The battle for Hong Kong | Traditional office layout fights back

The battle for Hong Kong | Traditional office layout fights back

Is the traditional office layout fighting back?

You still see articles trumpeting the failure of Activity Based Working (ABW) but I’ve not seen a single new office layout plan for Sydney or Melbourne CBD that has completely abandoned it.

The lawyers may be dragging their heels and tenured professors may be clinging to their books and small offices, but it looked to me like game over for commercial enterprises.

The 30-40% real estate cost savings experienced with a more contemporary office layout are just too compelling.

The goals to make the organisation an attractive place to work, more collaborative, more able to innovate and be agile in response to competitive pressures and market changes are too important.

The corner offices and cluttered cubicle land had to go.

Not so in Hong Kong. Up here the traditional office layout is fighting back. Which is strange given real estate costs and supposedly hyper competition.

On a recent trip in partnership with MTM, we were privileged to look at nearly a dozen new office projects in various stages of the development process. In quite a few of them, it was clear that the corner office and permanent cubicle live on.

I was intrigued. In one case – a regional HQ for well known financial services company – I quizzed their head of property over what happened. This was a large subsidiary of a European HQ company that had embraced ABW elsewhere. But here floor plate for their new office layout looked very like the office they were in now – only with lots more very small meeting rooms.

How did it happen?

“ Well we used senor technology on everything for 3 months when we were preparing our plans for the new office”. He said. “Actually, people mainly stay at their desks all day here. They don’t meet very much and when they do meet it’s usually 2 or 3 people. They don’t use whiteboards very much. Our people mainly keep their heads down and get on with their work… there is a big rush to leave at 6pm”.

Senior Management responded to this data by fighting hard for the retention of high sided fixed cubicles for their people. The need for privacy and focus work was paramount. Chinese walls (SIC) needed between divisions. Open plan wouldn’t work.

They were happy because they could give global cost savings, because they could cut the size of their meeting rooms to better suit meetings of 2 or 3 with no wasted chairs. But the big dogs kept their corner offices. Only slightly smaller.

office layoutAhhhh. The corner office. When I see a company stumble and hold back the ABW tide, you can be sure why.

My Property Manager said it was the ‘Executive Committee’ decision.  But you can be sure it was some of those with the corner offices who fought the move.

And they would have been supported by many of those below them who were close to getting one.

That’s not the reason they’ll use. But it will be the real reason. And it’s understandable. You spend your whole career fighting for the status of the big office. The big chair. And here are some Europeans telling you to muck in with all the minions! It’s unacceptable.

My head of property was clearly frustrated, however. He looked embarrassed while presenting the plan. He was up for the change. Fought for it. But he’d lost the fight.

To me it’s incomprehensible that these executives were not terrified by what the sensor data was telling them. After attracting and retaining talent, where your new office is your chief recruitment tool and calling card, the only game in town for vulnerable organisations is to create conditions where your people give discretionary effort to their work.

You need to focus on intrinsic motivators for employees to flourish.  Flourish by Martin Seligman

office layoutA sense of purpose and meaning from the work. More Autonomy to make decisions, Engagement, Mastery of new skills, and recognition of Accomplishment. Positive relationships with their boss and peers.

To me the sensor data was telling an alarming story. Did these cubicle dwellers have a clear sense of purpose or meaning from their work? Or were they just going through the motions?

Were they squeezed to within an inch of their lives on performance targets and given little autonomy to decide priorities? Were they were drowning in emails?

If so, no wonder they were clock watching and bolting for the door at 6pm.

No engagement is what you get when you feel no great purpose in your work and you have little autonomy over how you spend your time.

Judging buy the new office plan, they didn’t appear to care too much about learning either. The new office had only a tiny allocation of space for the learning environment. Not much mastery of new thinking or sense of accomplishment for this lot.

Then there is positive relationships. These people were talking on the phone all day and typing emails. Not much face to face activity with any of their colleagues.

This tells you right there that this place was all about business as usual with very little effort going into business improvement.

This is a dead man walking I thought. They have no idea what’s coming. They will be eaten alive when they realise how fast their old business models are going to be disrupted. And here they were creating a NEW office (18 months away) maintaining all the old silos!

