By Rachel Nickless Originally published by The Australian Financial Review on 2 June 2016.

A hush will fall over our communal desks, with phones and office chatter banished to separate rooms within the next four years, workplace design experts predict.

Activity-based working is all the rage in corporate Australia, helping to slash floor space requirements and office rents, but it has left many workers scrambling for headphones or the “quiet” room to block out distractions.

Now Unispace predicts major changes ahead, with assigned desks and office quiet rooms all but extinct within four years.

Unispace’s new white paper, Workplace 2020: Global Industry Insights is based on interviews with more than 100 heads of real estate from corporate giants including KPMG, Cisco, Adidas, GE, Accenture, Boston Consulting Group, Regus, Deloitte, UBS, Chevron, CitiGroup, and law firm Ashurst.

Activity-based working is all the rage

No more annoying chatter

Unispace global design director Simon Pole, told The Australian Financial Review that people in open, desk-based working areas will soon see that space as the “quiet” zone dedicated to focused work. Staff will start taking phone calls or private chats into rooms that are now typically designated as “quiet rooms”.

In the funky Melbourne offices of tech company Slack, they already have a “no phones, no talking at desks” policy in one working area, which has a “library” vibe to it. They have a social area near reception and a sound-proofed area with rooms and phone booths for meetings and phone calls.

Linda Shaw, Slack’s global site development manager, says she enjoys the new environment: “It’s got the best of both worlds, the quiet and comfort you find at home, but also the feeling of being part of a team, and of course the option to be social.”

“We want to ensure we create an office in which extroverts and introverts can thrive,” she said.

meeting room shortage
Meeting rooms cut down on the distractions in an open desk area

 

Your desk will soon be extinct

Mr Pole also predicted that the notion of the personal, assigned desk will cease to exist in Australia by 2020, except in the C suite, and in the legal industry which tended to be more cautious about change and was dominated by ISTJ and INTJ Myers Briggs personality types. Chief executives and their key reports were however gradually giving up personal offices, instead opting for C suite pods or lounges with assigned desks, he said.

ABW was the way all industries were going because it boosted collaboration and employee wellbeing and reduced rent costs, Mr Pole said.

Sitting is now viewed as the new smoking in many workplaces.

Twenty-eight per cent of Australian offices are already using ABW, and that will rise to two thirds by 2020, according to a 2015 study cited by Unispace.

desk space
ABW can boost collaboration, employee wellbeing and reduced rent costs

 

When ABW goes wrong

“If ABW is done badly it’s just like the open office of the 1990s,” Mr Pole said. True activity based working required employers to offer different kinds of working spaces to suit the needs of particular tasks – from spaces for chats to collaboration spaces, and independent working areas. It also required staff to be trained to think about the task at hand and move to the area best suited to that job, he said.

He added that ABW didn’t work where there were more staff than desks, as people tended to become territorial about a particular desk. “If you don’t have a volume of people through the space it loses its ability to be more effective. You don’t get that buzz,” he added.

Unispace found that as more corporates and staff began to appreciate the health dangers of prolonged sedentary work, standard desks are increasingly being replace by moveable “sit to stand” desks. Companies are also opening up their workplaces to customers and even the wider public, either by letting people from the wider community work from their ground floors or auditoriums or entering into co-working arrangements.

 

The article represents the views of the author only and not those of Dexus.

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