome.

Geyer’s regional leader based in Perth, Stirling Fletcher, said aligning design with a company’s work practices was of upmost importance.

“If you tried to apply what was put in at PwC to Mallesons I don’t think it would have been successful because the way they work is not conducive to the way PwC works,” he said. “But at PwC  it’s very appropriate to their business.”

Mr Fletcher  said ‘activity-based working’ had most definitely become a buzz-phrase, although many potential clients didn’t fully understand the concept.

“The danger of ABW is people thinking that it’s a style or a trend and saying they’ll ‘apply’ it without understanding that there’s a lot of mechanics that actually go into it,” he said.

Founder of design firm MKDC, Kathleen Kusinski , said often people were turned off the idea once they realised it required a complete shift in management and culture.

A lot of companies think that it’s all about funky areas and an open plan, they’re not fully understanding the change management that needs to be implemented into their current systems for them to be able to operate activity based working effectively.

Kath Kusinski, MKDC Design Consultants

For PwC that meant a nine-month process engaging with staff and ensuring all their needs would be met, including spaces conducive to solitary working should employees prefer their own company.

Mr Carroll said potential negative outcomes such as employees coming in early to secure the same work area, and the formation of employee cliques, hadn’t eventuated.

He said the only potential negative outcome he could see was a slight increase in wear and tear, which he attributed to a higher number of people using desks and chairs.

Despite the relatively positive response across sectors to the concept of activity-based working, the idea clearly hasn’t enticed everyone.

Deloitte is due to move into new offices at Brookfield Place in 2015 but is unlikely to follow in the footsteps of professional services peer PwC. Managing partner Mike McNulty said he wasn’t against activity-based working, but believed it could be deployed in a less extreme manner.

Health insurer HBF  has also explored the idea for its new purpose-build premises going up in Kings Square, but rejected it. Managing director Rob Bransby said Australian examples of the concept were not conducive to HBF’s perception of what activity-based working should be – focused on physical movement. “They’re all about space and flexibility, we didn’t like any of it,” he said.

“Where we landed was that all that funky stuff was ok but not really conducive to what we were trying to achieve. We landed on a spot that was almost self-designed.”

In partnership with Geyer, HBF is working to create an office environment incorporating activity-based working in the physical sense in attempts to create a healthy workforce. That’s meant increasing expenditure on the new fit-out by about 25 per cent to give employees desks that can be converted from sitting to standing positions, exercise areas, and end-of-journey facilities.

Despite the not for profit spending about $3 million more than what a traditional fit-out would cost, Mr Bransby was positive members would also see the benefit. “I’m absolutely convinced that a happy healthy workforce is 10 times more productive,” he said.


This article was written by Shanna Crispen and published by Business News