People throwing bricks over the wall to their upstream and downstream colleagues. No spaces for creative problem solving. No moves to equip them with tools such as Agile Method or Design Thinking. No spaces for bigger groups to get together to talk. To noodle ideas. A place you want to come to. A clubhouse where you hang out with your tribe. A place to really work together to solve the big problems that are hurting customer experience.

But my Property Manager did assure me they do have a culture goal to be more collaborative!

People who don’t talk to other people face to face are the ones most vulnerable to AI and outsourcing.

The new style office with unassigned seating, lots of social spaces and places for creative problem solving, are coming – ready or not.

And people will flourish better in them if they believe in what they are doing. Where it’s understood that employee experience is the primary driver of customer experience. Staff feeling a sense of purpose in trying to deliver better customer experience. Freedom to get involved with teams that are trying to fix the things that are broken. Developing their skills. Being recognised for their contribution and achievements on behalf of the company. Having lots of colleagues you think of as friends.

This is the company of the future. But north Asia will be the last stand of the traditional office layout.  How long will they withhold the tide?


What is an ‘Agile’ environment?

What is an ‘Agile’ environment?

Have you noticed that the word ‘Agile’ is being used a lot these days?

It seems to be the ‘shiny new’ term. But different people mean very different things when they use ‘agile’ in the context of agile environment or office design.

agile environment

Peter Andrew from CBRE shares his thinking which we aptly named the “Urgh” matrix.

To seek clarification, together with our Asian business partner (MTM) we held a series of conversations with leading Property Strategists, Interior Designers, Constructors and Corporate Workplace Leaders on agile environment.

We had nine sessions in total with over 100 attendees from organisations including CBRE, HASSELL, Gensler, Aedas, MMoser, Space Matrix, 8build, OSCA and Merx among others.

After introductions each session started with a break apart exercise where we asked each group member to use work walls to answer a series of questions related to agile environment.

For example:

  • What is an agile environment?
  • What are the implications for office design?
  • How is an Agile office different from an Activity Based Working (ABW)?
  • What’s changed in Activity Based Working (ABW) design in the last 20 years?

There were some common themes and many interesting perspectives.

Peter Andrew from CBRE as an example, emphasised the role of choice & performance in considering design for individual space and shared space. We called it the “Urgh” matrix.

agile environment

What also came through strongly in the feedback was how old ABW is. People are wanting a new word. Agile seems to be it.

To the property strategists in the sessions, what’s really changed from the early ABW implementations is the level of uncertainty the future holds and the increasing vulnerability of organisations.  This works strongly against the cost and timelines of traditional property projects.

‘Agile environment’ to these folks more flexibility in the investment. The external boundaries of the firm are blurring with work taking place everywhere not just the office and the full time employees base eroding to more part time/contract roles and more outsources services. At the macro level this is leading to the boom in co-working spaces, increasingly focussed on the big corporates (eg. WeWork) as well as smaller firms.

To the Interior Designers and workplace leads in the sessions, Agile environment is all about increased flexibility inside the buildings. Less walls. More multi purpose spaces, more reconfigurable furniture options. Here Agile is being increasingly used as the new word for ABW or new style ABW.

Agile Origins

After the breakout work, we looked at what Agile means to anyone with a background in IT and how this Agile way of working, it impacting outside of IT.

To a purist, Agile refers to ‘Agile Method’ – a way to get big complex software projects delivered more quickly and cheaply. The manifesto for Agile development”  was introduced in 2001 (see Appendix). It was a response to a crisis within the industry over huge cost and time over runs on massive IT projects.

The ‘Agile Method’ quickly spread to have a profound impact on the way that large software development projects were run.  to be developed. The 12 principles upon which it was based (see Appendix A) included:

  • Co-location of cross functional teams
  • Breaking big things down into smaller pieces that are completed quickly
  • Using walls to create analogue infographics on the status of a project (Kanban boards)
  • Holding daily stand up (scrum) meetings

The success of this approach to large complex projects has meant that these ideas are now being adopted more broadly, not just on IT projects. So for many, an agile environment is a place where this ‘Agile method’ is being used. You’ll know immediately if you’re in this kind of space because you’ll see post it notes and other stuff all over the walls and windows.

