Departmennt of Communities, Australia

A tale of two projects: we follow the evolution of the Department of Communities and learn how the professionals engaged refined and iterated their approach to better serve the client and the users.

The Department of Communities is one of the largest government agencies in Western Australia [WA] and was created by uniting several public service departments. These services included housing, child protection, disability services and community services amongst others.

The new Department’s headquarters is situated in the historic port city of Fremantle at the mouth of the Swan River and brought together staff from multiple, separate buildings.

The site involved transforming a 1970’s department store building into a 20,000 sq m commercial workplace that would bring together employees previously working from separate buildings into one. Following its completion in mid 2020, the Perth CBD was selected as the second workplace location for the Department of Communities.

The projects were handled by the WA Government Department of Finance’s specialist building team, who manages the design and delivery of most major government building projects. Finance appointed Hassell as the architect and interior designer with Hewshott selected as the audio visual and IT consultant for both Department of Communities projects. Wesco AV was the integrator for the Fremantle project while Concept AV was the integrator for the CBD project.

To properly understand the Department of Communities journey both projects need to be investigated.

Client requirements

Senior associate at Hassell, Polly Gee, identified early on with the client that integrating technologies and spaces to provide greater efficiency in how they worked and communicated with each other was of utmost importance. She starts the conversation by detailing the client’s requirements: “The Department of Communities needed space for head office functions that would also accommodate their service arm, as they have team members located across regional locations in Western Australia. This is why communication and communication tools were of utmost importance to them. They came to us with a model that was spread across multiple locations and different ages, and they had a hodgepodge of technologies and solutions.”

Gee continues: “Beginning with the Fremantle project, they really wanted the technology solutions to be easy for the staff to use and to be developed and rolled out to other locations as well, providing a consistency in the system and the user experience that would be seamless. Government projects have multiple stakeholders, and all were aligned in leading progressive innovation in designing a fit-for-purpose facility that responded to the needs of the users at the Department of Communities and how to build a system that would meet their requirements both now and into the future.”

Client requirements evolved as the pandemic led to a shift in working routines. The Fremantle project was completed in May 2020 when restrictions were beginning to be put in place and people were encouraged to work from home. “At that time, videoconferencing was not as accessible,” says Gee. “The solutions we designed for Fremantle intended to enhance user experience in the modern workplace. Building on the experience of the Fremantle project, we were able to refine and iterate for the CBD workplace which was a project that was conceived, designed, and delivered entirely during the pandemic.”

Although every project is an opportunity to reflect and learn, the success of the Fremantle project had significant impact on how Government office accommodation was to be delivered, and the innovative learnings and outcomes from both the Fremantle and subsequent CBD projects have steered the strategic direction of all new and emerging WA Government offices. This is evident in the current large building design works being undertaken where Communities is just one of the occupants, but the technology design is mirrored across the other occupants.

Design process

When it came to designing solutions for the client, a user-centred approach was taken. Gee from Hassell states: “We spent time to understand how the Department of Communities wanted to communicate. We didn’t begin with trying to figure out how many screens or projectors were needed and where they would go in the rooms. We asked how they wanted to work. What do you need the technology to do? Does content need to be shared? What had to be improved in the communication? What would a good experience look like for people in the room and those at the remote site?”

She continues: “The answers to these questions changed due to a number of factors. When we started the first project at Fremantle the Department of Communities worked like any other organisation but today they have a lot more people working from home, and they have transitioned to a workforce that is hybrid. The design process reflected this journey and transition.”

The approach from Hassell dovetailed with Hewshott’s ethos. Peter Hunt, Group CEO at Hewshott, says: “Gathering the right information was the start for us as well and there were a lot of conceptual ideas and possible solutions that were floated. But our approach at Hewshott is to always bring the conversation back to what the spaces will be used for and how users are going to use them. We issued a tender centred on performance-based specification that was tightly written to ensure that what the Department of Communities had asked for was delivered.”

