The change in climate for investors - Column

Victoria Young
— 1 minute read
Savvy companies that use their workplaces strategically to influence organisational culture and performance, benefit from higher staff retention and productivity levels.
In urban Sydney, 56.6 per cent of personnel work in finance or insurance, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. And they work in some of the world's finest offices.

"The importance of providing a good working environment has never been as critical given the competition among companies to attract good staff," Roberts Weaver Group (RWG) director David McEwen says.

"Management research from the UK shows that 45 per cent of employees might make the ultimate sacrifice and change companies in return for an improved work environment, even if the role, salary and benefits of the new job were no better.


"Similarly, 94 per cent of staff view their workplace as a symbol of how they are valued by their employer, yet only 39 per cent think their offices were designed with people in mind."

Savvy companies that use their workplaces strategically to influence organisational culture and performance benefit from higher staff retention and productivity levels, McEwen adds.

Sydney-based RWG has relocated and refurbished scores of blue chip financial services companies, such as Suncorp, Aon and QBE, plus firms including Bloomberg, Cuscal, AAPT and Reuters.

"There's a clear link between the quality of the workplace and the ability to attract, retain and engage the best people," McEwen says.

"If you are nickel and dimeing on accommodation you are affecting your staff's perception of you as an employer. Staff are intelligent and savvy - they know what's going on."

Pool tables, Foxtel, plasma televisions and $10,000 espresso coffee machines are often factored into McEwen's renovation briefs. Employers want to show concern for staff and boost their contentment.

In the same vein, Macquarie, followed by Perpetual and Suncorp, installed connoisseurquality in-house cafes; a far cry from soup kitchen-style staff canteens.

The key to workplace satisfaction and performance is the quality of working relationships, claims RWG. Offices that promote staff interaction help business thrive.

Centric Wealth achieved this by renovating its Macquarie Place offices to include a flat plan arrangement and a café-style breakout area.

Joint chief executive officers Michael Pillemer and Glen Castensen and experienced planner Bruce Christie sit alongside advisers, paraplanners and research staff in an open arrangement. Pillemer says it promotes open communication, internal transparency and shows the wealth advisory firm is non-hierarchical. Sixteen meeting rooms can be used if staff need privacy or space.

Wireless technology allows employees to make full use of their flexible and adaptable workplace. Each meeting room is named after a Sydney beach, a theme that is continued with gradual aqua-tinted glass, fresh white walls, blonde wood doors and abstract seaside artwork.

Even the workstations are wave-shaped. The sun-filled offices have a new café style breakout area, affectionately called the club zone, where staff can relax or work. It has a kitchen, espresso coffee maker, plasma television and endless supply of biscuits.

"We noticed an immediate impact on staff morale. We are client-centric, but we are also staff-centric. We need to be able to attract and retain the best staff to provide clients with the best service," Pillemer says.

The theory behind providing breakout space for staff is the same used in the training of athletes, according to McEwen. Rest time is as important as training. Workers need breaks so they can mentally recharge. "A person's behaviour, such as their performance on the job, is a function of their personality and the social and physical environment in which they operate," McEwen says.

Hot-desking or hotelling, where staff sit at anyavailable space, rather than having an allocated workstation, is unpopular with generation Y. They need to have a sense of belonging, McEwen says.

Bright, naturally lit offices with a pleasant outlook enhance employees' physical wellbeing and improve performance. Views of trees and blue sky from rooms bathed in natural light were non-negotiables when it came to choosing office space for Bluechip Communication Group.

"We didn't want to be in the suburbs and we didn't want to be trapped in what I call the 'beige cave' that was the norm in large financial services institutions - artificial light, people crammed in and devoid of colour," managing director Carden Calder says.

The public relations firm renovated the first floor of a mid-Victorian period warehouse in York Street, Sydney. Blue feature walls match its visual and brand identity. Its image is professional, yet informal and welcoming.

Similarly, company culture and values were embedded in the design of Asteron's ultramodern offices in high-rise 321 Kent Street, Sydney. Royal and SunAlliance Financial Services changed its name to Asteron on July 1, 2003.

