Will the human factor be missing from the new flexible office?

Ian Bushnell 15 April 2021 14
ACT Government Public Service building

The ACT Government Public Service building in Civic is using the Activity Based Working model. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

I began my working life in the public service in the Brisbane office of the ATO as a teenager chasing tax debts.

It was never to be a lasting relationship, but writing about the new ways government offices are being arranged and managed has brought back a few memories that are in stark contrast to the fluid spaces today’s public servants can inhabit.

The Pavlovian response to the sound of wheels rolling across floors as the trolley ladies made their way into the office and through clusters of desks dispensing cups of tea and biscuits remains as strong as the brew in their urn.

READ ALSO: Digital wayfinder to guide public servants through new office terrain

While the trend now is for universal workstations and spaces that need to be booked under the Activity Based Working model, back then, the desk was like home and hearth, and just as secure.

As a kid with so little life under my belt, the newspaper (remember those?) was about the only personal item that adorned it, but others with families and extracurricular activities decorated them with photos and other paraphernalia among the baskets of files (folders with actual paper letters in them) we were expected to work through.

Just like the job, you could depend on returning to the same place to work each day and seeing familiar faces.

Years later, as a sub-editor on various newspapers, I would think about that sometimes as I hunted for a free computer at the start of an evening shift before most of the office shuffled out.

At least today’s public servants will have a digital wayfinder or app to guide them to where they can work or hold a meeting.

Governments are embracing the new office for the efficiencies it brings, especially when some staff will be working from home, something COVID-19 necessitated for many and will continue because of its popularity among workers and the savings to be gleaned if less floor space is required in government buildings.

The ACT’s two new government buildings in Civic and Dickson operate on an 80 per cent capacity, estimating that not all of the 3,000 staff will ever be on-site at any one time.


The new office is meant to be flexible and adaptable. Photo: File.

Just like working from home, there are mixed feelings about this new management approach, suiting some but being a bit unnerving for others, depending on how you may be wired.

I suspect the public service is only at the edge of discovery when it comes to understanding these changes on the workforce and the impacts on productivity or just plain job satisfaction.

The hybrid model of working – home and office – is likely here to stay, so more than likely there just won’t be room in smaller offices for all staff to have a workstation. Still, not everyone will be comfortable, and therefore working optimally, playing the daily game of musical chairs, even if it involves some tech and an app.

Proponents are quick to say the new approach is not just hot-desking but the role human behaviour – especially the need for anchors, stability and predictability – will have in its application. It should be the stuff of PhDs.

It may be that Gen-whatever-it-is-now will simply adapt to the new normal, and those that follow will not know any other way to do business.

But the other potential victim of this impermanent arrangement is a loss of culture and a decay in human relationships, simply from the fact that fewer people turn up for face-to-face meetings and the narrower scope for making connections and friends.

At a time when collaboration is being emphasised, a less collegiate workplace may be the result.

These are matters for team leaders and managers to negotiate, but the public service should monitor the transition closely to assess the benefits and disadvantages of the new system.

Those who have been around long enough know that management trends come and go, and the wheel may turn again in years to come.

What's Your Opinion?

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14 Responses to Will the human factor be missing from the new flexible office?
Joanne Boyanton Joanne Boyanton 6:22 pm 18 Apr 21

thanks Mark what every Hancockian needs to know.

Ian Ian 10:22 pm 17 Apr 21

This opens an interesting idea for industrial action. Everyone turn up at the same time on the same time, and overfill the available working space, so there are a significant number of people unable to work because of no desk or other space being available for them.

Helen Prior Helen Prior 8:16 pm 17 Apr 21

Not only has the human factor gone from work place, it is disappearing from from all over Canberra.

Tania Shaw Tania Shaw 7:56 am 17 Apr 21

there is a bit of a difference in how the new offices are working now v's how it will be when covid has less of an impact (hopefully we get there) as the available desks are reduced. The new offices are really lovely, and the neighbourhoods create spaces for teams so you catch your colleagues. I work in ABW (3 years on) and despite the possibility of it becoming random and disconnected, for most people clustering happens and people want to sit with the teams they are part of (of course it does also allow for those who want to be under the radar and disconnected to float a little more - but that just means managers have to be more active in connecting with those staff).

