'Wormholes' are coming to Australian offices

Wormhole. Photo: iStock.

The evolution of the cool office, or the race to create the dream work environment, is about to get a tech makeover in Australia this year.

In Sydney, the big star startups and the social media darlings such as LinkedIn have moved toward Martin Place, the traditional home for banks, and the advisory firms such as KPMG have gone to Barangaroo, the city’s biggest office development.

And with the shift comes big physical changes in the office around productivity — getting the best work from people — and keeping and developing the best talent.

But it’s not all about ping pong tables, retro electronic game machines, personal trainers and kitchens staffed by onsite chefs.

The biggest current trend is the adoption of agile, or activity based work, models where staff have choice over where they work and how they can be most productive. This can be seen at its best at KPMG’s Sydney headquarters.

This has also meant that fixed stand-alone phones have been replaced with a plug in system operated via the internet.

Just rock up to your desk/ couch of choice, plug in the headset via a laptop and start talking.

Done well, activity based work gives employees more control, moving from quiet areas for thinking to group pods for collaboration, depending on the task at hand.

The downside happens when companies, looking at how much they can save in rent, overload work areas with too many staff. The result is sweaty, busy and a desperate sprint to find a chair.

But bigger changes are coming, according to Sydney-based Stephen Minnett, who has designed office spaces for Google, Microsoft, MYOB and REA.

MYOB’s offices. Image: FutureSpace

A hole in space

Wormholes are appearing. This is where teams working together, but in different locations, are connected constantly by video through a large screen — the wormhole.

“They can see what the rest of the team is doing, just like when the team is in the same space,” says Minnett, the group director of Futurespace.

“This only works with similar time zones of course. If the team is Sydney and London based the connection would only show the cleaners working at night in the other office.”

Research by companies including Cisco and Steelcase has shown that many workers regularly collaborate across time zones and geographies.

“In some of our projects companies are creating “wormholes” that provide constant contact between team members — not just for specific meetings but as a normal part of day to day work life,” he says.

Other changes ahead, says Minnett, include the internet of things where the many of the elements of a building are connected to a centralised database.

In this way rooms can then respond to your personal preferences, be they technology, temperature or lighting.

“The ability of a building to track the movements of occupants also raises issues of privacy and future workers may have to accept greater oversight via technology,” he says.

And something that can be built in to new buildings is integrated monitoring of space and occupancy patterns to better allow organisations to understand how their office is being used and see patterns of behaviour.

“This data can then be used to potentially reduce the amount of space needed by not providing space that is not used,” says Minnett.

The REA office. Image: FutureSpace


Wearable technology will also be used to analyse the use of space.

“Companies are designing spaces to encourage staff to move and devices can help them monitor their health at work targets such as walk at least 10,000 steps in a day,” he says.

And there are many seeking the benefits of the “uberisation” of work — using someone else’s capital rather than buying your own.

“In the past we have seen companies invest in expensive video conferencing rooms which have low usage patterns,” says Minnett.

“Building owners like Dexus (with the provision of ‘Dexusplace’ facilities) are providing video conferencing and other facilities on a user pays basis.”

Building a better office

The pathway to a better office starts with intelligent analysis of how their people are working now.

“In many of our projects we engage with all staff (through surveys and interviews) as well as undertaking observation studies to better understand current behaviours in their workplace,” says Minnett.

“This engagement needs to consider workplace policies (especially relating to flexible or remote working) as well as an understanding of their technology’s ability to support different ways of working.”

Minnett says the Australian working week is one of the longest in the world and so it’s essential that workplaces are healthy environments that support people both physically and emotionally.

“At Futurespace we believe that people are the product of their environment, and nowhere is this more important than in the workplace,” he says.

“What we do at the workplace has a significant effect on our health and well-being.

“We have known for a long time about sick building syndrome where a buildings systems and materials can make people physically ill.

“Sustainability and good environmental design was in many ways a response to that. We’ve got very good at building healthier buildings and interiors and the next logical step is the implementation of health and wellbeing programs for employees.

“Increasing computer use has led to less physical activity amongst knowledge workers and the World Health Organisation has recognised that there is huge opportunity for health and wellbeing in the workplace to prevent many lifestyle diseases.

“If people feel healthy at work, then naturally this is going to improve their engagement and their quality of life and in turn, their quality of work.”

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