Dr Donna Wheatley, associate at Warren and Mahoney, was recently a keynote speaker at Commercial Connect.

Wheatley’s approach to space planning is evidence based and data driven and draws on broader social and economic influences on space and behaviour.

Architecture and Design spoke to her about misconceptions around hot desking and how we can learn from millennials when it comes to workplace design.

You've previously said working remotely is the future. Do you still believe this is true?

It will be part of the future. It already exists in the way we use mobile technology, particularly mobile phones and tablets to email, call or video conference, outside standard business hours. This most often happens at home, usually to accommodate deadlines or colleagues and customers in different time zones or operating hours.

What influence do you think it will have over the next few years?

Technology has radically transformed workplace communications. Even in the most traditional workplaces we visit prior to a redesign, we still see mobile phones as the main voice communication. The next step we will see is how technology will radically transform where and how we perform the ‘heavy lifting’ side of work.

Current mobile technology isn’t well equipped for report writing, research, creative and even process work. We want more emersion in our ‘real work,’ for example with multiple monitors and ergonomic set ups, and so the future direction for focused work might be in more digitally enhanced virtual or augmented reality environments.

How has remote working changed in the past few years?

For many staff who work remotely, it barely even registers as ‘remote working’ if they have a ‘usual place of business’. This means two things: 1) As more digitally native workers and ‘app’ business environments enter the workplace this will lead to increased capability and expectation for mobile work, and 2) Underscores the importance of a physical location to ‘ground’ the workforce, enhance corporate identity and yes, psychologically create a sense of belonging that empowers people to represent their organisation in any location, and for that extension of the workplace to be perceived as a benefit by the staff member.

Hot desking has been around for some time now. What misconceptions do people have about hot desking?

The main misconception we’ve noted in our research is that hot desking leads to more collaboration. The reality is that it is the increase in collaboration spaces, and having mobile technology to utilise them, that has the most impact on collaboration.

The main misconception in regards to hot desking is that it leads to more collaboration. Photography by Louise Kennerley 

So a similar increase in collaboration will also occur in a ‘fixed desk’ environment if they have sufficient collaboration spaces and technology. Although not common, we’ve also heard of people’s sense of team deteriorating in a hot desk environment. On the other hand most fears, such as experienced older staff quitting, don’t materialise at all, and we’ve even noted older age groups being the most satisfied once they started hot desking. 

It is not hot desking that leads to more collaboration, but rather collaboration spaces with mobile technology. Photography by Louise Kennerley

What impact are millennials having on workplace design?

One of our research findings is that millennials tend to ‘accept’ a lower level or even no cloud-based digital collaboration that school and university has equipped them to do. Understandably they don’t feel they can make suggestions on workflow, but when I’ve raised the opportunity with companies they are very interested in how it could be leveraged. If we learn from millennials how to incorporate this way of collaborating, which tends to reside in the ‘app’ based world, we expect the physical environment will require even more diversity in settings. 

What is one office that you think has achieved an ideal workplace design?

There are lots of workplaces worthy of admiration. Each is tailored to their requirements at the time they were designed. 

The Ministry of Education in Wellington is a unique workplace that enables both hot desking and fixed workstations. They’ve deployed Surface Pros and that’s had a big impact on meeting and collaboration spaces. Meeting rooms haven’t needed the technology they did in the past as Surface Pros can be used for video conferencing and provide the grunt for presentations projected onto screens.

Lendlease's office at Barangaroo. Photography by Anthony Johnson 

Lendlease Barangaroo has a fabulous social space that acts as a magnet to draw staff and clients together in a calm and friendly business environment. Arup has also created a flexible design lab which is a great use of aesthetics to support a mental shift towards creative thinking.

What all these cases do is provide a home base where colleagues can be found and vastly different activities can be undertaken. They’ve become the preferred place to undertake work, while also allowing work to be undertaken everywhere else.