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New workspaces blow office design wide open


Canada’s big banks have made dramatic changes to their offices to fuel innovation while saving big on real estate.

By: Sadiya Ansari Staff Reporter, Toronto Star

Published on Thu Apr 02 2015

There’s only one office in the space that houses RBC’s corporate real estate team in the Standard Life Centre on King St. W. In fact, employees don’t even have their own cubicles.

Instead, they often start their day by pulling up a map of the office on a large screen in the foyer to book a “hot desk” — a shared workstation that can be occupied by anyone who needs a spot to work. That same screen (better known as the Virtual Concierge) also gives them pertinent information when they’re ready to leave: real-time GO schedules and the weather.

After booking a desk, they put their personal belongings in their lockers and settle in for the day with their laptop and BlackBerry.

Some sign into a land line, some just forward calls to their mobile. And some don’t bother with a desk at all, floating from meeting to meeting all day. For germaphobes forced to share desks, there are Lysol wipes and hand sanitizer pumps at every turn.

“Benches,” workstations laid across long tables with low partitions rather than individual desks line the floor, making it easy to ask a co-worker a quick question.

The Wi-Fi-friendly space with a sleek aesthetic and kitchen equipped with an espresso machine nicknamed the “oasis” evokes the workspace of a tech company rather than a big bank. In fact, some of Toronto’s largest, most-established employers are looking to tech companies for inspiration on how to make employees happier and fuel innovation — all while saving big on real estate costs.

Fuelled by new mobile technology, RBC and TD have both undergone major redesigns with face-to-face interactions in mind. Personal space is sacrificed for the common good — a chance for employees to get know people outside their own team, while making room for more meeting spaces.

Workspaces are evolving to reflect a new notion of work itself, says Nadeem Shabbar, global head of corporate real estate at RBC.

“The space (has become) more interactive than it ever has been before,” he says.

Shabbar has the sole office on his floor, but even it’s used for meetings when he’s not around.

An article in the Harvard Business Review last year reviewed research into the importance of face-to-face interactions in offices and that the best ideas happen when “people collide.”

“Spaces designed to promote these activities increase the likelihood of collisions — and the data repeatedly demonstrate that more collisions create positive outcomes,” according to the article.

Better design should mean it’s easier to get work done. Mario Del Riccio and Patrick Gilbert are both technology relationship managers at RBC who often work on projects together.

“It’s easy to jump into a space like this,” says Gilbert of a small booth equipped with plush seating and a flat-screen TV acting as a projector. The pair are looking over drawings for a space in Vancouver, a quick 20-minute meeting that would previously have required booking a conference room or long email chain where things could get lost in translation.

RBC has made these changes on a massive scale since 2009 — 10,000 out of 15,000 employees in Toronto are now working in flexible workspaces. WaterPark Place at Bay St. and Queens Quay houses 4,200 of these employees.

Lucia De Biasio, interior designer and principal of LDB Designs, handles many corporate clients looking to save on space.

“The biggest driver is the cost of real estate,” she says.

RBC’s Shabbar estimates the new configuration in WaterPark Place has saved 200,000 to 300,000 square feet of prime downtown real estate. Using average commercial leasing rates for that type of building in downtown Toronto pegs the savings between $10 million and $15 million for the year.

“We’re actually utilizing every square inch,” Shabbar says.

RBC surveyed their staff intensely throughout the transition, with Shabbar citing a 93 per cent satisfaction rate among WaterPark employees. But he concedes not everyone was an instant fan.

“Especially one group, which was oddly enough the technology and operation group,” he says, attributing the resistance to the group being accustomed to high-walled cubicles and individual offices.

Despite the obvious advantages open workspaces have for sparking collaboration, other research shows there are trade-offs.

A University of Sydney analysis of more than 300 offices confirms what other researchers have found — noise and privacy are concerns for those working in open-plan offices.

“Our results categorically contradict the industry-accepted wisdom that open-plan layout enhances communication between colleagues,” the study concludes.

But the study didn’t actually track the experience of those moving from an enclosed office to an open layout. Interior designer De Biasio says that definitely impacts their findings: resistance to change often comes from those who aren’t quite sure what their new workplace will look like.

“A lot of times it’s the fear of the unknown,” De Biasio says.

RBC is still tinkering with new ideas, with one end of the office dedicated to trying new concepts. Recent pilot projects include a stool that acts as a more sophisticated version of an exercise ball and a pod seemingly inspired by a turtle, with high green panels encircling a desk for “heads-down” work.

As for Del Riccio, after five years of an open office layout at RBC, he’s done with high-walled cubicles and little natural light.

“I would never want to go back,” he says.



Over 30 years ago the traditional corporate  ‘pyramid’ was inverted with the CEO located at the bottom of the apex in support of all employers, stakeholders and customers / clients.

The inverted pyramid then became an inverted T with ALL corporate service providers at the bottom located along the single horizontal line in the inverted T.

When you move from producing a product to delivering a service the organizational structure becomes a collaborative model – an inverted T.

Collaborative interaction is the source of exponential productivity in any service enterprise.

The banks are on a laser accurate track.


Dan Zwicker


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