Why Canon Australia shunned activity-based working (well, kinda)

Imaging company implements flexible working, CYOD at new 'high performance' Australian office

It may only be a five-minute walk from the company's old Australian headquarters, but when it comes to facilitating flexible working there's a million miles between Canon's old HQ and its new Sydney office, according to Ian Flemington, general manager of HR and communications.

The imaging company moved into their new offices in April, and yesterday threw open the doors for a media tour of what Canon Australia describes as its "high performance workplace".

The new offices, on Talavera Road in the Sydney suburb of Macquarie Park, were fitted out with a focus on sustainability and reflecting "brand Canon", but also enabling flexible work styles.

Canon wanted to move away from the standard open-plan cubicle farm, but instead of opting for a pure activity-based working setup has gone for a hybrid approach that it says better matches the different patterns of working among its employees.

"Right up until the middle of last year we were going to put in place a traditional office working environment," Flemington said. That would involve a similar style of office to Canon's previous HQ: An open plan with assigned cubicles.

However, Canon decided to "go down a more flexible work environment that better reflects how people need to work and want to work." The company went through a "rigorous co-design process" that identified work styles and "how that would impact the workplace we then built around it".

To help match the new office to employees' work patterns Canon engaged change management consultants Puzzle Partners. Puzzle conducted a survey of how Canon's old offices were being used.

"They went round the building literally on the hour every hour for two weeks and looked at how people were working," Flemington said.

"So they monitored desk utilisation, how many people were in meeting rooms, how many people were having stand-up conversations in the corridor – so coincidental-type collaboration meetings, how many people were drawing on the old 'imaginary whiteboard' in the corridor – those type of things."

This study was combined with data from sessions where employees were asked about their work patterns – how long they spent at their desk working on individual tasks, how long they spent collaborating and how much time they spend 'contemplating' (time at or away from their desk not spent doing "actual routine tasks").

"What we found is there was a really close correlation between the amount of time that people said they spent contemplating, collaborating or concentrating and what we actually observed – so that meant we had a really strong fact base to then go 'How do we start to profile our workforce and then build a workspace around it?'"

Employees fell roughly into three categories. 'Focused workers' who spent most of their time desk-bound working on their individual tasks; 'balanced' workers who spent equal amounts of time performing individual tasks and collaborating with others; and 'mobile' workers who spent only a minimal amount of time at their desk.

The upshot, Flemington said, was that Canon realised that one size wouldn't fit all, which ruled out an 'all in' activity-based working approach. "We learned a lot of lessons from going to visit other organisations," the HR head said.

At other organisations Canon visited, full ABW wasn't working for every employee: "For some employees, where they spend most of their time at their desk, it's pointless saying to them you need to have a locker, an unassigned desk, and go and find that desk every day, because they spend all their time at that desk.

"We took the approach that because a focused worker spends 80 per cent of their time working on individual tasks, we've given them assigned seats. For mobile and balanced workers, we work in a more flexible way."

'Focus' areas are located around the periphery of Canon's two floors in the building (a third floor is allocated to its R&D organisation, Cisra), while in the centre are more 'active' spaces for collaboration.

In addition to providing lockers for workers who tend to move around more, Canon designed spaces to match the meeting styles that had been observed, ranging from smaller areas for ad hoc catch-ups through to areas for brainstorming and formal meeting rooms.

Underpinning the new mixed-usage workplace is a range of technology. The printing company has a 'choose-your-own' device scheme. Originally the company was going to purchase a single end-user device. "What we realised is, we've got focused, balanced and mobile workers and they actually need different things," Flemington said.

As a result each of the three work styles has a 'default' device assigned to it: a laptop, a tablet or a hybrid (a notebook where the screen folds right back to transform it into a tablet), but employees are free to choose from one of the other devices if they feel it would suit them better.

The company has a "wireless-first" policy for networking in the new office, Flemington said, and uses a range of its own technology to enable mobility within the office – including uniFLOW for secure mobile printing and Therefore to store and share information.

According to Canon, the new workplace and flexible approach are already bearing dividends. Although it's only been three months in the new office, "the investment we have made so far has already and will continue to lead to greater productivity and agility," Canon Australia Taz Nakamasu said.

Read more: In brief: Canon Australia announces new MD

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