Michael Cameron

31 March  2011 – GPT boss Michael Cameron himself dipped out of his job “making money”, as he put it, to host a sneak preview of the new, six star Green Star-targeted head office of the giant property trust this week.

Also hosting the tour group was Rosemary Kirkby who joined GPT as head of sustainability early last year and project director Robert Hitchcock.

Perched at Levels 50-52 near the top of the 67-storey Harry Seidler-designed MLC building in Martin Place, Sydney, the nearly completed refurbished offices were the subject of considerable discussion.

The building might be nearly 33 years old, but it has the impeccable architectural pedigree and a location that’s hard to beat.

Even better is that the base building rates five stars on the NABERS Energy scale. And there is the not insignificant pull of loyalty: GPT is a joint-owner of the building, with Queensland Investment Corporation

Stay or go? No contest, really.

A good cost outcome

There’s even a good cost outcome. Cameron – ever the financier (his background is as former head of Lend Lease owned MLC and of retail banking at CBA) is particularly pleased to tell the group that even with the high sustainability goals on the table, the new offices will cost no more than the existing tenancy, measured over the 10-year lifespan of the lease. This is because of the efficiency of the layout:  275 or so head office staff will now be accommodated in three floors instead of the current five floors.

In addition, the floors are capable of holding a 30 per cent increase in those staff numbers, adds Kirkby.

Kirkby’s background is in workplace revolutions. More than a decade ago she stunned the property world with the then ground-breaking MLC office redesign at North Sydney, complete with its active campus-style spaces and contrasting “Zen dens” for breakout/quiet time. (Yes there is a strong MLC thread running through this space.) More recently Kirkby put her stamp on the NAB headquarters in Melbourne.

So how has Kirkby’s influence come through for this company with its leading reputation in sustainability, and an average NABERS Energy rating of 4.6 throughout its office portfolio, as Cameron quietly points out?

Not much less than a state-of-the-art office space and a maximised sustainable outcome, according to this briefing.

Under construction

Sustainable outperformance
First: the sustainability front. According to Hitchcock the office space will outperform on this basis, especially on materials where the careful re-use of elements from the former offices go beyond Green Star requirements.

“For all the materials we selected we’ve gone above Green Star to make sure they meet our green credentials.”

“We wanted to be a net user of materials, so before we even stated demolition, everything from the door handles to the carpet, were catalogued and were either re-used, found a home for and recycled, or sold.”

There will be recycled timber joinery, reclaimed from the dark timber panelling popular during the original fit-out’s conception; reupholstered, re-gassed office chairs; reused access floor; and a stripped-back ceiling revealing the original, Seidler-designed, exposed concrete ribbing.

Yes, the process might have cost more but the company saw it as an investment in new processes and to demonstrate to clients what is possible, says Hitchcock.

Also part of the deal will be a now de rigueur bow to “transparency in the workplace “. This will include a kind of “town square” at the main entrance formed by creating a physical-access atrium punched through two concrete floors, from where outside visitors and staff from outlying offices can come and pick up on the vibe of “lots of things” happening, says Hitchock.

“People will get to see what we’re doing. We’ll be creating a connection with what we do.”

Visiting staff from other offices and shopping centres will be able to swipe their security cards and feel they have equal access with head office staff.

Surrounding the atrium will be a “treehouse of meeting rooms”, all glazed and open to view to enhance the buzz of activity.

Throughout the floors the transparency theme will continue with the opening-up of visual-access corridors to panoramic views of the Harbour up to The Heads and through to Bondi.

The atrium (to be)

Dark glass in the façade has been changed to a more transparent product.

“Back in 1977 the idea was to keep the daylight out and bump up the mechanical system but today it’s the opposite,” Hitchcock says.

Hot desks are out
In terms of layout, it will be a firmly collaborative open approach.

Instead of the old-fashioned separate offices and corridors of the current floorspace, there will be clusters of work areas.

Hitchcock describes them as “neighbourhoods” of “work surfaces” offering a limited choice of desks to accommodate different body frames, and a broad range of meeting rooms and quite spaces for concentrated private work.

But no hot desking. This message is clear.

Could it be that hot desks signal to staff nameless/faceless units of production? Maybe. Kirkby guardedly agrees.

Hitchcock explains that the hot desking idea, taken up by so many modern offices was knocked out swiftly at the start of an exhaustive consultation process with staff.

“Hot desking is one of the myths put up and we said no, we are not hot desking,” he says.

“The way we understood hot desking is you have one suite of desk and you go in at the start of the day, grab a ticket and have a desk, and when we did our research, what our people were saying was that [with hot desking] there is not enough diversity of space; there were desks and meeting rooms but no spaces in between, so we created a whole lot of in-between spaces they could move around in.

“Our tenancy will be wireless and networked. Through technology you can move around, you can walk around and access all the documents stored on a server. The days of walking around with a folder … they are really starting to disappear.”

Rosemary Kirkby

A 21st Century club
Kirkby says the best analogy is that the space will operate more in the way that a club does.

“We’ve been in transition in workplace models for 10-20 years and hot desking was probably the forerunner of where we got to, but this environment is more like walking into a 21st Century club,” she says.

And just like a big club, its members, such as GPT staff in other offices or in the shopping centres, ought to be able to feel, just like members, that they come in and “swipe” and walk through.

And as in a club there will be protocols and etiquette to observe.

Cameron says: “When you are a member of a club, you don’t have your name on a seat but you may sit in the same general area. And that’s the same here as well. You normally wouldn’t leave anything behind at night.”

Cutting the paper ties

This means cutting the paper ties.

Facilitating it all, Kirkby says, is the technology, which has finally come of age and can do what designers intended a decade ago: laptops with full functionality to log onto the company intranet. And a functionality with the intranet that can facilitate virtual meetings without the huge cost of relying on external technology providers.

But how is a staff that relies on folders and plans and hard copy notes to be enticed to give up its attachment to paper and rely on cyberspace?

It’s a big ask, Cameron concedes.

“One of the big challenges between now and when we finish is to [be rid of] any remaining paper. We have limited storage for each person – but it’s really challenging – and the technology support has been critical in having the confidence to let go of the hard copy on your desk.”

Part of the transition has involved a “biggest loser” campaign for a lighthearted side of the program, but plenty of direct support, even one-on-one attention where needed, Hitchcock says.

The view (on a bad day)

A collaborative workspace
Cameron thinks the new layout with its focus on more collaborative work spaces will be a winner. But he too needed to be convinced it would create a better outcome.

“When I started as CEO two years ago, I would see many vacant desks,” Cameron says.

“Coming from the industry that I came from, I thought that was a bad thing, but here I realised it was a good thing because our people are out actively managing our assets. But what I saw was a waste of beautiful desks and beautiful views.”

“If you are in a business that works in silos – and that’s nearly every business I’ve been in regardless of the sector – having a collaborative space like this overcomes that, because of all the meetings you can have while you’re walking around and getting on with your daily work.

“It’s a very, very different way of doing things.

“We’re moving from what was a terrible workplace that was very inefficient, to a state-of-the-art place that we think will be the best in the world, and it’s not costing us any more money from a rent perspective.”

And that’s just the way Cameron likes it.

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