News from the front desk, issue 488: Could it be the instability caused by this strange time that’s seen so many changes of the guard at the top end of businesses and organisations and some surprising road-to-Damascus type conversions from the most unlikely places?

This week we learnt that gas supplier AGL has decided to link its executive bonuses to achieving climate goals. This for a company where the acronym stands for Australian Gas Company.

That’s like working yourself out of a job, right? Like every climate scientist and campaigner dreams of every night instead of contending with nightmares that they’re drowning in flood waters while everyone else goes calmly about their business. (Read Joëlle Gergis in The Monthly if Nordic Noir isn’t enough for you.)

Disruptions continued on Thursday with news that Bunnings had axed its deal with VicForests timber, the state owned logging company, because it wants to “only source legal timber from sustainable operations.”

This was after the federal court found that VicForests “breached the code of practice in its regional forestry agreement for the central highlands”, a finding that VicForests said it would appeal, not surprisingly.

If the state-owned outfit wins, it wins, but it still loses. Bunnings has made its choice and VicForests’ consumer brand damage has been perpetrated.

Next, according to an article in The Guardian, the Nature Conservation Council of NSW is getting ready to launch a campaign to get every home handyperson’s favourite Sunday outing to stop selling timber sourced from native forests in New South Wales.

As we’ve said, over and over, isn’t the power in your pocket the sweetest thing, when all else fails?

And in Sydney there are early signs that the green bans power might be rising again, as if to honour their founder Jack Mundey who recently passed away. To whet our appetite, building union CFMEU NSW is banning the demolition of two heritage buildings in Parramatta to make way for the relocated Powerhouse Museum.

With coal mines being fast tracked and other dreadful news about environmental hacking through the slashing of “green tape”, maybe we need to get friendly with the unions and see if they can expand their thinking to the brown stuff and help us ban that lot as well.

It’s hardly a secret that there are alternative green jobs to offer their members these days and the number of jobs at stake are far smaller than the marketing folk at Coal Central would like us to believe.

Onto more practical and immediate stuff

Covid disruptions in the jobs area continued this week with people jumping ship for new, more exciting roles. Or some are eyeing off simpler, calmer positions as they come out of the compulsory reflection time of Covid.

While the architecture and engineering sectors saw some quick early retrenchments and belt tightening – thanks to lessons well learnt during the GFC – second and third stage responses have yet to materialise, we hear. That doesn’t mean they aren’t expected. However, with even the Reserve Bank of Australia urging the government to extend subsidies, no-one known when the next economic hit will come.

The pipeline of projects is still there, we’re told. New work is being commissioned. The government is stepping in with new gigs. (If you want to keep up with the interesting tranche of work coming out of government bunkers then keep an eye on the Green Gigs column.)

Of course, a few developers have pulled the plug.

The difference between this recession and past recessions or even the deadly Great Depression is that these usually come on in long agonising stages so that at their depths people’s reserves are completely depleted.

This downturn is different. Purses have been snapped shut. The money’s still there, we hear, but their owners are waiting to see how things pan out.

As we know, economies are built partly of real stuff you can count on but also on the much more influential thing you can’t see but you can feel: confidence.

Right now, Australia has earned the right to feel a bit happy with itself, at least on our response to the pandemic (not looking at you Victoria!). If we’re smug, though, that’s likely to be wiped out with the economic impact of what goes on globally, among the giants of the US, the UK and Europe.

American companies have shown time and time again that they’re not swayed by what’s happening in Aus; we could be booming, but if things aren’t good at home, the answer is No.

Office news 

Property Council chief executive Ken Morrison told The Fifth Estate that the economic recovery depends on a number of things – what happens in Victoria with the infection rates, our transport capacity and our attitudes around safety.

Surveys show that while staff might find they’re comfortable back in a well-managed office, they are not so sure about jumping back on a train or bus, he notes.

In the most recent period, Sydney’s offices have been well less than half full and Melbourne’s were still “quite empty”.

He thinks many people will want to be more flexible and work more from home but that attitude will compete with the pull of our social natures.

“There is a creative spark about being in proximity to each other,” he said.

