A guest post by Ella Hafermalz. Ella is a PhD Candidate and Research Assistant at The University of Sydney Business School. She is three years into PhD on Remote and Flexible Working.

What is the role of the physical workplace? This question was at the heart of much of the discussion Ark Group’s The Australian Government Workplace Design Strategy forum.

Natalie Slessor and Duncan Young (Lend Lease) emphasised how the physical environment can drive behaviour, with implications for our health and wellbeing. Leone Lorrimer (dwp|suters) demonstrated the way in which organisational structures are mirrored in the way offices are constructed, and how powerful a blank slate can be for driving organisational change. Sarah Kay (Woods Bagot) too emphasised the importance of workplace for work practice, the message being that innovative spaces drive innovative thinking. How we engage employees in this process of change is of course a challenge, and one that Greer Gehrt (National Museum of Australia) demonstrated can result in an exciting and rewarding journey. Finally James Dellow (Ripple Effect Group) illustrated the fundamental role of the digital realm in both enriching and underpinning our experiences of the physical workplace.

Can design drive change? We saw evidence of the many ways in which design is influential. A new workplace fit-out can express a new direction, a commitment to a deep tradition, or an appreciation of the kind of future we are preparing to confront and create. A challenging question arises here though, informed by my own prior experience of working as a teacher. The school I worked in had received new buildings – with open plan classrooms. In reaction to the challenges that became associated with these new environments, mobile lockers were moved to create walls, emulating traditional classroom spaces.

So my question is, as we change our physical workplaces to address existing challenges or in preparation for new ones, how are we also changing our work practices, and educating ourselves and others, to ensure that the cubicle walls don’t creep back in?

A strong message from Tuesday’s forum is that work styles and our built environment need to grow together to ensure lasting change.

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