Can a sense of belonging engender better outcomes in the workplace? At Lendlease’s new headquarters at International Towers Sydney, Barangaroo, Australia, the organisation has designed an office that aims to make employees feel at home.
Blood runs thicker than water. All humans possess a primordial instinct to hunt and survive together in their tribes. Yet somewhere along the line, as the pen replaced the hammerstone, work was disentangled from the idea of home. The nine-to-five emerged, entire generations clocked on and clocked off, and work became something cold and necessary – a duty rather than instinct.
Today, however, as the computer replaces the pen and technology empowers people to take control of the way they work, the divide that separates life and work is once again eroding. At Lendlease, an international construction, property and infrastructure company, this is a trend that is shaping its workplace strategy. The organisation understands that if the line between what constitutes work and what constitutes life is fading then work will have to feel more like home and family.
Natalie Slessor, General Manager of Workplace & Change at Lendlease, says that when the organisation was planning the design of its new offices in Tower Three, International Towers Sydney, on the city’s majestic harbour at Barangaroo, much of its research centered on the way humans cluster and form groups. “We looked at behavioural anthropology around extended families and cavemen and all sorts of wonderful things that we could find,” she explains. Slessor and her colleagues eventually agreed that teams of 12 would most accurately befit the feeling of an extended family. They felt this number was appropriate because observations in the organisation’s previous workplace had found that employees tended to work in clusters of 6 to 8, with about 4 or 5 people on the periphery.
“We took the brief of an extended family very seriously, so we just started creating stuff that families need,” says Slessor. The first step was to give every team a kitchen table. Slessor says that she immediately liked the idea of a kitchen table because at home it is “the place where you dump your stuff, sit down and share the stresses and successes of your day”. So in Lendlease’s workplace people will always have a ‘home’, but they are also free to visit other ‘communities’. In fact, Lendlease has made sure that its employees develop a sense of freedom and choice in the new space. Focus points have been installed next to each kitchen table to offer people a release from the otherwise collaborative environment. These come in the form of separate, sheltered desks, which sit next to the window and are surrounded by plants. Slessor says these spaces specifically have biophilic and wellness elements to aid deeper cognitive tasks.
By moving to International Towers Sydney, however, Lendlease did something unusual for a corporate business; it swapped a low-rise campus building, complete with a staircase and atrium, for 11 floors of a 551ft skyscraper. A setting with such a vertical distribution of people could have a negative impact on the sense of community, so Lendlease has designed the two middle floors to act as social spaces. One floor features a commercial kitchen in the centre because, as Slessor reasons, “everybody hangs out in the kitchen at parties”. She explains: “We hope this will be the heart of our home here. There is a real gravitational pull to the space because it is where you really feel the vibe of Lendlease.”
Back on the office floors, Lendlease has installed sliding wall panels between tables to cope with what Slessor calls a crisis of no walls in modern office spaces. “I don’t necessarily mean everybody needs offices; we certainly did not,” she says. “But our people told us that they wanted a sense of identity.” The result is a patchwork of different styles and spaces between every extended family. One team has created a ‘fur wall’ with pictures of dogs, while others use the panels to scribble notes. “For the first time, you can walk through a Lendlease building and see what people are working on,” says Slessor. “So the whole space feels very much like a series of studios and feels far more creative.”
With its mix of collaborative areas, communal spaces and concentration zones, the new office in Sydney is what is commonly known as an activity-based workplace. Slessor believes, however, that this is the wrong terminology for what is really going on in the space. Lendlease prefers to describe the environment it has fostered as team-based working. According to Slessor, all existing discourse around workplace strategies has failed to include the word ‘people’. “The reason I react negatively to activity-based working these days is that ‘activities’ are very abstract and sit in isolation of our real lives and how we experience work,” she explains. “And when you mention activity-based working to people, they tend to think of the negatives first. We wanted to change that. How could our workplace strategy have positive connotations?” Slessor says that Lendlease has crafted the term “team-based working” because this is exactly what the organisation hoped to achieve: a sense of team and togetherness. She says: “I hope it is the beginning of a wave of workplace strategies that actually speak more about people than we have done in the past.”
Although Lendlease has designed its workplace in Tower Three, International Towers Sydney to show customers how it is pushing the boundaries of workplace design, the attention-to-detail and its commitment to the happiness and comfort of staff is a clear indication that people come first.