Workplace strategy: Words with James Woodburn, Regional Director, Head of Real Estate, WPP Asia Pacific
Through talking with many of Australia’s leading workplace strategy practitioners, Shiro Architects aims to understand how to create workplace-design briefings that satisfy the needs of occupants, owners, investors and developers of commercial office space.
Here, we speak with James Woodburn of WPP Asia Pacific, about the bespoke beauty of agile working.
About WPP: WPP is the world’s largest communications services group with billings of US$73 billion ($100 billion) and revenues of US$19 billion. Through its operating companies, the group provides a comprehensive range of advertising and marketing services, including advertising and media investment management; data investment management; public relations and public affairs; branding and identity; healthcare communications; direct, digital, promotion and relationship marketing and specialist communications. The company employs 194,000 people (including associates and investments) in over 3000 offices across 112 countries. For more information, visit www.wpp.com.
Without a doubt, the benefits drop to the bottom line in agile workplaces … we can never be too scientific and I am always highly sceptical when people talk about that … but because you have the leverage mobility and create a variety of work settings, you are undoubtedly going to get 20 per cent more out of [your space].
Tell me about your job?
I am responsible for all of the real estate footprint of the WPP Group in Asia Pacific, where I’ve been since 2010. I used to consult to WPP from the mid-90s.
I have a BA in tourism management, and a long history as a corporate real estate tenant representative, as well as leasing, asset management, and acquisitions skills acquired across Australia and the Asia Pacific.
We have a footprint in around 400 buildings in the Asia Pacific, so that’s just under 500,000 metres of space, with about 35,000 people. Any commitments on property leases we manage and approve jointly with the business networks and London.
Our strategy is to achieve colocation of the groups, so we don’t have orphan sites and increasing fragmentation of our businesses. Then, we try to target what I call SAFE offices, so that [stands for] scalable, affordable, flexible and engaging.
Why are you so enthusiastic on the subject of agile working?
Because we are in the creative business, we don’t do “normal” offices.
We are all about marketing people’s brands, and that correlates with how you present yourselves. Workplace is critical for broadcasting that personality and brand, so we have to manage the tension between all that lovely fluffy stuff and the practicalities of lease terms and fitout costs, and so on.
I enjoy it because it makes for a much more interesting discussions and much more interesting spaces than your generic hierarchical style of workplaces.
As one of my previous interviewees suggested, is Australia ahead of the curve on agile working concepts?
In terms of agile workplaces, it’s very much like the telecommunications industry, in that we are relatively fast adopters. We have one of the greatest penetration rates for mobile phones, but we didn’t invent them.
So, we did not invent agile working, it all came out of Europe, yet we actively look to places like that and we bring it here, rather than waiting for it to come to us.
Do you think that we put our own unique spin on agile working in Australia?
Everybody does it differently, that is the beauty of agile working. When developed for the business, it should adapt and be flexible to the changing business demands, yet every business has its own needs.
There is no such thing as one size fits all. It is very bespoke, but the nature of the agility means that it can adapt more readily than a traditional workplace.
The first guys who really did it here were Macquarie’s private banking, in terms of agile [working].
Years before that, we’d done hotelling and years before that we’d done hot-desking, and often people think agile or activity-based or flexible or “your space” or “organic space”, or whatever want to call it, is just a form of hot-desking or hotelling — but they are very wrong!
Hot-desking gained a lot of airplay, and it probably did a lot of damage because it was a fundamental program to cut costs. Whereas costs do come into the equation for agile, it’s not the primary driver. It’s about more effective working and responsiveness to change.
Was WPP Group an early adopter of agile working?
We’ve been driving it very hard in Asia, but all regions are now doing it. We are onto our fourth and fifth-generation transformation for some of our companies, so they are just getting better at it each time. No-one is ever talking about going back to the old ways.
I joined in 2010, and when I joined I said, it’s coming — who is interested? It took a bit of recruiting.
By 2012, we’d delivered our first [agile-style workplace] in Australia, which was TNS in Sydney (which is one of our Consumer Insight businesses). That was our standout, and they won an award globally within the group for their innovative approach, and we have executed multiple projects in Australia now, including TNS Melbourne, JWT Sydney, which was a standout success, and Grey Sydney, our most recent.
We’ve also delivered agile workplaces in Singapore. Millward Brown were four years on into a 15-year lease, and they had run out of space and felt the best way to go was to reinvent their space so they could accommodate a lot more people in the same space, rather than fragmenting and growing, which was the normal way.
Just as an aside, there was a group in Amsterdam in our group in 2009 that did it themselves almost by accident, they said this is a problem we have, we need to do space this way, so it was driven by the business. It’s one of the world’s best-kept secrets.
That was for a business of 90–100 people, and five years later it was actually housing 150 people and with it, little or no change.
So we’re actually proud to say it was a business imperative to start with, but we’ve sponsored it and we have secured a global mandate to do it. Yet we don’t force people to do it, because there is such an integral change-management program required to achieve it — you need ownership from the top.
Are you still finding that with every business that goes through that passage of change-management?
