Creating innovative workplaces is all about the user, according to the experience of design firm Geyer.
Story by Michael Bleby. Magazine photo by Louie Douvis. Published in Boss Magazine June 2017
It all started with the carpets. In the late 1990s, Robyn Lindsey got a call from Ansett about a new project. The airline wanted distinctive new carpets in its arrival halls so when news crews filmed the arrival of sporting teams, such as Australia’s cricketers, it would work as a clear advertisement for the Ansett brand. But Lindsey, who led the project for design firm Geyer, knew it could be taken further. “We said, ‘Brand is more than just your carpet,’” recalls Lindsey, now a Geyer partner and the firm’s global head of retail. “There has to be a time where you say your airline can provide a superior experience in every aspect of the journey.”
With the backing of Ansett’s marketing head – and later international CEO – Garry Kingshott, Lindsey did something that is now commonplace but was new at the time. “We looked at every touchpoint, from the experience of standing in a gate lounge and then in the aero bridge, right though to in-flight, landing, collecting your luggage and leaving the airport. We developed a whole new design for the Ansett brand and a whole new customer experience. No one had ever done that before.”
One thing they reworked was the check-in counter. Until then it was a long barrier that passengers approached before their flight. Geyer and Ansett took that away and put in a row of individual desks instead. “We cut them all up,” says Lindsey. “We said, ‘It’s your counter. It’s your experience.’ We made this whole new experience a lot more personal.”
The concept, which included other innovations such as colouring airline seats differently to distinguish one passenger’s place from another, has proven its worth. Such measures are commonplace now in retail and customer-facing businesses. That’s because it works.
And even though Ansett ceased operations in 2002, those original check-in desks are still used two decades later at Sydney’s Terminal 2 by current incumbents Virgin Australia, Jetstar and some regional airlines.
FUNCTION AND FORM
Design doesn’t have to be about making things prettier. It’s about how they work. And the story of Geyer, which turns 40 this year, reflects that evolution of design from the purely aesthetic to being part of a business’s strategy.
The firm that Peter and Sandy Geyer founded in 1977 has outlived some of its clients – it now consults to Qantas – and grown to employ 110 people across five studios in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Singapore.
Thinking about the end user first influenced retail and customer-facing businesses such as airlines. It is now motivating employers to think about their own workspace and the way they use it to motivate staff and increase productivity. For Peter Geyer, that use of design came about from an inherent interest in wanting to work out how his own firm could succeed.
“A lot of these clients, when we won a project, explained how their business operated,” recalls the now-retired Geyer. “I was always very fascinated with that – with what made a firm successful. In my own mind, I wanted to know how could I grow us to be more successful. “When I heard about the strategies they had I started to grill them on it. A few of them said, ‘Why do you want to know how we achieved success, when we want you to fit-out our offices? We just want to look good.’” But it was a line of inquiry Geyer instilled in the culture of his own firm. He established an executive that has revolved different shareholders in the staff-owned firm through its ranks, giving them the chance to be involved in setting their own corporate strategy.
“Peter’s view was always that we all had a go,” Lindsey says. “Part of the experience in the executive team at Geyer was to inform and educate – to give you the learning opportunities to understand the clients’ businesses better as well.”
Geyer designed Australia’s first open-plan office in 1992 for Bankers Trust. The investment bank had grown from its original staff of five people and was moving from the Australia Square Tower on George Street to 10 floors in 2 Chifley Square. Ahead of the move, chief executive Rob Ferguson asked Geyer what the leading global trends in workplace design were. “To be honest, it wasn’t that exciting,” says Geyer. “But what my own vision for the workplace was, where I thought it might go ... I basically talked about open-plan, allowing faster communication between people, things like simple overhearing. Having people around you would mean that you were more aware of what was happening in the organisation.” It was a major challenge to move 1200 people – 400 of whom had private offices – into an open-plan environment. But Ferguson and his deputy, Bruce Hogan, were aware of the pitfalls. “They were very eager to do something cutting-edge, but they were very nervous about the impact on the culture of the organisation,” explains Geyer. “They were clever enough to know that was the risk, and a big risk.” It worked. “It was just the right sort of organisation at the time to go for it,” says Geyer. “Of course, once it started, everyone wanted to come through and look at it.” It was during one of those visits to Bankers Trust’s new office by other leaders of corporate Australia that Geyer got vindication for his strategy. “I can remember Rob Ferguson saying to the CEO of another big organisation, ‘The major benefit from this is you can overhear. People are starting to better understand what’s happening in the organisation in almost a real-time sense.’ It was fantastic for me.”
MORE WITH LESS
That was nearly 25 years ago. That initial design to encourage people to get a better sense of what was going on in their organisation has been refined over time. Employers have also latched onto the savings that come from squeezing more people into less space. Notions of workplace productivity and collaboration have become more sophisticated and design is now a core human resources strategy that employers use as a tool to attract and keep talented staff. Because people can perform their work duties anywhere, employers who want to keep staff on-site because of the collaboration benefits and resulting sense of community must design an appealing workplace. “For an office to be successful in driving individual and business performance, it must become the preferred place to get work done,” says Nicole Fitzgerald, CBRE’s Pacific Director, Workplace Services. “This comes down to the workplace experience – how it empowers and inspires people, where technology is seamless and integrated, and connection and collaboration is intuitive and innate. “We need our talent to choose the office because they know they will perform and achieve more there than anywhere else.”
THE WESTPAC EXPERIENCE
But change is risky. Westpac moved into a new space in Sydney’s Barangaroo in 2016. The bank took 28 levels in Tower Two, in a corporate move that combined staff from different brands and cultures – both Westpac and St George – for the first time. The bank was also changing from fixed-desk environments to an agile one without assigned desks. Further, it was doing so into a building with massive floor plates – with an average size of 2400 square metres – and this needed to be done in a way that would make people work together better.
“We needed ‘neighbourhoods’ to create a sense of human scale when we got into the building,” says Melinda Huuk, a Geyer associate who designed the project for Westpac. They did that by breaking up the large tenancy into three-floor segments, permitting people to work within smaller communities and still mix with others in centralised areas such as cafes and meeting spaces. And they provided a range of different spaces, including a rest area on level 15 featuring cocoon seats with footrests. “You see people tucked up there, reading books, having a kip,” Huuk says. “It sounds weird, but a 10-minute kip is about optimising performance. We’re all adults, you’re managing yourself in these spaces. You do what you need to do to get your job done.”
REALISING PEOPLE’S POTENTIAL
Nothing stands still. The changing sense of wellbeing is going to further influence design – particularly of workspaces – as companies tackle the next productivity hurdle, says Robyn Lindsey. It’s as much a focus on the experience of the user as it was nearly 30 years ago with Ansett’s strategy, but in this case the user is the individual worker.
“Corporations have become so big and so machine-like that individuals are lost and often find it difficult to find a sense of identity and worth, because they’re measured against the machinations of that organisation, not their own potential,” says Lindsey. “The organisations that get the best out of their people are the ones that truly understand what their potential might be.”
She gives the example of small informal groups, such as book clubs, which give people social interaction and a chance to mix with others similar to them. Encouraging their workers to have these interactions will be the next challenge for companies, says Lindsey. “I think the design of communities beyond the bounds of organisations themselves is where we’re heading. You’ve always got to design for the future.”