So, our first clear conclusion around “Agile office” is that it means very different things to different people. It could be they are referring to more flexible business models, the generic meaning of the word, or it could be more specifically referring to the agile working approach – based directly or loosely on the IT project management (PM) methodology.
agile environment

The impact of these Agile work methods is Office designs that have more focus on project based work, often with cross functional teams.  Agile method has shown that the most complex and difficult work requires moving away for ‘business as usual’ electronic collaboration (email, phone calls, video conferences) to intense face to face collaboration – co-location and working analogue.

agile environment

When things get really difficult – go Analogue

As automation and Artificial Intelligence eat away at repetitive and low value tasks, we humans have had to master more effective digital collaboration.  But when things get really difficult, we have to move back to face to face activity and develop deeper personal relationships.  Hence the increasing adoption of these kinds of spaces in the more modern office designs.

But this way of working is very messy. The other big conclusion from all the feedback in the workshops was that it’s important to not get carried away with making all office space “agile”.  How much you need, where, depends.  At the industry level, some industries are more vulnerable to disruption than others.

agile environment

Source: McKinsey & Co

Within businesses, the requirement for creative problem solving with face to face teams varies a great deal within different functional groups. Some functional areas need stability. Other areas need to be more dynamic. Project teams and x functional groups tend to be on the higher end of the scale. Creative spaces need to be abundant in some areas and frugal in others. The ‘Agile office’ is now increasingly focussed analogue working as well as digital.

agile environment


People mean different things when they use the term Agile. Ask, don’t assume.

Modern ABW implementations are different from a decade ago because of increased uncertainty. An Agile ABW style office could well make use of external providers of co-working spaces to supplement their core.

Within offices, there is a greater emphasis on flexibility and more creative co-design space. These spaces use of agile working techniques – colocation of project cross functional project teams and analogue visual management. Each functional group and cross functional group will have different needs which need to be assessed as part of the design.


Appendix: The Manifesto for Agile development

  1. Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
  2. Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.
  3. Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.
  4. Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.
  5. Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
  6. The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
  7. Working software is the primary measure of progress.
  8. Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
  9. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.
  10. Simplicity — the art of maximizing the amount of work not done — is essential.
  11. The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.
  12. At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behaviour accordingly.
What does Agile mean in your workspace?

What does Agile mean in your workspace?

What does Agile mean in your workspace? Well, let’s start with the Oxford dictionary definition:

Agile, the ability to move quickly and easily.

Pretty straight forward.

But now consider the discussion in most advanced workplaces about an agile workspace and Agile Methodology. Throw in ABW (Activity Based Working) and you start to end up building a complex system or environment.

When we started Collaborative Design just over two years ago our mission was to ensure that the art of face-to-face collaboration wasn’t lost in the digital revolution. At the time this was a strong belief, but over time we began to see the emergence of many key shifts that support the notion that face-to-face is important for dealing with complexity.

agile workspaceFirstly, some of the most advanced technology based companies started to co-locate their designers and engineers to take advantage of the importance of proximity. In fact, just recently IBM abandoned their strategy of allowing people to work where they want in favour of creating co-located campuses.

Secondly, we saw the rise of Agile Project Methodology (APM) which empowers multi-disciplinary teams to solve complex challenges by breaking the challenges down into Scrums and Sprints. This process works best when the teams are co-located and can collaborate in front of their Kanban boards in daily scrum meetings.

Thirdly, we saw an explosion of Design Thinking consultancies and professionals all using techniques with their DNA in product design but now being flexed to formulate strategy, drive change and increase engagement.

In my opinion these shifts have one thing in the center – speed – and this is something that most CEO’s believe is critical to success in today’s hyper competitive market place.

We believe that speed to design, develop, deliver and adapt require the best people, processes and places and when it comes to your agile workspace you need to reflect not only the functional and aesthetic requirements but also the ability to adapt the workspace at speed.

To do this organisations should see workspace projects as a strategic lever to drive organisational change and not simply a workspace project. This would elevate projects to truly understand the intersection of people, process and place and in my opinion, achieve greater results for longer.

If your organisation is considering co-location as part of innovation strategy or adopting Agile Project Methods or Design Thinking to drive collaboration and speed consider the following questions:

  • Do we understand the relevant change and HR strategies being considered or deployed?
  • Have we engaged with the right stakeholders to future proof our design?
  • Is there a balance between technology and face-to-face collaboration?
  • Are the traditional measures for property adequate?
  • Can we adopt a design thinking approach and rapid prototype our design?
  • How quickly and easily can we adapt our design?

For further discussion or queries please contact Vince Asdagi, Director Collaborative Design Space, on 0414 831 894.