Skip to content Skip to main navigation Skip to search

How some office buildings are making the work day more interesting

March 11, 2019

A digital wall in the foyer of Mirvac's office tower, 664 Collins Street, Melbourne. Photo: Supplied

Awe-inspiring, thrilling, nerve-wracking and totally unexpected aren’t words that are normally connected with work.

But they should be, say an increasing number of experts. For a dreary monotonous day at the office dulls creativity and stunts imaginative problem-solving like nothing else on earth. Exciting, even breathtaking, experiences and encounters, on the other hand, have the power to stimulate and enthuse employees to new heights of ingenuity and productivity, they say.

“There’s now a lot of research about the effect of amazing experiences on the mind and productivity,” said Paul Edwards, general manager of workplace experiences at ASX-listed developer Mirvac.

“Also, millennials aren’t interested in acquiring stuff; they want experiences, and have shown they’re prepared to move jobs or states if they don’t find their work giving them those.

“So we’re all having to change our thinking about delivering experiences in our buildings. We’re now talking to experts to see what’s out there in terms of experiences we can offer and how we can measure the benefits. We’re looking at the idea of heightened experiences, or ‘super-experiences’, that are surprisingly original and encourage curiosity, intrigue and empathy.”

Amazon's glass Spheres, being built in Seattle. Photo: Elaine Thompson/AP Amazon’s glass Spheres, in Seattle. Photo: Elaine Thompson/AP

It’s currently a worldwide mission with developers, builders and building managers, such as Mirvac, as well as a range of other employers trying to deliver super-experiences to keep their workforces engaged, attract the cream of the talent pool and to retain them.

With technology, robotics and artificial intelligence set to take over most of the repetitive jobs in the future, it’s about getting the best out of the skilled employees doing the original, very human-driven, problem-solving work that remains.

British-based futurist Philip Ross, the chairman of WORKTECH Academy and chief executive of UNwork and UNgroup, worked with Mirvac on a new discussion paper The Super-Experience: Designing for Talent in the Digital Workplace.

“Work globally always used to be a dismal experience with frightening statistics on how disengaged people were inside buildings that functioned as little more than dumb, inert containers,” Mr Ross said.

“But now we have buildings that have become much more intelligent with lots of real-time real estate analytics.

“Just like Netflix or Spotify suggest what you’ll enjoy next, these buildings can direct you to areas where you and your personality type might like to work, suggest people for you to have lunch with and make recommendations on how you might enhance your day. And now this technology is also facilitating super-experiences in workplaces.”

At its head office in Seattle, Amazon has created a set of giant glass orbs filled with cloud forest gardens and more than 40,000 plants and installed them next to work areas and meeting areas. So many of their employees said they loved being close to nature, they found the orbs really sparked their creativity.

In San Francisco, at Airbnb’s head office, meeting rooms were designed to mimic the interiors of people’s actual homes that were listed on the site. Those ‘homely’ environments, the company found, gave people the sense of security to brainstorm new ideas.

A pop-up hydroponic garden in the basement of Mirvac's EY Centre in Sydney. Photo: Supplied A pop-up hydroponic garden in the basement of Mirvac’s EY Centre in Sydney. Photo: Supplied

At NASA, a specialist experience-designer formed an orchestra with a number of the space scientists working there in order to stimulate the other side of their brains.

Meanwhile, in Australia, Mirvac converted an under-utilised underground car park at the company’s EY Centre at 200 George Street, in Sydney, into a pop-up hydroponic farm, following an idea from internal innovation team Hatch.

It proved so successful, with workers loving volunteering to help grow foodstuffs for local restaurants and meeting each other over the lettuces – often leading to much more collaboration between different companies in the same building – that the model is now being rolled out across the company’s portfolio of buildings.

Mr Edwards was also part of a team that created an Indigenous garden on the roof of a building at the Australian Technology Park, in inner-city Redfern.

“They’ll grow Indigenous foods and medicinal herbs, as well as providing education and culture workshops,” he said. “It’s creating a whole wealth of experiences, including art on the site and a heritage trail.”

Other super-experiences that have caught people’s imaginations include a canopy of half-a-million LED lights, fitted with 2.5 million polished aluminium ‘petals’, to create a stunning spectacle that also regulates temperature and acoustics as well as light in Bloomberg’s new headquarters in London.

Then there’s the digital wall in the Salesforce lobby in San Francisco that displays a lifelike forest and thundering waterfall; and the elevator of the One World Trade Centre in New York that shows on one wall – during the 102-storey ascent – the evolution of the city from empty plains to the current high-rise metropolis.

Also in New York, the Boston Consulting Group moved out of its traditional offices in a bid to attract the millennial ‘Starbucks’ generation, who like to work on laptops in coffee shops. They installed a massive coffee shop in place of the old offices, with skilled baristas and plenty of areas to work.

“It was an astonishing departure from an old-style office,” Mr Ross said.

“And then we have examples like the big music label, the Ministry of Sound in London, which has open-plan offices working 24-7, DJs playing music and a licensed bar.

“It is a challenge for commercial real estate-owners moving on from having buildings that are no more than leased spaces. We’re now seeing so many innovations that are coming out of the US and Europe that are pushing the boundaries.”

In 2017 a global study by Deloitte found that 80 per cent of executives rated experiences as ‘important’ or ‘very important’, but only 22 per cent reported that companies were good at providing them.

Mr Edwards said that gap needed to be filled.

“This whole area requires an industry rethink,” he said.

“We need to be flexible and adaptable to the workforce and change constantly to keep them interested. You can create, for instance, an awe-inspiring experience that might be incredible the first time it’s seen, but probably not by the 25th time.”

sign up today