“It’s how people get create great ideas and problem solve and yes you can do a lot on Zoom, but it’s nowhere near as good.

“Anyone that’s built a really strong culture has done that by being together. There is a social value and a business value in collaborating and that’s the countervailing force.”

Job movements and reflections

Among those choofing off is Andrew Pettifer, not so much to more fertile grounds (just yet) but to decidedly exciting grounds as he and his wife set off on a grand cross-country experience, from Sydney to Adelaide, north to the centre and then to the mysterious and vast country of The Kimberley, border crossings permitting.

Reflecting on his best gig at Arup as he was leaving the global engineering outfit after 13 years, most recently as principal heading up building services and the NSW region, Pettifer landed on his job to lead fitout of the company’s new headquarters at Barrack Place in Clarence Street.

It was the human and behavioural side of the gig he liked best. That and the joy of being the client as well as the consultant.

The project was a “fantastic opportunity”, Pettifer says, and “part of that was reinforcing the culture.”

The company opted for activity-based working, but first it sat back a bit and allowed people to make choices about their seating arrangements, observing their preferences.

“We intentionally left the space design open at first to see how people populated the office,” Pettifer said. “We let it find its own way of being and then observed how people were and we ended up creating much smaller neighbourhoods.

Most clustered in groups, not caring so much about the desk they sat at but caring very much about the groups they integrated with. It led to changes in the final design that reflected those preferences.

“It’s not so much the individual spot they want; they want to be part of a family unit; they want to sit among a group of people they know and like.

“This ended up being in groups of 10-20 people.

“We certainly went into the whole activity based working model and having to observe how well it does work, I reckon it works for 80 per cent. There are people who are really uncomfortable and just don’t like it.”

With Covid, though, it’s turned out to be very flexible, enabling good control of how many people are coming in and sharing the workspace.

So, what was it like being a client and the consultant?

“I always say to people that what I observed in 35 years working on projects, is that the single most determining factor in the success of a project is the ability of the client to do that we need the client to do.”

Architects, builders and engineers can all do a good job, he said, but the client can make a project great by having the vision and the brief.

But also the ability to make a decision when it needs to be made.

Architects – some are hiring

Also shifting ground is Nik Killis who’s leaving Arup to head back to his former stomping ground at Hassell to help it steer into new and expansionary directions.

Quite contrary to what might be expected of an architectural firm during this lockdown period, the studio, which started in Adelaide around 80 years ago, recently closed that original office and now has 800 staff in Australia, China and Singapore, is expanding.

The business development role Killis has taken on is to helping devise a strategy to expand the company’s existing offering in advisory services, strategy, user experience and digital, and to grow geographically.

Killis says while the company is large it’s not the biggest architectural firm in Australia and probably sits at around fifth by size. AECOM employs more architects by far, he says.

And despite Covid, it’s looking to grow, not shrink. In addition to Killis, it’s also brought across Dan Cox from Carr design in Melbourne, an architect that Killis says is one of the leading designers in the hospitality and leisure sectors. It might sound like an “interesting” time to expand capacity in this space, while this sector is still suffering badly but according to Killis it’s all about using “the opportunity to leverage where we want to be going”.

“Dan is one of the best designers in the business. It’s about doubling down on the long term commitment to the sector.”

So far, he says, he’s not seen work drying up. Nor a sharp fall in the order book.

“Yes, some projects have been delayed but there’s still consistent bidding on new work; we’re not seeing a big downturn.

He doesn’t think the downturn will be as dramatic as believed in some quarters but the longer we’re in lockdown the more difficult recovery will be. The government, however, can be expected to pump more stimulus into the economy.

And there’s the global economy that could hit the sector more than expected.

“Europe and America have been really hit hard. I don’t think we understand the fallout from those countries. China is coming back slowly.

“Australia will come out of this sooner rather than later We’re still seeing a lot of clients investing. There are government projects coming through.”

On the residential front, he says, property has “not seen a big slash in prices.” People are still buying and he sees no reason for a major correction with the exception perhaps of the outer suburbs.

“I think the challenge is the confidence in the commercial market.”

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