The Australian - The Deal - - Primespace - BY SARAH DANCKERT

WHEN ROSE­MARY KIRKBY WAS KICKED OUT of her of­fice, she re­ally didn’t mind. In fact, it was all part of the 30-year prop­erty in­dus­try vet­eran’s plan. As the head of sus­tain­abil­ity at de­vel­oper and in­vestor GPT, Kirkby has cham­pi­oned a shift from open-plan work­places to a paper­less and wire­less of­fice lay­out with unas­signed desks, break­out ar­eas and meet­ing rooms of all shapes and sizes – and no cor­ner of­fices for ex­ec­u­tives.

GPT’s own of­fices in Sydney’s MLC Cen­tre were con­verted to the new lay­out – widely re­ferred to as ac­tiv­ity-based work­ing (ABW) – a year ago. No ex­cep­tions were made for top man­agers. “We live like ev­ery­body else here,” Kirkby says. “There are no of­fices in this en­vi­ron­ment, only dif­fer­ent sorts of meet­ing rooms, from quiet rooms for one or two peo­ple through to meet­ing rooms for six peo­ple and rooms that are even larger still.”

Not even chief ex­ec­u­tive Michael Cameron – who took home $3.2 mil­lion last year, mak­ing him one of the sec­tor’s big­gest earn­ers – has his own of­fice. “It’s fan­tas­tic re­ally,” Kirkby says. “When you think about how fast the world is mov­ing these days, it’s not enough to de­pend on for­mal meet­ings to keep abreast of what’s hap­pen­ing in your or­gan­i­sa­tion. As you move around as an ex­ec­u­tive you over­hear an aw­ful lot of con­ver­sa­tions and you are mak­ing your­self very ac­ces­si­ble to peo­ple.”

A sur­vey by Arup found that GPT’s staff rated the re­fur­bished space highly. Also, the com­pany’s rank­ing on a com­fort in­dex that uses seven vari­ables, in­clud­ing heat­ing and cool­ing, ven­ti­la­tion, light and acous­tics, im­proved from the 54th per­centile in 2009 to the 97th per­centile by 2012.

ABW of­fices do away with the al­lo­ca­tion of desks and desk­top com­put­ers. In­stead, em­ploy­ees are is­sued with gym-style lock­ers, lap­tops and smart­phones. Desks are still pro­vided, but there are gen­er­ally fewer than the over­all head count, de­pend­ing on us­age within that par­tic­u­lar com­pany. Staff can choose where they would like to sit and can move dur­ing the day.

For Kirkby, “free- de­sk­ing” is a more ap­pro­pri­ate term than “hot-de­sk­ing” un­der the ABW model. “I haven’t used [hot-de­sk­ing] for 10 years be­cause I think it’s pe­jo­ra­tive. Peo­ple equate it with cost-sav­ing, which is one of the out­comes, but it is not the driver.”

The driver, she says, has been to im­prove pro­duc­tiv­ity and fos­ter in­no­va­tion across the cor­po­rate work­force.

ABW fitouts are gen­er­ally more ex­pen­sive, but the sav­ings can be con­sid­er­able for large com­pa­nies. Since 2009, GPT has cut its en­ergy bills in half and pa­per con­sump­tion by 70 per cent. Its of­fice space has been re­duced by 18.7 per cent since 2009.

GPT is not alone in us­ing the for­mat. Two of Aus­tralia’s largest banks, the Com­mon­wealth Bank and ANZ, are mov­ing from tra­di­tional open-plan of­fices to ABW de­signs from GPT ri­val Lend Lease. Mac­quarie Bank was also an early adopter.

But while GPT ex­ec­u­tives have em­braced the model, there has been some push-back else­where. When the Com­mon­wealth Bank re­lo­cated into its new ABW of­fices at Sydney’s Dar­ling Quar­ter, nei­ther chief ex­ec­u­tive Ian Narev nor chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer David Craig made the tran­si­tion. In­stead, they and other ex­ec­u­tives de­cided to stay in the bank’s re­cently re­fur­bished Dar­ling Park Tower digs, where cor­ner of­fices and desk-bound em­ploy­ees are still the or­der of the day.

How­ever, the Com­mon­wealth claims to re­main a be­liever in ABW. At the time the Dar­ling Quar­ter of­fices were opened, Craig said the bank stood to reap sig­nif­i­cant cost sav­ings af­ter find­ing that only 80 desks were needed for ev­ery 100 em­ploy­ees.

Ex­ec­u­tive criticism of the ABW model goes be­yond the loss of the cor­ner of­fice; many se­nior man­agers sim­ply can’t imag­ine work­ing life with­out hav­ing an ex­ec­u­tive as­sis­tant by their side, or at least within yelling dis­tance.

Kirkby says this is where the tech­nol­ogy be­comes im­por­tant, adding that she and her as­sis­tant sim­ply plan ahead whether to sit to­gether for the day and that as­sis­tant also keeps her abreast of her lo­cale within the of­fice throughout the day. “It does take a bit of get­ting used to if you’re more ac­cus­tomed to just look­ing up and your as­sis­tant be­ing there, but it does work very well.”

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