He continues: “The planning for the Fremantle space was done pre-pandemic so it was still done in the old mould of doing things. When the pandemic kicked in, we continued with the plan because it was difficult to really predict how things would pan out. The CBD site however was designed and planned during the pandemic and that prompted changes.”

The spaces

With the design parameters clearly laid out by Hassell and Hewshott, Concept AV Australia stepped in as the system integrator to fit out the Department of Communities CBD office with the requisite AV technology.

IP infrastructure is used for signal transmission with Crestron NVX and Dante being employed. Running both audio and video over IP meant that the systems could move away from dedicated hardware.

Small meeting rooms are the most common spaces, and these have a simple setup. A Samsung flat panel serves as the display with the Crestron soundbar providing an ‘all-in-one’ solution that covers the requirement for audio, microphone, and camera. A Crestron UC engine in the small meeting rooms serves as the portal to Microsoft Teams which is the end user’s VC platform of choice.

Larger spaces feature Aver cameras, QSC Core DSPs, Tannoy ceiling speakers, NEC projectors and Shure ceiling microphones as the situation demands. The opportunity to iterate the AV systems from the Fremantle project to the CBD project provided the Department of Communities a unique opportunity to refine systems for optimal end user outcomes.

Nate Witt, Director Infrastructure Services from the Department of Communities, says: “When we were planning the design of the first Fremantle project, we almost treated it like an application development project. We were thinking about what our requirements were and listing them out and then designing a custom solution to meet those requirements. It was probably a mistake to treat the project in that manner.”

Witt continues: “This approach changed with the CBD project, and we started to look at AV systems more as a commodity, something that we can just take out of a box, plug in and play. Now, we really just aim to try and do Teams out of the box and have it work vanilla. If it breaks, we just swap the component. We’ve moved away from bespoke and custom solutions because out of the box is a lot easier to deploy, manage and use.”

Greg Rigoni, senior technology consultant from Hewshott, elaborates how this ‘commodity’ focused approach and the standardisation with Microsoft Teams were implemented: “At the start, Communities had an idea regarding multifunctionality for spaces and they wanted to have the option for dedicated and flexible VC solutions. They wanted to have some spaces that had VC capabilities in the room and some where the user could bring their laptop in and use that to host the VC meeting. What emerged following the user experience at Fremantle was that they didn’t need that flexibility. Their users like the simplicity of dedicated spaces with VC built into them and this was the biggest change moving on to the CBD project. Once we knew what the actual users wanted, we changed our brief and the design to pivot towards that.”

The drive for simplicity and catering to the needs of the users meant that BYOD was one of the features that was left out. Witt says: “Having BYOD flexibility adds a layer of complexity to the design. And we have made a conscious decision to move away from complexity and reduce the number of boxes in rooms and just make the overall design simpler. Rather than having four ways of doing something, we’ve tried to narrow it down to just one, simple, easy to understand mode of operation.”

With a third office project for the Department of Communities underway, there are plans to continue the process of iteration and refinement to better serve users. Witt details: “We’re looking at providing more access to VC and creating smaller focus rooms for one to two people with docking stations, monitors and creating an experience like a work desk. We’re finding that our users are demanding these kinds of spaces and we want to keep pace with the evolution of work.”

For Hewshott the focus remains on ensuring similar objectives for all of its clients. Peter Hunt concludes: “Just because something can be made possible with technology, doesn’t mean that it must be deployed. If it is useful, then by all means go ahead. But working with the Department of Communities on these projects has shown us the value of iteration when it comes to designing tech solutions and that sometimes less is more. We’ve had recent discussions with new clients that are very similar to the conversations that we were having with the Department of Communities five years ago. Taking that experience, combined with real user data and developments in technology allows us to test their requirements from a position of demonstrable knowledge.

“Helping our clients’ focus and define their needs at the start of a project, then delivering that user experience at the end is what a successful outcome looks like.”

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