Corporate war on clutter pays in efficiency

New office designs have productivity figures to back them up, writes commercial property editor Carolyn Cummins.

New office designs have productivity figures to back them up, writes commercial property editor Carolyn Cummins.

BHP BILLITON'S clean desk policy may rile staff, but it's not unusual. In fact, BHP is just one of many leading global companies to have banned clutter and footy flags from the workplace in the austere 21st century.

Providing a fitout that caters to such policies will become the norm for landlords, as tenants increasingly demand high green star-rated properties with the appropriate layout of generic desks and plenty of relaxation and private areas for the staff.

The GPT Group, Commonwealth Bank, ANZ and Goodman Group are among the big corporates changing the office to be a generic workplace with lockers for personal items.

Overseas, Cisco and Microsoft claim to have workplaces that enable and inspire a high performance culture, attraction and retention of the best talent and enable new ways of working.

As more offices move to "lifestyle" work stations, workers won't be able to nest and will leave the office every day as if they have never been there.

At BHP, cleaners are told to clear away everything from a desk, leaving only a keyboard, monitor and possibly a "framed photo". But the latter is up for debate in other companies.

In the new, shared desk world, staff are often instructed not to eat lunch at their desks. Instead, cafes, internal kitchens and easy-to-access takeaway outlets are provided, which staff are encouraged to use.

GPT's chief executive, Michael Cameron, has significantly upgraded the group's offices, so each employee has a laptop that can be plugged into any workstation monitor across the head office. At the end of the day, they pack up the desk and put all personal items back into their own locker.

The Commonwealth Bank's new campus-style head office at Darling Walk in Sydney has the same policy. Staff can find common areas to chat or work and, at the end of the day, all desks are wiped clean. Leave anything out and it will get thrown away.

The bank's chief financial officer, David Craig, says the property is designed to showcase "activity-based working ... offering an innovative, sustainable and creative work space".

"Activity-based working recognises there is a spectrum of work styles and demands, and that each day, people will have different activities to complete, requiring varying levels of concentration or collaboration," he says.

According to research by Colliers International, more of these measures will be necessary in future to keep up with tenants' needs.

It is expected that as buildings are closed - such as the CBA's 120 Pitt Street and 5 Martin Place in Sydney - the new offices will be vastly different to their predecessors.

According to workplace experts Project Control Group, many studies have made the direct link between effectiveness of space to support the work modes of leading companies, and growth in profitability. Even average companies can achieve profit growth of up to 2 per cent by improving workplace performance.

Many new workplace projects start with high aspirations and a commitment to change the way the workplace performs but fail to deliver.

The decor might be different, the accommodation better designed and facilities more useful but if the workplace culture and the way people behave remains the same, the gains in performance and productivity that inspired the new workplace project will be lost.

Research by Project Control Group demonstrates leading companies become more profitable by changing their workplace.

Simon Gunnis, managing director of the group, says when comparing the workplace trends of companies which lead their industries with average performers, the most obvious difference is the importance and time given to work modes that lead to innovation and exceptional performance.

"The leading companies rank activities such as collaboration, innovation and socialising up to three times higher than average companies and spend 20 per cent less time on individual focus work," he says.

Project Control Group has also found work spaces supporting each of these work modes will lead to 25 per cent better performance with a direct impact on productivity.

Gunnis says that when leaders of the 200 fastest growing companies in Australia were surveyed, an interesting paradox emerged.

"While they were very eloquent about the desire to attract the best people, design innovative work settings, influence culture and drive productivity, when asked how they measure the success of their last project, aspirations were set aside and measures of cost, time and rent were utilised as measures of success," he says.

The gap between aspirations and outcomes helps explain why the link between workplace design and business performance is not always evident. But it is not hard to prove.

When analysing workplace measurement, Project Control Group says knowing how a workplace performs is imperative. By surveying clients over the past 10 years, the group found eight workplace dimensions consistently made it into the top 10 issues. These were amenity, environment, flexibility, identity, interactivity, location, privacy and sustainability.

Gunnis says these criteria consistently feature as having the largest performance gaps on average and, as such, are the priority elements to consider in any analysis of workplace functionality and fitness.

The gap between importance and performance helps identify priority issues and critical performance criteria to inform the corporate real estate and workplace design briefs.

Criteria with a gap of 20 per cent or less are opportunities to improve the workplace in the short term, while those with a gap of 30 per cent or more are deemed critical issues that need to be solved in a new workplace.

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