How SBS learned to be agile

“An amazing human experiment to reprogram relationships across the business groups.”
Martin Wright SBS Corporate Services.

On-screen and behind the scenes – SBS wrings every last drop of value from its Artarmon HQ.

2021 recap: How does any building keep up with a public broadcaster? Over the past decade SBS has evolved from tape-based production for separate channels into a multi-platform, digital content organisation. Staff work in thematic “verticals” – news, sport, food, movies – across television, radio and on-demand. Technology collapses the studio to the desktop and reporters become multi-skilled stand-along media producers. And the former factory in Artarmon? Its a prime example of how a building learns to be agile.

ProjectSBS Office Accommodation
ClientSBS – Special Broadcasting Service – Office Accommodation
ServicesAspirational brief (DEGW) Strategic briefs (Strategy+, The Soft Build) Change frameworks (Strategy+ The Soft Build) Pilot Evaluation (Strategy+)
TeamMartin Wright, Malcolm Peisley, Barry Shapiro (SBS) Sue Wittenoom, Alice Drew, Alison Web, Monica McClure (AECOM Strategy+) Emily Moss, Carol Anne Pickvance (HASSELL) Gavin Harris (Futurespace)

Many Australian companies have been able to use a property redevelopment to orchestrate a major transformation – think of NAB, ANZ and Medibank in Melbourne’s Docklands. In 2010 SBS had hoped to relocate staff to better space in a more central location, but plans to start fresh were met with federal government pressure to colocate with the ABC. The upside of staying in Artarmon has meant independence, experimentation and the development of the brilliantly niche culture through a series of new fitouts. Each time SBS pushes workspace to the limits of performance it irons out existing problems and stretches people to work differently.

SBS looked to the BBC’s precedent of projects such as the White City relocation which had been more than just a move. DEGW’s London team had been an integral part of the transformation of the BBC’s UK property portfolio over many years; new builds and refurbishments were scaffolds for a cultural transformation around group agility, individual flexibility and a more vibrant and compelling workplace. (So compelling it’s recycled in two seasons of the brilliant BBC Two – W1A 

“The SBS Artarmon HQ was a siloed labyrinth when we started. Business units were buried – there was little physical capacity to create connections – people scuttled through the empty atrium.  CEO Michael Ebeid had a vision and strategy to break down the silos, build a high-performing, one-team culture to take the organisation forward and to build cross-organisation understanding and collaboration across the many and diverse service offerings, including the public broadcasting and commercial elements. We used workspace as a tool to execute his organisational change.” – Martin Wright, Manager Corporate Services and Facilities

Sue led the DEGW Sydney team that was commissioned to develop long term aspirations for SBS accommodation in 2011. The scope of work was unusual for an aspirational brief. It started with space utilisation studies instead of boardroom discussions – the executives wanted data about where everybody was working. In both the Melbourne office (heart of the CBD at Federation Square) and Artarmon (surrounded by panel-beaters and a much longer walk to the station) they were definitely not deskbound.  Parts of the building were already on the verge of being mothballed because of technological obsolescence. The study observers tracked desks that were in places that humans wouldn’t choose to work from – internal compartments with no daylight or outlook. The deep floorplate created a rabbit warren more like a hospital and almost a quarter of the organisation was in a private office.

The low utilisation galvanised the executive team. The aspiration for change began with the data and took shape by linking to SBS’s strategic plan. The goal was to create a physical work environment suited to a contemporary, multiplatform media organisation.

The objectives for new workspace were to:

1.      Get the basics right
2.      Create space to collaborate
3.      Look, feel and sound like a creative community
4.      Do more with less
5.      Be provocative

Three key spatial strategies were at the heart of the brief for the first workplace prototype:

  • Shifting from space owned by an individual to space shared across a team
  • Developing new work settings for content verticals to foster cross-platform behaviours
  • Encouraging mobility to leverage the team spaces

There was no physical precedent for the new kind of informal collaborative work setting that would be the home of a content vertical. Four architects were invited to pitch a concept design as part of the selection process for the pilot fit-out.

The performance brief we wrote for this new space described its function and the intended impact:

  • Should allow users to customise the identity and the features of that space;
  • A space for ad-hoc work groups from all divisions to work collectively;
  • Images and activities can be curated in the space to share ideas-in-progress with the larger organisations;
  • Interactive surfaces should be provided for collaborative work;
  • Provide a mix of team tables, display and interactive components to encourage visiting/lingering/loitering as well as working on a common goal.

IMAGE: HASSELL Architects’ content vertical hub proposition – big on objectives #3 and #5

HASSELL’s winning concept was for a new digital arena that showcased events and activities and spilled out on the central atrium. The new fitout was launched in October 2013 with a range of new work settings giving three business units new ways to focus, gather and collaborate.

“The first agile pilot was an amazing human experiment to reprogram relationships across the business groups. The strategic brief was our chance to step back and re-imagine the workplace, to think through how all the different levers of people, IT and property. We kept DEGW on board to make sure the architects translated the strategy faithfully, and to help us mount a myth-busting campaign about the benefits of open-spaces and flexible working that started with taking the Board on a journey and reached everyone in the organisation. The new space was a drawcard for the whole organisation to experience flexible work and the hub is still the showcase for launches, events and a wonderful gathering space where the organisation embraces its now very cohesive culture.”

The pilot trialled an ambitious program of new technology and activity based work practices across varying levels of commitment and leadership. All elements were tracked in the first year and findings digested in an extensive post occupancy review in September 2014. For more on the review see “The Point of a Pilot

“The pilot review let us take a deep dive into what had changed using all the strategic brief baselines – surveys, space utilisation and observation studies. The residents came together in workshops where we collected their stories about how the new workspace had led to new business revenues.

We wanted to be able to play it back to the leaders so they could understand the deeper impact of a very obvious transformation. Using Sue’s team meant that people could speak openly and honestly, and that we had an evidence base for the conversation with the execs.

There were challenges in implementation – there were issues with phones for example, and the next fit-out tackled this. And there were hard issues around securing buy-in and support from organisation leaders critical to its success. We could see how that played out for their teams, how the change support needed really clear and compelling messages. Whole-hearted and authentic support made a real difference.”

A second agile workspace was created in 2015 for the marketing groups. This area used the review feedback to develop team-based neighbourhoods. In 2017 Sue’s involvement continued with a planning study for the core online and television content teams. The different work processes of content creation, acquisition and curation were teased apart by user groups. Activities and connections were mapped over time, and the impact of different kinds of spatial settings were tested across the work cycle. The challenge with the core content teams was the evolution of the flexible model so that all parts of the organisation could be involved across all of the verticals. Futurespace was part of the planning of the next iteration of the SBS workplace model.

SBS continues to wring every last drop of value from its office accommodation; the new workspace often features onscreen. This clip parodies the painfully awkward graduate recruitment video from the Federal government – the folks who keep insisting that the broadcaster should do even better with less.

The Soft Build is a strategy consultancy that helps people use buildings as a scaffold for organisational change.

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