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7 Lessons From The Move To Commonwealth Bank Place, Australia's Biggest-Ever Corporate Relocation

The Commonwealth Bank undertook Australia’s largest-ever corporate relocation when it moved 6500 staff from Martin Place to a new custom-built workplace in Darling Quarter.

The new workplace is Commonwealth Bank’s first building-wide “activity-based working” environment, where staff don’t have set desks but move around the building depending on the task at hand.

Anyone who has been through even a small office move knows how tough it can be. The change can present enormous challenges for companies of all sizes, from how the floor layouts affect the natural flow of conversation to the sticky questions over who gets the best desk locations.

When it’s Australia’s largest bank there are bound to be some instructive lessons learned.

Tony ArmstrongTony Armstrong

Corporate workplace adviser Tony Armstrong, currently a strategy consultant at real estate services company CBRE, was part of the “CBA Unplugged” project team which aimed to establish the new, 58,000-square-metre Commonwealth Bank Place as a state-of-the-art, paperless office.

The move took place between June 2011 and February 2012, after two years of planning and a 2010 pilot in 48 Martin Place.

Commonwealth Bank Place is now one of Australia’s most innovative office spaces and an oft-cited example of activity-based working.

Armstrong spoke to Business Insider about the key lessons he took away from the move.

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  • Let business units decide whether they want to move in.

    The Commonwealth Bank gave up its Martin Place office when it moved into Commonwealth Bank Place, but business units were asked if they preferred to move into the activity-based working environment at Darling Quarter, or more traditional facilities in nearby Darling Park.

    Armstrong said all business units besides Colonial First State’s global asset management team asked to move into Commonwealth Bank Place. The asset management team picked Darling Park instead for its location.

    The advantage of this is simply that no business unit felt they were being forced into the new work habits that the move would bring.

  • Make sure top executives are spreading the good word.

    Commonwealth Bank’s activity-based working model had strong support from then-CEO Sir Ralph Norris down. Armstrong said all executives showed their enthusiasm for the move in weekly notes and quarterly addresses.

    Although Norris moved into Darling Park one year before CBA Unplugged, several senior executives moved into Commonwealth Bank Place, including CIO Michael Harte, wealth management head Annabelle Spring, former retail banking head Ross McEwan and former business and private banking head Ian Narev. Narev who moved into Darling Park when he became CEO.

  • Be prepared for technology not working out as planned.

    In a desk-less office, staff need to be able to take their phones with them. Technologists suggested that Commonwealth Bank use a combination of Microsoft and Cisco technology to give staff a landline number that travelled with them and their laptops.

    The Lync softphones didn’t quite work out as planned; Armstrong explained that staff found it too difficult to set up and adapt to the technology.

    Commonwealth Bank has since installed mobile phone signal boosters and issued staff with iPhones instead.

    Last year, technology news sites also reported that there had been some software and performance issues with Commonwealth Bank Place’s new MacBook Airs but Armstrong said most people were happy with the laptops, which were a selling point for the change management team.

  • Enlist popular people to encourage others to move around and use the range of spaces.

    One of the benefits of activity-based workplaces is that an organisation needs about 20% fewer desks than in a fixed-desk environment to account for people on leave or working offsite.

    That doesn’t work if some people informally claim a certain desk by sitting in the same seat day after day.

    Armstrong said the bank was wary of establishing a “police culture” that stopped people from sitting in the same desk, so encouraged people to prompt their friends to move desks – even if it was just to one in the same area.

  • Break the move up into smaller chunks.

    It would be near impossible to move 6500 people into a building at once; Commonwealth Bank Place only has a handful of entrances and lifts after all.

    Staff moved into the building on Fridays in groups of 200-300, over several months.

    Prior to being officially moved, each business unit would also be invited to three-hour “sandpit sessions” during which they would tour the new building.

  • Temporary, promotional staff can be a huge asset in making moving in a positive experience.

    The change management team hired about 12 temporary staff – mostly backpackers with tertiary qualifications – to support teams in their first two weeks in Commonwealth Bank Place.

    Commonwealth Bank put up posters with names and photos of the so-called “superheroes”, who could provide simple technical support and advice.

  • Acoustics are really important in an open office.

    During the three-month pilot at Martin Place, one of the major concerns staff raised was that they didn’t have private areas for confidential conversations.

    Armstrong said a lack of private areas was a key shortcoming of many activity-based workplaces. Commonwealth Bank Place addressed this by investing heavily in an architectural design with the right acoustics to muffle voices in quiet zones.

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