Oh, absolutely. My little line to them is that real estate is merely the platform for this agile workplace.
You must first have the investment in IT to enable it, and you must be prepared to manage people through the journey. If you are not doing the IT and you are not prepared to manage it, forget about real estate, that’s not the driver.
When I contacted you, I posed the question whether you thought the benefits of agile working could be felt in the bottom line of a business?
Without a doubt, the benefits drop to the bottom line in agile workplaces.
Just in terms of being able to use space more efficiently, and more effectively uncouple under-utilised, reserved space, which just sits there vacant.
There are heaps of examples of that. Yet, we can never be too scientific and I am always highly sceptical when people talk about that.
Really, what you can talk about is either your annual churn and your annual investment in changes, moves and additions: what was it from one year to the next after the change?
There is also spend on paper, because invariably this technology moves toward paperless, and then your spend on real estate per person, and over time you extract greater leverage.
You might still design the space to the same sort of workplace density, but because you have the leverage mobility and create a variety of work settings, you are undoubtedly going to get probably 20 per cent more out of it.
Are companies still using relocation as an opportunity for shoehorning more people into spaces, rather than thinking ahead about their strategic imperatives when commissioning new workspaces?
There is always a temptation to do that, particularly when there are cost imperatives, and sadly sometimes that does happen, especially when people are fearful of change.
We are pretty upfront that we are trying to drive change in these new workplaces, and there are some emerging economies where they say let’s not move, or let’s stay, or let’s choose a place because it’s already fitted out, as it will save us money.
What in your opinion is the cost to a business of behaving that way?
Well, it’s obvious you might save a few dollars on capex and amortisation, and so on.
Invariably, over the longer term when you grow, you would have more churn and less flexibility.
You might incrementally have to take more space, but I think across the board in agile you should spend 10 per cent more in capex to give them better features. That is amortised over 10 years in average, so that is 1 per cent, whereas I think through the whole model delivered conservatively in the Asia-Pacific region you’ll get 20 per cent more capacity, and that is not taking it to the limit, that is just an easy 20 per cent.
When you start to go to the Americas and Europe, you are probably talking 40 per cent, because there’s more mobility over there and a lot more flexible working. In Asia, there is still a lot more focus on been seen in the office, in the work culture.
Basically, I have tested virtually every deal we do before we start.
We will do a utilisation study and see how they are tracking. We have countless examples where they have 10 per cent vacancy, and they think they are going to outgrow it.
Then we’ve had other studies where they are absolutely full, not a desk in the house. Yet, through the study, every single time, bar a couple of anomalies, we’ve had 25–30 per cent of the desks that are “owned” sitting vacant most of the day.
So, that is why I say that 20 per cent is a free win of savings each time and every time, if you do it well.
Is “agile” your preferred expression for talking about activity based or more flexible ways of working?
I try not to give it a label as I think too many people spend time trying to do that.
Hot-desking got its label as being bad, so I do prefer agile, as that is why you are trying to do it — to make your business more agile, supported by the workplace platform.
Activity based is a bit too space-planner-interior-designer, describing the different spaces.
How are present-day briefing processes for relocation flawed, and how do you ensure you get the best possible brief?
This goes right to the heart of how we control a lot of what we do, to get the better outcomes, because in the past, design was outside our remit of what we would control.
We would control the property and how much they would spend, but then we would say you can decide who the designer is. We would just sanity-check the plans and try and provide a helpful supporting hand, and hope they got there.
I find now that actually we closely control the selection and appointment of “house-trained” firms.
We are looking for partners who have the right skill sets and who are not doing agile for the first time.
How do you believe that workspace design briefing could be improved upon?
Some of our companies are brilliant at doing this, and some are very poor, so I draw upon the lessons of the best, such as Ogilvy.
When you transport yourself into an Ogilvy office, you know where you have arrived. There is something about the personality and the vibe, that you know you are in a large, thriving agency business, and that’s because they do their briefings of designers in a more disciplined and emotionally intelligent way than anybody else does.
Most companies will have the kit of parts on what the colour palette needs to be and how many offices and how many desks and how many print rooms, and that sort of thing, but a lot of them don’t interrogate and understand their personalities and image, and how they work or how they want to work.
Ogilvy does that well and they bring their corporate colours and heritage and integrate it into the fitout in the graphics and in highlights and accents. It may be something as simple as a chair that happens to be red in a room that has no other colour, or wallpaper with subtle pipes in the pattern because that was the signature David Ogilvy pipe that he smoked.
It’s critical to be able to understand and articulate your organisation’s “DNA”. When you understand the brand you want to evoke to people, and the culture you want your staff to have and intertwine that into the development of the workplace, then you’re good.
About Shiro Architects
Workplace strategy is where building design, modern technology and new ways of working come together to deliver the future of work. Through dedicated research, we aim to understand how to create workplace-design briefings that satisfy the evolving needs of occupants, owners, investors and developers of commercial office space. For organisations looking to use relocation to kick-start change in the ways their teams think and learn, we champion the use of sense-making workplace social technologies applied to this purpose.
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