NO ROOM OF ONE’S OWN
GPT’S ROSEMARY KIRKBY WANTS EXECUTIVES TO KNOW IT’S SAFE TO VENTURE OUT OF THEIR OFFICES AND INTO THE WIDE OPEN PLANS.
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.”