Workplace design and the Roslin experience

2008_03040049.JPGWe took a branding risk moving from our architect renovated vaulted ceiling warehouse in Albert Park to the grand Victorian house in West Melbourne. I need not have worried. Roslin (as the house is called), has not only been good for our branding, it has offered other advantages I hadn’t anticipated. This has prompted some pondering about the role of the work environment.

At high school, my two favourite subjects were technical drawing and art. (How did I end up with a pure maths degree?) A latent love for architecture and design has followed me through adult life. The ideas of how people interact with space has always held my interest, whether reflecting on Naomi Klein’s ideas about public spaces (No Logo chapter 13) or my own discovery of cooking pleasures after renovating our kitchen. If you share this fascination, I recommend you get your hands on Alain De Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness. The first 100 pages or so in particular are spectacular reading. But I digress.

I visited Shirley during the week. Before we enjoyed the sophisticated dark of the European cafe and winebar in Spring St. she showed me Arup’s impressive new offices, typical of the new kinds of spaces that are peppering corporate workspaces these days. But as an article in Friday’s edition of the Financial Review’s Boss Magazine says,

“…work environments that help get the most out of people – which boast the design finesse the modern worker expects – are not the norm.”

George, who owns and restored Roslin has treated us at Ergo and our network of clients and associates to a building of exceptional quality. It was the awe of the building that first captivated us. What I hadn’t anticipated was the sense of how the environment invites quality work. One almost feels embarrassed to deliver mediocrity within its walls.

We have tried to create different spaces within the building. No one has a permanent desk. All spaces are shared. we’ve got an open kitchen dining area, a modern board room, a ‘bankers-lamp, leather-top-desk’ style library, an open airy hot desking space and two outdoor areas. Each is designed for different moods and work styles. I reckon it works.

As I’ve had the opportunity to talk about this with people there is a sense of ‘derr’. Of course it is true that the environment affects the way people work. But if it is so self-evident, why are workplaces environments that inspire so rare? We have certainly lacked imagination on how to organise our office environments.

Sure, money is a factor, but where there is a creative will, there is a way. I’m not embarrassed to say that we furnished our place mostly from eBay. My suspicion is that managers have considered employees and their environments a cost rather than an asset, and have for the most part have forfeited considerable business value by overseeing very ordinary office environments. I wonder what our workplaces would look like if we embraced the link between inspiring environments and productivity.

I’m interested in people’s experiences of how different work environments influenced their motivation and effectiveness at work. Please do tell…

7 thoughts on “Workplace design and the Roslin experience

  1. My work is filled with beige cubicles. It isn’t an environment that induces calm or joy. I don’t think companies thought the work environment mattered that much. I’m in the work happy business and things are changing. Albeit things are changing slowly, they are improving. Hopefully articles like this will bring people’s awareness to the work environment.

    Great post!

  2. I’m loving the blog.

    I think the issue of beautiful spaces seems to be more important at the creative/ intangible end of the spectrum and functional spaces help drive good work habits and satisfaction at the more prosaic end – like asset management.

    We spent quite a bit on functional, purpose built furniture to refit our light but boxy office so that we could accommodate a couple of extra bodies, and upgraded the network to new iMacs for about half again. This saved a lot of moving expense and lifted morale and efficiency – but no-one would mistake our office for Roslin.

    Keep up the good work.

  3. Trevor, I think you infer a good point about the office environment including the electronic workspace. Some of us at Ergo would love to move to MacBooks but are struggling to justify it due to our investment and dependance on Exchange Server and MS Portal for our internal collaboration and document management. At the end of the day, we all need to make wise decisions about the investment in the work environement and the point is well made that it will look different for each company.

  4. As an Ergo employee I have spent all but 2 weeks of my soon to be 4 years in the company, on site with one of our larger clients. My desk, chair and surrounding space ooze traditional large corporate business environment. To call it dull is an understatement but is it also affecting my performance?
    Recently I attended a meeting in Roslin as I have regularly done since the office move. This time around my meeting was cut short and after an unexpected phone call my plans for the rest of the afternoon changed. I now found myself with a decent chunk of time to kill before finishing up for the day but it was not enough to make my way back to my boring pod in my traditional office.
    I claimed some space in the open airy hot desk room, connected my laptop to the awaiting stylish flat screens and got working. An hour later I was surprised to see how well the functional, hot desk concept worked, I had been productive and I had also enjoyed the excellent environment that Roslin has to offer.
    Was it just the charm of novelty that made the moment, was it just a fluke that I ended up being productive beyond the usual?
    I don’t know but maybe my next meeting will also be cut short and I will find out.

  5. Having recently joined the Ergo team I can affirm what a good work space does to one’s approach, not just to work, but to life. I’ve worked in many workplaces on four continents. When I walked into Ergo’s Roslin, I said “wow”. In many ways the awesomely renovated heritage building is so much in keeping with the Ergo heritage of family and openness, of equality and respect. The other thing about Roslin is that no one working there makes a claim to any one space as their own – its first come best dressed. Thus, the whole of Roslin becomes “my space”! I think thats cool. In fact, two of the people I’ve brought to Roslin recently said, “that office has good energy”. I agree. Look forward to more “transformational” experiences and “regeneration” at Roslin!
    Great move Col!

  6. Pingback: Work Happy Now! » Put People in a Design-Friendly Atmosphere to Inspire Excellent Work

  7. Hi Col,

    Just scanning through your post I have stumbled over this one about workspace architecture. It strongly reminded my of my own experience coming from a standard door-to-door office environment at my first and second job – not feeling too well. The reason for that was – as I have found much later- that I have the tendency to connect very strongly with people from different departments, floors and educational background on the way to sustainable solutions of challenging and complex problems. Perfectly got around this as I began to love knocking on doors, having a small chat while on the search for solutions (for which one had to find the problem first – sometimes).

    During the big (for European means) flood in Dresden in 2002 I was working in the help organization where we worked in a callcenter on two floors (one room on each) with about 10-15 people in each room hanging on the phone, pinning down information on oversized flipcharts, talking across the room, exchanging gossip on where help was needed and alike.

    I loved it:-)) That was exactly where my boundary-spanner tendency could be put to use to full degree. Of course it was just a temporary work place and soon as the problems were over, the water back in the river bed, normal offices took over the left over work. The others -including myself- were off to new work fields.

    It happened to be that BMW had started building the new plant in Leipzig and I joined them. It was a great time and the main building -where I worked for almost three years- has made the same impression as the little messy rooms during the 2002 flood. It is an openspace office meant to be workspace for about 700 without any closed office. Even the plant manager himself is sitting amongst the other workforce and is reachable by everybody -if wished.

    Getting the collective knowledge in such workspaces on the table is much easier than in closed offices as you can sense if there are any problems arising as soon as you see people gathering around. And yet it is a long way to make people secure of exchanging knowledge across the formerly existing boundaries and work together collaborately.

    These are my thoughts that just have come across my mind.



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