Australia’s largest mega-bank aims to be number one in digital through people power

[CBA] Sydney, Australia

Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) is the largest bank in Australia, with over 48,000 employees. Their newest office, Axle, aims to consolidate locations across Sydney in the newly redeveloped district of South Eveleigh. As part of its strategy to “become the leading bank in digital,” CBA sought to bring employees close together and encourage collaboration. Roughly 4,000 people already work in the new space, which has a total area of 43,000 square meters, including 6,000 square meters of offices on each floor. Combined with a new building opening across the street, approximately 10,000 CBA employees will work in the area.

At this size, CBA Axle is more like a city campus than a single office. “There was very much an aspiration to not only create an amazing building inside but to create an amazing precinct, essentially,” said Bradhly Le, a Senior Associate at Woods Bagot, the design firm responsible for this workplace’s design. South Eveleigh has an abundance of spaces open to the community, including a skatepark, a tennis court, a basketball court, and a treehouse. Proceeds from CBA’s kitchen space are all donated to charity.

“We try to be good neighbors,” says Lawrence Chan, an executive manager at CBA. Companies that are active in this kind of place- making are more appealing to young people, which contributes to CBA’s ability to attract talent from the nearby Sydney and New South Wales Universities. That young talent is, of course, the company’s best asset as it seeks to become number one in the digital field.

“When they leave the office and they want to go to the gym, the medical center, or the shopping center, all those things are nearby. All of that plays into the consideration of a good workplace,” Chan explains, suggesting that a workplace is more than just a place of work.

Let’s take a look inside the building. The plaza on the ground floor is a central location where people, including workers from outside the company, naturally gather and collaborate. ABW encourages people to move and collaborate freely, but an open-plan design simply wasn’t enough. One challenge is workers’ individual personalities. How can a workplace elicit interaction from people who are introverted and not inclined toward collaboration? Places where individuals can work quietly and anonymously are necessary, especially when the surroundings are lively—it was important to design areas partitioned with curtains or booths to create an emphasis on privacy.

Office exterior. The area of each floor is roughly 6,000 square meters. “It’s a bit larger than a football field,” says Le.

  • The dynamic atrium is reminiscent of a vast valley. Offices surround the space on three sides, and natural light shines through the skylight. Increasing visibility allows the energy of the entire workplace to be felt.

  • Cafeteria. Some dine, while others work on their laptops. The entire interior, not only the cafeteria, utilizes wood to create a warm tone. Over 3,800 plants fill the space.

  • A quiet space nestled behind the main entrance for employees to retreat for work or relaxation. It’s a refinement of CBA’s previous ABW space, which was a more open layout, supporting collaboration and movement.

  • Activity can be seen on each floor by looking over the stairwell. The structure allows you to visually sense the movement and presence of people, no matter where you are.

  • The plaza on the ground floor, as seen from upper levels, features spots that encourage interaction, such as a café and meeting rooms. Both guests and employees are invited to use these facilities.

  • An app developed in-house at CBA manages building access and lockers around the building. Employees are able to scan a QR code to report any issues with the facilities, which enables more efficient facility management.

  • The location of each worker can be detected by tracking where they connect their PCs to LAN cables. The data is used to improve the number and location of facilities based on frequency of use.

  • The main area used by the facility team. In addition to basic desks, there are also elevated workstations. The large whiteboards also function as floor dividers. Eschewing mass-produced items, the furniture is mostly custom-made.

  • The theater space in the center of the office, featuring tiered seating. Events are held every day, bringing liveliness to the office. When we visited, a seminar on healthy eating was being held.

  • Both the design and lines of movement are streamlined. “Nature doesn’t really do straight lines,” says Le. This ceiling also incorporates a streamlined biophilic design, inspired by various plants and nature.

There have been 2.5 stages in CBA’s implementation of ABW. The first stage began seven or eight years ago, with a simple open office; the second stage saw open-workplace architecture fitted to accommodate various specific goals. However, these designs still did not bring out all workers’ best performance, so this latest iteration has taken into account the characteristics of both introverts and extroverts.

“ABW has unlocked flexibility for the bank to enable that level of staff empowerment and engagement. Their ability to choose where they work and how they work consistently comes up in our staff surveys as the biggest benefit of working at CBA,” says Chan.

The use of the latest technology is not very noticeable. As in many smart workplaces, reception and seat reservations are done through a proprietary app. In line with their mission to become a leading digital bank, CBA also provides workers with the best digital UX; the data is used to understand how efficiently the building is used and see how often facilities are accessed.

“The data allowed us to see spots on the floor that aren’t being used,” says Chan. “Maybe there’s a broken desk and somebody’s been avoiding it for six months but we don’t know why. The heat map data will tell you that desk hasn’t been used [and] something is wrong with it.”

This is a campus for people to work freely and flexibly. It’s a place for all generations, from Baby Boomers to Generation X and Millennials, and for workers with disabilities. In that sense, CBA is seeking a different kind of inclusiveness from that of other tech giants. Le says that a space designed “just to be cool for the Millennials” isn’t what they are after.

Throughout the design process, thought was put into helping people adjust to the change. Some staff members were accustomed to having their own offices and workstations, and the change meant losing that. Providing regular updates on the workspace as plans unfolded helped ensure that no one felt left behind. This campus belongs to the community, and it belongs to all employees.

Lawrence Chan
Executive Manager
Commercial Design &Delivery Group

Bradhly Le
Senior Associate
Woods Bagot

  • New employees are given training after their first day to help them adapt to working in an ABW workplace.

  • A lounge space near the entrance. These communication spaces are concentrated near the ground floor in order to encourage collaboration between employees and guests.

  • A communication hub, called “Pergola,” in the office area. This serves as a place for workers to connect over drinks and snacks.

  • Public spaces, including a skate park, line the building’s perimeter. The neighborhood and office are connected by a boardwalk, enabling the connection between business and community.

  • The new building in South Eveleigh, set to be completed in 2021 (55,000m2). “It will be the largest or second largest in Australia,” says Chan. Once completed, CBA’s digital staff will move there, and a total of 10,000 workers will work between the new space and CBA Axle.

  • Ground-floor plaza. The café stand is in the foreground, but there is no apparent boundary between it and the lounge and theater space. The aim is to encourage non-territorial movement.

South Eveleigh, a new innovation district

South Eveleigh, a suburb of Sydney, was once home to a flourishing steam- locomotive factory—much of the infrastructure that modernized Australia was built here. After falling on hard times in recent years, the city is now being reimagined by the real-estate developer Mirvac (page 114) and a consortium of AMP Capital, Sunsuper and Centuria Property Funds, and is currently in the process of attracting more people as Australia’s new innovation district. The area is also notable for tennis courts, farms, and other sports and recreational facilities open for people to enjoy. Eventually, nine commercial buildings will be completed, featuring a mix of supermarkets, beauty salons, gyms, and outdoor cafés. In homage to Sydney’s Aboriginal Gadigal people, a central feature of the redeveloped area is its emphasis on connecting with the local community.

photo: Hirotaka Hashimoto

From WORKSIGHT 16(2020.7)

© Eberle Photography

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