Medibank upgrades to activity-based working

Medibank’s new headquarters at Docklands does away with the private offices and Dilbert-esque cubicle arrays that dominate many large enterprises

Leadership buy-in has been vital as Medibank prepares for its activity-based working (ABW) transition, according to the head of the ABW program at the health insurer, David Goldsworthy.

Medibank’s new headquarters at Docklands, which will be completed next year and house 1700 of the health insurer’s staff, does away with the private offices and Dilbert-esque cubicle arrays that dominate many large enterprises.

Instead the headquarters will be based around ABW: replacing offices and fixed desks with a range of workspaces of different sizes that individuals and teams can move between at will. ABW is designed to promote easier collaboration, as project teams aren’t bound by office geography and can come together and move apart as their work requires.

Lockers, activated using an ID card, will allow Medibank employees to store personal effects; team storage lockers will also be available.

Promoting collaboration and through that driving innovation are at the heart of Medibank’s decision to go with ABW, Goldsworthy said. A number of other Australian enterprises have also embraced ABW, including the Commonwealth Bank and Macquarie Bank – two examples which were scrutinised by Medibank as part of preparing for its own shift.

An ABW transition requires “that the leadership of the organisation are really bought in and understand the benefits that will flow as a consequence of [ABW],” Goldsworthy said. “That really establishes the objective and gives permission for people to get involved in it at a lower level.”

“We've got teams moving to a more flexible environment in a halfway stage in the existing building, preparing themselves for [ABW and] understanding how it impacts their business processes,” Goldsworthy said.

“We did a study tour to the Netherlands, who have pioneered ABW, and had a look at a number of organisations over there and spoke to them about the benefits they've got out of it."

The change requires a change in management style, moving to managing based on outcomes, which Goldsworthy describes as a healthy thing for organisations whether or not they are embracing ABW.

As well as fitting out the new office for ABW, the health insurer will be updating its IT environment. Desk phones for staff will be replaced with softphones using Lync and employees will be equipped with a standard-issue laptop to use in the ABW environment.

Instead of a helpdesk that people can call up to get a technician despatched to their desk, they can visit an Apple Store-style helpdesk that will troubleshoot problems.

Goldsworthy said the headquarters shift and the ABW transition had three streams: preparing the building itself, deploying the technology underpinnings for ABW, and a change management component – or “people” stream, as Goldsworthy put it.

“The people stream is where we're going to spend a fair bit of our time and energy,” Goldsworthy said.

“Testing technology and testing a building are quite straightforward. But we're changing hearts and minds here and we're changing some deep-seated work practices and ambitions that people have had in terms of their office and some of the symbols of success.

“We’ve got teams moving to a more flexible environment in a halfway stage in the existing building, preparing themselves for [ABW and] understanding how it impacts their business processes.”

Medibank also set up a prototype area in one of its current offices to help familiarise people with an ABW environment.

“We were able to take people around that and probably bust a few of the myths that emerge – it’s not such a radically different work environment that it’s totally foreign to them. They can see it, touch it, and talk to people who are experiencing it and get a real appreciation of how it works and what it can do for you,” Goldsworthy said.

Leadership training is a key part of the preparations for the shift to ABW. One of the key adjustments “is managing by outcomes rather than managing by line of sight”, Goldsworthy said.

“The things that flow from that are the empowerment and trust and clarity of objectives. There are benefits for the employees, but there are benefits for management as well, so they can utilise their time better focussing on the strategic items that we want to do as an organisation.”

Building completion is due in the middle of July, and staff will start moving at the end of that month, with the end of the transition due in October.