My brain hurts: new thinking from Sydney’s summit of new ideas

From insights into brain chemistry to the disruptive power of community in placemaking, WORKTECH Sydney 2017 emphasised the importance of human interactions

From cutting-edge research to workplace transformation narratives, presenters at WORKTECH Sydney on 9 March 2017 signalled a new era focused on the experiences of individual people as drivers for change.

The day started with insights from two leading researchers. Kristine Dery from MIT focused on the importance of employee experience, stating that: ‘The more you focus on employee experience, the better your customer experience is likely to be.’ Drawing on MIT’s own buildings as case studies, Dery’s research shows that there is no correlation between space and performance unless it is integrated with connectedness and leadership.

Focusing on the importance of employee experience…

Dr Fiona Kerr from the University of Adelaide provided a fascinating description of the science behind the brain’s capacity for creativity, complex thinking, empathy, attention and productivity. She described how the brain’s ability for creative thought is improved by quality REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, while oscillation triggers certain brain functions, which can be achieved through walking meetings. Touch and eye gaze are vital for human wiring, with mirror neurons triggered by smiling, but only in a real interaction, not a digital image; spindle neurons which build trust can be triggered digitally, but only if you have already met at least once in person.


Community as workplace

Lend Lease’s Natalie Slessor’s provocative comment – ‘we need to stop talking about the workplace’ – was followed by a description of a people place or a work life, which recognises that your community is your workplace strategy. In order to achieve this, designers need to focus on creating familiar and easy places at a human scale. In order to achieve this, the workplace should focus on: team-based working, health and wellbeing, workplace flexibility, technology and precinct. ‘Places where people work should be more loveable, fun, creative and social,’ says Slessor.

Workplace transformation as a continual process of change management was central to ` presentation by Suzanne Westgae of AGL Energy, who focused on the company’s move to two new workplaces at Bourke Street and George Street in Melbourne. Even after the move, agile working further transformed the workplace. As a result, flexible, adaptable spaces have been coupled with a continuous change management process, adopting smarter workplace etiquette and an anticipatory culture with simple technology.

In a panel about the landlord-tenant relationship, David Rolls from Lend Lease acknowledged that buildings much act as a community rather than a physical space and asked the question of how to deal with a paradigm shift that goes beyond thinking about square metres. Instead of property management, it could be thought of experience management.

Tim O’Connor from JLL agreed that the challenge is to embrace disruption that gets away from rates per square metre. Brent Harman from Atlassian challenged co-working as a disruptive model, suggesting that landlords need to push more boundaries and take more risks. ‘Someone has to be bold and do things differently even if they might fail. Fear of failure is holding us back,’ he said.

No place like placemaking

Placemaking was another key theme that speakers returned to again and again at WORKTECH Sydney 2017. Lee Valentine from Hoyne drew on models of placemaking from Rotterdam’s Markethal to Chicago’s Millenium Park. Applying these placemaking principles to workplaces, he said: ‘Workplaces should be an employment hub, not an architectural icon.’ The vision of a place’s identity is not created by leadership alone, but is co-created by the community, resulting in a place that inspires pride.

Moving from the office building to the precinct level, Paul Edwards from Mirvac outlined the developer’s approach to disruption in the property industry by introducing the concept of smart precincts. By doing so, it is possible, he said, to dissolve what he refers to as the ‘thick red line’ and go beyond the workplace building to consider the workplace as a precinct. Mirvac’s Intermix discussion paper describes eight principles: one connected community; shaping the sharing economy; fluid boundaries and flow; curated precinct; flexible space matters; makerspace culture; wellbeing dividend; and destination, not dead zone.


Synchronised swarming

Examining workplace behaviour up close, Simon Coles from Amicus compared the activities in an office to a ‘murmuration of starlings’, in which each bird moves as part of a whole organism in an incredible display of synchronicity. His touchline model investigates: physical space, such as providing a high diversity of spaces to drive connectedness and collaboration; information, such as digital collaboration or white boards; and organisation, including reimagining values such as location flexibility with non-assigned desks.

Focusing on face-to-face meeting spaces that increase productivity and innovation, Peter Brady, founder of Collaborative Design, discussed how collaborative spaces are designed and used. ‘We need to see body language, smell pheromones and build trust,’ said Brady. He urged organisations to spend more on air travel and off-site meetings to focus on specific, complex issues, with new designs for meeting rooms enabling complex problems to be solved in person.

Everyone is on a journey of digital transformation, according to Adam Lanteigne from Microsoft, with many companies facing the same issues, such as the need to be creative as new competition emerges from overseas. ‘If your home is more tech-savvy than your work, that should bother you,’ he observed. Any approach should be human-centred, but the key questions should be: what type of people, how do they need to work and what behaviours need to drive the work?

The conference ended with Phillip Ross, founder of the WORKTECH conference series providing a fascinating look into the future of the app-centric workplace. Apps are now being developed across a range of capabilities, including those that will be able to track our whereabouts, allow us to connect using social-media style interactions at work, control lighting and offer conversational computing.


But back to Fiona Kerr’s research – will our brains be able to cope?

More on Mirvac’s report, The Intermix Approach: Activating the Smart Precinct, here
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