Close

Inside IBM's 'trading post in a forest of digital nomads'

Innovation titans IBM have moved into new offices in Auckland's Wynyard Quarter. But aside from fancy new digs, the move also reflects a shift in how the company is applying design thinking.

One of the first things visitors to IBM’s new Auckland offices may notice is there aren’t a lot of desks – which is somewhat surprising for a company ubiquitous with the image of cavernous rooms filled to the brim with people crammed together in cubicles tighter than sardines in a can. That’s also a bit surprising because, theoretically, between 350 and 400 can work there.

But there’s a good reason for that, explains IBM HR lead Hayley Sullivan: it’s all about an agile environment driven by design thinking that focuses on a client’s needs first.

Her description, however, makes even more sense. “The premise is collaboration,” she says. “It’s a mindset shift."

With almost 400,000 employees worldwide, it’s unquestioned that IBM is one of the world’s largest companies. But enormous size doesn’t magically drive innovation or encourage employees to be more productive, explains Sullivan.

IBM New Zealand officially opened its new offices in the heart of Auckland’s innovation precinct, Wynyard Quarter, on Monday. The move will give enterprise, start-ups and developers access to IBM’s emerging technology and expertise such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, cloud and quantum computing.

The new office at 30 Gaunt Street, located in a Five Green Star, 100 per cent seismic-rated building, certainly boasts some pretty cool features. For one, there’s acoustic paneling on ceilings and walls, which melds nicely with exposed concrete columns that calls to mind industrial architecture found in other parts of the world like at Portland Community College’s Sylvania campus in the US or Wellington’s Creative HQ.

Portland Community College's Sylvania campus.

IBM's new offices also boast a plethora of couches and tables in all sorts of interesting geometric shapes – round, rectangular, oval, square and more – scattered all over the place. A “reflection room” can help quiet the mind. Natural light helps reduce electricity costs and generally boosts mood. For those that prefer a more rigid structure, there are a few dark blue-coloured cubicles in the so-called “focus zone.” If that’s not enough, there’s also enough cosy nooks and crannies to explore that it might very well take weeks to find them all.


Oh, and the new offices also include an Innovation Hub – a space dedicated to co-creating customer-centric solutions with clients and partners using IBM’s design thinking methodology. The Hub provides the capacity, networking, infrastructure, cognitive business technologies and expertise to progress solutions from ideation to design and implementation.

“This give us the best opportunity to showcase what we can do,” explains Sullivan. “It helps us understand client-centricity.”

Some of the key values at IBM's new offices.

Technical consultant Elinor Swery says there are no separate offices for the leadership team – helping de-empahsise hierarchy. The Auckland office is also IBM’s first in the Pacific region to go fully agile, she says. “It’s a mind shift,” she explains, adding that employees at the office don’t have landline phones (it’s all mobile) and openness and accessibility are key principles.

Another way to look at the new office: a trading post in a forest of digital nomads.

Swery thinks the analogy fits well – especially for a Millennial workforce. “We want flexibility and we want freedom,” she says of how she and many other Millennials prefer tow ork. “And this definitely provides that.”

Although lots of people can work at the office, Swery also points out a lot of IBM’s employees work from home. That’s possible, she says, thanks to heaps of collaborative tools like Slack, Mural, Box and Trello.

Brett O’Riley, chief executive of Auckland’s economic growth agency Auckland Tourism, Events & Economic Development (ATEED), says however many people are working inside the offices at any one time, IBM makes a welcome addition to an innovation precinct that already counts Microsoft, HP, ASB, Air New Zealand, Fonterra and Datacom. “The innovation precinct in Wynyard Quarter is playing a key role in fostering a culture of innovation in Auckland, which is essential for a stronger, more diverse and more productive economy,” he says. “IBM has a long legacy of technology innovation. We welcome their move to the Wynyard Quarter, adding to the vibrant mix of businesses that are reinforcing Auckland’s standing as an innovation hub of the Asia Pacific region,” he says.

To celebrate the opening, IBM, in conjunction with neighbouring businesses Fonterra and Bayleys, is making eight ride share bicycles available to Wynyard Quarter commuters to further encourage the free flow of ideas and people within the precinct. IBM has also been hosting a number of community events in the VXV Plaza this week, including morning exercise classes, an open air cinema, and a Friday long lunch for 1,000 people featuring cognitive food and drink creations from Fonterra, Frucor and “Chef Watson” (yes, the famous Jeopardy-playing artificial intelligence supercomputer).

“The physical shift of IBM’s New Zealand Auckland home is the latest in a long line of local investments – from our $80 million state-of-the-art data centre in Highbrook in 2011 to over $20 million more recently on our onshore cloud infrastructure, plus our education sector partnerships,” says Mike Smith, IBM New Zealand managing director. “It’s also a key part of our strategy to transform working practices nationwide, emphasising more collaborative, agile methodologies to ensure the customer experience takes centre stage in everything we do.”

Swery perfectly encapsulates the reasoning behind the new move – and the role design thinking plays at IBM. “People look at us and think it’s about the technology. It’s not. It’s first about solving problems.”