KPMG Australia makes a move to the world of collaborative workspaces

KPMG Sydney
Chris Sheedy By Chris Sheedy, CA Today

1 July 2016

Over the next few months, KPMG’s Sydney and Melbourne offices move to open plan, collaborative-space buildings. Chris Sheedy reports on what modern-day hot-desking is like in a Big Four firm.

When you come from a work culture that involves walled workspaces, closed-door meetings, private offices and clearly delineated departmental boundaries, the move to open-plan and activity-based working can be difficult.

There’s the noise, the constant interruptions and distractions, the lack of confidentiality and privacy, the uncertainty around where you’re going to sit each day and who will be sitting next to you.

Like it or not, open-plan office space is cheap. Macquarie Bank claimed several years ago to be saving $10 million annually on leases thanks to open plan, activity-based workspaces.

Smart businesses face a choice - continue paying top dollar for walled office space or find a way to ensure your staff are happy doing the hot-desking dance.

KPMG has prepared for their open-plan move better than most. In fact, the business has been working for years with teams of staff to figure out how best to make it work. Those teams have included some of the most vocal opponents of the collaborative workspace.

The result of the massive preparation effort, some KPMG staff have said, is that there is now very little opposition.

KPMG Sydney

Image courtesy of KPMG

The move to open-plan

The main experimental area has been a 60-seat pilot space in Sydney which saw around 150 staff rotating through it. They each had a locker and were encouraged to not sit at the same desk each day.

So what exactly did the business do in this space to convince people to give up their offices?

First of all, they offered choices.

One of the biggest complaints people have about open-plan is that it only suits particular personality types.

Some thrive on being around others, while others become highly stressed by noise and movement.

KPMG ran several experiments where teams were offered the choice of desks with high partitions or collaborative spaces with shared tables and sofas, etc.

This meant various personalities were able to choose the ‘neighbourhood’ that best suited them, or move between both for different purposes.

Rather than highlighting what they had lost (privacy, personal space etc), this system instead brought to the fore the benefits of connectedness, including simpler communication and greater collaboration.

The choice of where to sit and the lack of a regular desk space became a positive thanks to the options - quiet spaces for focussed work and open spaces for collaboration - rather than a negative.

The challenges

But problems still arose, including confidentiality for those in areas such as Legal and M&A.

In order to solve this issue, numerous private meeting rooms were planned into the design for the moments when confidentiality is an absolute must. But that was not as often as people thought. It turned out that most staff had far fewer confidential discussions than they originally thought.

Generally, meetings are expected to take place in the open, bringing greater transparency and professionalism to the way the business is managed and run. It’s yet another positive that is spinning out of a potential negative.

Along those same lines, the lack of filing cabinets and shelves was a challenge.

In this case those that typically produced a great deal of paper in their line of work were introduced to, and trained in, digital options that would eventually make them far more efficient and, thanks to the Cloud, able to do their work from anywhere. Being interstate or overseas and therefore away from their filing cabinet no longer meant they had no access to important files.

Collaborative workspaces were originally seen as exclusively for Gen Y and later - for generations that are already highly networked and collaborative. But the KPMG experiment seems to be proving that anybody can adapt. Of course, the proof will be in the pudding.

About the author

Chris Sheedy is one of Australia’s busiest and most successful freelance writers. He has been published regularly in the Sydney Morning Herald, Virgin Australia Voyeur, The Australian Magazine, GQ, In The Black, Cadillac , Management Today, Men’s Fitness and countless other big-brand publications. He is frequently commissioned to carry out copywriting and corporate writing projects for organisations, including banks, universities, television networks, restaurant chains and major charities, through his business The Hard Word.

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