Urban hubs — workplaces of the future

By Sue Johnston, IBRS
Monday, 14 December, 2015

Urban hubs — workplaces of the future

In June 2015, the then Minister for Communications, Malcolm Turnbull, introduced a report based on CEDA research titled ‘Australia’s future workforce’. The report examined the impact of the next wave of digital disruption on business activity, how automation will eliminate many of today’s current work roles and the impact of digital disruption on existing business practices.

Based on the previous industrial revolution, workers moved to metropolitan areas to gain employment. This model meant that physical proximity to a workplace was the key defining factor to both the worker seeking employment and the organisation seeking skilled and unskilled workers.

However, the CEDA report highlights that many of the current roles undertaken today — up to five million of them — will either disappear or be changed significantly by 2020. Significant automation will replace many manual and predictable activities, including accounting and even roles in the health sector. To date there has been action to adapt to the coming change in technology organisations and private companies; however, there is still significant lag in the public sector.

In ‘Workplace of the Future’, IBRS Analyst Dr Joseph Sweeney observed that workplaces of the future will be transformed way beyond the implementation of a host of technological tools such as mobility. They will include a fundamental cultural change, seismic shifts in work practices and a way of rethinking who does what work.

Additional research undertaken by Lynda Gratton, a London Business School Professor, predicts that to be successful in the future, workers will need to be both a specialist and an effective collaborator. She states that future success will be achieved through a high-value combination of mastery and connectivity.

Flexible workplace models

Organisations have recognised the need to provide connectivity for their workforce and have been working towards a flexible workplace for some time with teleworking now commonplace. However, research indicates this is often a case of applying technology to legacy business practices and does not fully leverage the full potential of a flexible and connected workforce.

Another approach has been the establishment of Work Hubs. In September 2014, the Queensland Government rented premises on the Gold Coast and in Redcliffe to trial flexible working arrangements for 27 public servants. This model meant that staff worked in the usual office environment for a few days a week and the Hub for the remainder of the week on an ongoing basis. While this model offers more flexibility to workers it also has some limitations:

  • Workers still need to be close enough to the main office for part of the week.
  • Rented premises are restricted to the workers of that organisation. Sustainability of the model would be on the basis that a single organisation would continue to commit to rented or owned premises on an ongoing basis.

Small business and entrepreneurial hubs have become increasingly popular over the past few years. These are workspaces where small to medium organisations can rent space and services in a specific geographical area to undertake their work. One such organisation is Hub Australia.

These hubs have been quite successful but can be constrained. To be sustainable there needs to be enough small and medium businesses in that geographical area that commit to the model to provide financial viability. In the Hub Australia model there are currently locations only in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. (Other examples include Thought Fort and The Swarm.)

Co-working spaces and services

According to research undertaken by Tammy Johns and Lynda Gratton, virtual working has moved through a number of phases:

  1. Virtual freelancers. Specialists who provided services on an as-needed basis to companies and who worked from home offices using technology such as email to communicate. This was high on flexibility but needed compromise on many collaborative and supportive elements that organisations offer to employees.
  2. Virtual corporate colleagues. Technology offered the opportunity for organisations to enable employees to work remotely as a standard engagement model. IBM currently supports more than 400,000 of its contractors and employees to work remotely.
  3. Virtual co-workers. Organisations and workers reinvesting in physical co-locations and providing spaces to enable workers to feel they are working in a shared working environment.

The researchers state that successful organisations will harness the benefits of each of these waves to establish and maintain workplaces of the future which support the workforce of the future.

Urban hubs

Urban hubs have grown in popularity over the past few years. There are hubs operating in many major cities around the world. They are workspaces that are designed to connect and inspire people who generally work alone. Not only do they have the general office capabilities in terms of spaces and technology and tools, but they also offer the benefit of interacting with other professionals and other support services.

Rather than renting or owning space for corporate colleagues (such as the Queensland Government example) or establishing a hub that is available for small and medium businesses, organisations can view the urban hub as a service.

Governments and large corporates may establish the hub presence, but do so as an instigator and not the controller. Small to medium-sized businesses can pay to use the space and services on the same footing as the larger organisations.


Establishing Australian urban hubs that can be used as a service for large organisations with a significant capital city presence, and smaller localised companies, enables:

  • greater proliferation of hub spaces in regional areas;
  • sustainability beyond a trial or the economic commitment of a single company. It balances the financial burden across large and small companies;
  • access to skilled resources from a broader geographical base for organisations that utilise an urban hub model;
  • smaller organisations to offer work/life balance benefits as an alternative to high salary.

Other potential options may include peer sharing (similar to Uber) for office space. However, organisations should include analysing creative spaces and flexible working beyond teleworking and rented urban spaces for their own staff, and consider a broader, more creative approach.

Organisations should start to assess their current workplace model and identify opportunities to modify virtual team models to provide a greater element of flexibility and community environment, and consider establishing an urban hub in a non-metropolitan area.

Sue Johnston is an IBRS advisor who focuses on strategy and governance of private and public ICT, and is engaged in research on maximising the value of flexible workplaces and women in leadership. She has more than 25 years’ experience as an ICT professional, CIO, business manager and consultant.

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