Rosemary Kirkby faced a major challenge: "How can we create an environment that will attract the kinds of people who can drive the future success of this business — when we don't know what the future will look like?" She also faced a more immediate challenge: The board of MLC, the financial-services arm of Lend Lease, was awaiting her proposal to refurbish the unit's headquarters building, a 41-year-old North Sydney landmark.
Out of desperation, Kirkby, a Lend Lease veteran who had recently become MLC's general manager of people, sat down at her kitchen table and typed one word: "Imagine." Then she kept typing: "Imagine working for a company that not only understood that the best 10 hours of your day are spent at work — but did everything in its power to make them as energizing, rewarding, and productive as possible. Imagine coming to work each day in a building that greeted every person as a creative, entrepreneurial, exciting person." Kirkby typed six pages without pausing.
The next morning, she made her case to senior executives at Lend Lease's property division. In a business like financial services, she argued, "speed-to-market is the key to our future." And the key to speed is flexibility: "We've done a tremendous job of building flexibility into our product line, our people, our processes, even our union agreement. But this building is getting in the way."
Kirkby lobbied for incorporating two kinds of flexibility into the redesign of the building. First, there should be flexibility in everything from floor plans to furniture — so that teams could form and disband in a few hours' time, and so that people could easily share ideas and ask for help. And second, Kirkby argued, allowing for changes in how work will get done in the future was just as important as addressing today's work. "When I look back 10 years, I don't recognize this organization in terms of employee profile, product line, or physical environment. So I can't begin to guess what it's going to look like 10 years from now. We have to design our processes not just for people who work here today but also for my 13-year-old son. If you think about today's kids and their preoccupations, and especially about the influence of the Net, the world starts to look very different."
The board bought Kirkby's argument and authorized a $23 million budget to fund a project called Campus MLC. The vibrant heart of the campus — which will be completed by year's end — is a vertical street that cuts through the center of the 12-story building. Themed "civic spaces" run up and down this street: On level four is the Table — a large space (dominated by a huge blond-wood table, industrial fridges, and a commercial stove) where people cook meals, hold meetings, or simply hang out. The Zen Den, on level three, features Japanese pavilions, tatami mats, river stones, and bamboo sculptures. On the eighth floor, there is the Forum, a theater-in-the-round flanked by Spanish steps that was designed to encourage lounging and listening. Kirkby expects the space to be used for meetings, presentations by outside speakers, broadcasts of MLC TV (the unit's in-house TV network) — even plays.
Meanwhile, Kirkby is determined to turn the headquarters redesign into an ongoing process. She has formed a group of employees who act as custodians of both the building and the corporate culture. "Productivity and lifestyle gains can be sustained only if we keep making changes," she says. What's more, in true Lend Lease fashion, a project that began as an internal experiment has become a new line of business: Several corporate clients, including Ernst & Young and Compaq Computer, have engaged Lend Lease in "workplace of the future" projects.
For Kirkby, the real bottom line involves Lend Lease's own people: "This building shows that you can work hard, express yourself, and have a life. I want our people to say, 'Why would I work for a company down the road for an extra $10,000 a year? I've got such a wonderful life here.'"
A version of this article appeared in the September 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.