Workplace to wilderness
Corporate psychologist Travis Kemp in ABC2’s Do or Die, which airs on Wednesday nights. Picture: Supplied.

There's something a little remiss about writing a story on city slicker office workers being thrown into the jaws of the Australian outback from the comfort of one's cubicle.

In ABC2's new four-part series Do or Die, corporate psychologist Dr Travis Kemp puts to the test the theory that placing colleagues into a foreign landscape and triggering a "survival situation" could drastically improve workplace relations.

Such a prospect would leave most of us office folk clutching at our decaf soy lattes and smart phones in a wild panic.

However, four groups of corporates from organisations in Perth and Sydney put their lives in the hands of the wilderness and Kemp for the extreme social experiment earlier this year.

The four work places are inner Sydney cocktail bar Goldfish, Perth real estate agency Porter Matthews Group, Sydney digital creative agency Soap and Perth recruitment agency Office People. The groups ventured off on what they believed to be a fun team-building exercise but instead got sent into some of the harshest environments in WA for five gruelling days.

"It was an interesting idea to really put organisations which believed they were high-performing organisations into an environment that would really test that and to put them in situations that if they made bad decisions they would genuinely be put in the position where they would be at risk," Kemp says.

"While we managed the safety aspects around the organisations and their adventures were very tightly monitored, they were making decisions on a minute by minute basis which on occasions had real consequences," he says over the phone from his Adelaide base.

The results are surprising and, without doubt, entertaining as the autonomy of the workplaces in question is broken down.

"When you're at work people have roles and you're expected to work in a certain way. There's a hierarchy and when you take

this hierarchy out into the wilderness it's a real leveller," Kemp explains.

"The quality of their interaction and their collective decision making is put under test and nobody is put in a stronger or weaker position to make the decisions in that environment. It allows people to step into places they might not normally be able to in the workplace."

The idea came from Chris Hilton and Julia Peters, of Essential Media, who worked in conjunction with the ABC to produce the series.

They employed Kemp as a specialist guide for the participants and the series was directed by local filmmaker Russell Vines, who produced Nine's telemovie The Great Mint Swindle.

Kemp started his working life as an outdoor education teacher before moving into a career in human resources and through that process studied to become a psychologist specialising in organisational, exercise and sport and counselling. It took about six months for Kemp and his team to find and screen the groups.

"We did a lot of research on the individuals who were coming away with us. We screened everybody, did personality profiles and a whole bunch of stuff," Kemp says.

"Casting-wise it was a challenge. It takes a lot of courage to put your hand up and say, 'yeah I want to be put under scrutiny' and then when there's cameras involved as well there's a whole other level of commitment."

Much planning was also conducted surrounding the landscape where the action would unfold. "We wanted to find some of the most remote and isolated places in the world and we're lucky enough to have those in Australia, especially WA," Kemp says.

The production team chose a salt lake in the Goldfields, a range of gorges in the Kimberley near Fitzroy Crossing and the Broke Inlet and the Yeagarup sand dunes (which is the biggest inland sand dune in the southern hemisphere) in the d'Entrecasteaux National Park, near Pemberton.

"It was a great opportunity to showcase WA and its diversity in a lot of ways," Kemp says.

Do or Die airs Wednesday at 8.30pm on ABC2.

The West Australian

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