Peddle Thorpe Interior Design was commissioned to renovate offices to reflect the beginning of its new phase and identity. Each storey has a striking colour scheme of either hot pink, orange, green, light blue and purple, representing the company's five core principles: demonstrate creativity, deliver excellence, be optimistic, make their day and live integrity.

"The colours representing our 'principles to live by' give the area vibrance along with a feeling of high energy," Asteron information technology chief officer Bruce Weir says. "Combining this visual sense of identity with our key business drivers is very important to our people as we continue to grow as a dynamic and innovative financial services organisation."

Reception on the 10th floor is decked out in natural hues as it represents three entities - Asteron, Promina and Tyndall - and has a boardroom with spectacular views looking west over Darling Harbour. Asteron also has offices bathed in natural light, a flat plan arrangement and breakout areas to promote staff cohesion.

Sydney Feng Shui master Gayle Atherton firmly believes interaction between staff and the working environment is the key to business success or failure. Atherton has worked for many Australian corporations and claims her art can boost prosperity.

Feng shui is the ancient Chinese science of harmonising natural life force energies, or chi. Literally translated, feng shui means wind and water.

"Positioning a company manager to be powerful is a very discreet and unspoken Asian secret," Atherton says. "So is setting up the staff to be more productive; to produce money; avoiding bad spots for people and important equipment and creating a physically balanced and harmonious working atmosphere that will support future prospects."

Natural light, avoiding bright or dreary colours and the correct positioning of furniture can promote good feng shui. Gone are the days of dimly lit workplaces with high-walled cubicles where only executives have access to offices with windows, according to CBD Projects managing director Robert Bowles.

"Staff are more valuable than they used to be. Good employers want to look after their staff and that starts with giving them a great working environment," Bowles says. "In a well-designed office productivity increases; people do more for the company because they feel like they're an intrinsic part of it."

He says achieving an office design to suit both clients and employees is a tricky business. His company has project-managed office refurbishments for Truman Hoyle Lawyers, BMG Australia and Grosvenor Financial Services.

"You've got to be careful. The last thing you want is for clients to come in and say 'well, that's where all our fees are going' because it's too expensive a fit out," he says.

Indeed, global investment company T RowePrice portfolio manager Robert Gensler commented: "I am always suspicious of walking into beautifully designed offices of investment managers. I feel their sole focus should be on investments, not on the office."

Companies spend most of their budget on the reception and boardrooms, according to Bowles. "They're comfortable spaces, but not over-the top or too expensive," he says.

"They should be neat, tidy, clean and almost a little bit sparse - an open space with simple colours, simple lighting, maybe with a couple of bits of artwork around."

Specially-commissioned abstract art is popular in well-designed modern Australian offices. Bluechip Communication Group and CentricWealth both commissioned artwork.

"It is essential that it's art that doesn't upset people. If you put up a landscape, like The Hay Wain or something, a lot of people are going to walk in and immediately think: 'old company; the partners have got one foot in the grave'," Bowles says.

"If you have contemporary art it gives the impression that the company is progressive. Artwork makes a statement about the company. Cheap artwork makes the company look cheap."

A client's first impressions of a financial services company are crucial, says Core Data researcher Hendrick Vos.

Poor offices often result in a company falling at the first hurdle. Core Data has identified "the advice and trust cycle" that leads to a client purchasing advice. One in five planners fail in the first two stages, establishing their credibility and reliability, simply because of their office.

Research carried out by the market intelligence company, Invisible Sex 2006, found poor signage, messy offices, unclean desks, not having a receptionist and poor organisation put off clients immediately. Clean, neat and tidy offices that are well lit and display accreditation certificates and industry documents go a long way to convincing clients the company is credible and reliable.

Little details, like being offered hospitality and having well-kept amenities, scored highly with Core Data's mystery shoppers.

"Companies need to ask themselves: 'is my office a positive or a negative?'" Vos says. If the latter is true, planners could be losing sales and affecting their conversion rate.

Overall, the message is clear. In successful offices employees' needs come first. It is a simple equation. Happy staff equals business prosperity plus satisfied clients.



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