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Tétris Loses The Desk, Gains So Much More

Letting people choose from a diversity of workspaces allows them to perform at their best and increases business efficiencies. Refurbishment company Tétris is showing companies how.

Monique Verduyn

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Vital Stats

Cubicles are so last millennium. When the South African office of global property adviser JLL bought property consultancy Bradford McCormack & Associates in 2011, the event was a catalyst for change. Not only was there a need for more space, but JLL’s lease was coming to an end too.

As part of the move to swanky new premises, the organisation transitioned to activity-based working.

Craig Hean, MD of JLL, and Emma Luyt, MD of design, fit-out and refurbishment company Tétris, a wholly owned subsidiary of JLL, had visited JLL’s Stockholm offices and witnessed the new design alternative first-hand.

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Activity-based working lets employees choose how, when and where they work. “It started with the new location,” says Hean.

“We chose The Firs in Rosebank because we wanted a pedestrianised, first-world location where our people can pop out for lunch or go for a walk whenever they choose. Because the move presented us with an opportunity to do something avant-garde we decided to create a space that would double as a showroom for clients (which they love). We are living the offering that we’re proposing to clients and testing it in our own business.”

From baby boomers to millennials

Luyt took into account that the new office would have to suit the needs and temperaments of four generations — from baby boomers to millennials.

“I wanted a design that reflected the uniqueness of South African culture, which is typically louder, bolder and more colourful than many others, and that would also talk to the culture of our business.”

The result is a workspace comprising stunning red diner-style booths with down lighters, vibrant workstations, a noiseless library sheltered behind glass doors, hotel lobby-like meet-and-greet spaces, collaboration areas screened by fabric wings to absorb sound, brainstorming spaces, a café-style kitchen and more.

Acceptable sound levels are determined by carpet colours — yellow for silent, green for hushed conversations, and blue for chatty.

The results speak for themselves

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The office houses 66 people, and just 29 desks in 780m2, a third of which is front-of-house. Regular offices require 15m2 to 20m2 per person, but activity-based workers need only 10m2. Upscaling has been easy — since the move, the company has grown by 50% in numbers, without needing more space.

At the end of each work ‘event’, workers clear the area. There are no messy desks, post-it notes or baby photos in this environment.

Anything that needs to be kept at the office is stored in small personal lockers. Paper use has been radically reduced — there’s one printer to service the entire workforce. The smaller property footprint reduces rental, energy and maintenance costs.

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Managing barriers to change

Research shows that 66% of all workspaces are unoccupied during the day. 45% of all privately stored documents can be found in several different places, and 85% of them will never be used again. But people are creatures of habit and change is not popular.

Some of the challenges of moving to activity-based working include fear of the unknown, concern over loss of status and loss of personal space, employees’ fear of not being ‘seen’ in the office, territorial issues, frustration at having to pack up the desk each night, and the fear of not having enough storage space.

“Change management was a key element in the success of this transition,” says Hean.

“We in-housed the process and encouraged participation and discussion. We assigned tasks to those who were most resistant and tried to ensure that everyone became invested.”

The change ended up being eased by three everyday, but not unlikely items — coffee, water and paper. Providing great coffee and filtered water went a long way to making people happier.

The employees were also given a specific period of time to have all paper documents scanned and stored electronically offsite. After the deadline, desk drawers were emptied and all the left over paper was sent for recycling.

“It was an amazingly liberating exercise,” says Hean. “What is equally surprising is that we have never looked back.”

The technology factor

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To make activity-based working work, you need great IT. Connectivity is key in the JLL environment, and people can work anywhere, thanks to reliable WiFi. “Wherever you sit, just plug and play,” says Luyt.

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“We all have the same brand of laptops and chargers are conveniently located everywhere. It’s important to make it easy and convenient for people to work anywhere they choose, so that they use the spaces. Whether you opt for a couch or the library, everything you need to work is right there.”

The experiment has been so successful that JLL offices in other countries have approached the South African team for advice on making the move to a new world of work.

Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Find her on Google+.

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