It also means that you don't have to sit next to Chad who talks loudly on the phone or Betty who wears strong perfume every day, like you used to (let alone the fixed desk and office days for boomers and lost generation where smoke drifted around the office as the tea lady made her way around). Now you also get to choose what work area suits what you want to do - so a quiet pod when you have to do something intense, or a collective area when you want to collaborate with colleagues, or the lounge if you need to chill for a bit. Morning teas are still a thing, as are social connections, celebrations, sport rivalry etc.

I challenge Ian to talk to someone in their 20-30's to see what they think, they are the ones that will be working in these offices for the next 20 years.

HiddenDragon HiddenDragon 7:57 pm 16 Apr 21

“The Pavlovian response to the sound of wheels rolling across floors as the trolley ladies made their way into the office and through clusters of desks dispensing cups of tea and biscuits remains as strong as the brew in their urn.”

On the other hand, clouds of smoke from Winnie Blues and Craven A’s, is something happily left in the offices of the past!

One of the interesting issues raised by this newer way of organising office work is whether it does anything of real value to “break down the silos” – an issue which has probably been around since the days of the tea ladies, and which would have consumed forests of butchers’ paper and oceans of marker pen ink in countless planning etc. sessions. It has also, of course, been a wonderful little earner for management consultants.

Jaeryl Ong Jaeryl Ong 9:28 am 16 Apr 21

60/40 wfh. Means I can tend to a nice roast or slow cooker through the day, and my wfh days often are days i get the menial stuff done that usually I’d never get around to due to conversations, phone calls and impromptu calls.

It’s not some dystopian future, if you specifically cant get used to it then ask for a permanent desk.

Jay Kay Jay Kay 8:06 am 16 Apr 21

The human factor can survive if the business actually embraces flexibiltiy rather than focusing on running less than capacity desking.

The key is to create areas where groups can come together and work when they need to as productively as possible and facilitate communication and collaboration, so that when disconnects occur (and they will in flexible arrangements), people remain productive from the information gathered during the last meeting.

Mark Huppert Mark Huppert 8:02 am 16 Apr 21

Hot desking is already discredited.


    Jake O'Connell Jake O'Connell 8:45 am 16 Apr 21

    Mark Huppert an article from 2019, before the covid shake up doesn’t reflect the current environment.

    Almost all points made in that article are solved by using Microsoft teams and everything else that has made WFH possible.

    If you can WFH you can hot desk.

    Judy Huppert Judy Huppert 10:25 am 16 Apr 21

    Mark Huppert that sounds horrid.

Lin Van Oevelen Lin Van Oevelen 7:34 am 16 Apr 21

I hated the idea but after 4 years in an ABW building, there is no way I'd want to go back to a fixed desk office. And our building is nowhere near as nice as this Dickson one...

And I think the announcement of the app gives a very distorted picture of the reality of ABW. The vast majority of the time I just walk in and get my favourite spot. Or one very close to it. Right near my team. There are odd days when it's busier and I have to go to a different "neighbourhood" but that's quite rare and I don't mind the occasional change of scenery.

We still have meetings with people in the same office, morning teas, chats in the kitchen, people go for walks or lunch together, walk over to someone's desk to discuss a work issue or ask about their weekend, etc

The only real difference is that you have to clear your desk at the end of the day. And that the desks get cleaned every night!

It's a bit different now with social distancing in place and I'm still mostly working from home. But if you want to go to the office, I can recommend ABW.

    Lin Van Oevelen Lin Van Oevelen 7:36 am 16 Apr 21

    Lin Van Oevelen PS: I am gen X. Pretty close to boomer even. To suggest older people cannot adapt to a change like this is a bit ageist.

    Simone Black Simone Black 8:28 am 16 Apr 21

    Lin I agree. I wasn’t sure initially how I’d feel about ABW but so far it’s been fine. We still do everything as per normal it’s just the cleaning the desk at the end of the day.

    Donna Sharp Donna Sharp 9:13 am 16 Apr 21

    Lin at my last job in an office this is the way we worked. It was a call centre and you just had a cubicle and a locker for your stuff. Even as a team manager you moved around a lot and that was 18 years ago. People adapt.

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