Workplace Data and Design

Don’t let the Cart drive the Horse

The chief criticism of the Harvard Business Review study on the open plan office design, expressed by real estate executives at AWA’s October New York dinner was that insufficient data made it difficult to draw any meaningful conclusions from the studies presented. We agree, but before we get to why workplace data is important, let’s talk about the workplace planning process itself.

Have you seen the Kohler commercial where the client takes a faucet out of her purse and commands the architect to build a house around it? I love it; nothing like having a vision. But building out an office is not like picking out a faucet or a sofa. With business models changing at an increasing pace, the office can’t afford to be built around a single entity. It needs to be able to change as needed – sometimes often, sometimes fast.

What this means for Workplace Strategists and Change Managers

As workplace strategists and change managers, we help companies develop a factual program to engage and guide stakeholders, not only in the process of change but its inevitability. In this capacity we need to first fully understand not only what the firm wants to accomplish but why and with what reason. In other words, we need not just a vision but a business case to enable us to educate stakeholders and bring them along on the change journey. That’s where workplace data comes in… and it needs to come in first, be comprehensive and current. It doesn’t matter where you are on the workplace spectrum, (1) companies need a baseline to understand their current state before creating their own future of work. Knowing how large – and where the delta is between now and then, tells you how much work there is to do to bring your people along.

Data before Design

Yet it’s amazing how often clients start the workspace design process before they’ve created their baseline. It’s so important to first consider the nature of work and the future workplace experience and what it means for your people, but inevitably, we see a floor plan before we see the data. We can work with clients that way, but then it becomes more a process of validation than innovation… and often it creates more communication work on the back end to bring the more change-averse colleagues along.

With all the data that exists today there’s no excuse for it, but the urge to create is strong, driven in part by a desire to innovate but more often by the pressure of a schedule driven by an impending real estate event and just plain fear:

“Well, there’s not enough time” …” We’re afraid of over-promising” …”

“This is our busy season and we don’t want to distract people.”

Well, build in the time and carefully craft a message that clearly states the company’s goals. The same goes for transitions to activity based working or office refurbishments. It’s critical you start by communicating the change processes from the beginning of the project. Busy as they are, people will begin to feel part of the process and become part of the solution. And if you can, do a pilot, tweak it, celebrate the time you took to get it right. Engaging employees in a pilot is a great way to socialize newly desired behaviors, create buzz and pave the way for future workplace transformation.

Finally, data before design affords a company the ability to learn from and for themselves, what’s truly right for them and keep them current.



This is the second of a 4-part series jumping off AWA’s October 4th dinner with New York real estate executives to opine on “The Impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration” as published in The Harvard Business Review, May 2018. The next blog in the Activity Based Working series is about the Pro’s and Con’s of Activity Based Planning.

Written by Fran Ferrone, Senior Consultant, Advanced Workplace Associates USA

Fran Ferrone holds a BA in Speech from The Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. and a degree in Interior Design from Parsons in New York. In addition, she has experience working with senior leaders in a varitey of Fortune 500 companies in the US and abroad.

She has published numerous articles on a variety of workplace topics, including her piece on Workplace Design that featured in Entrepreneur Online. Other features include a monthly column in Real Estate Investor Magazine, CoreNet Leader, and Buildings Magazine. Currently, Fran sits on the Strategy and Portfolio Planning Committee of CoreNet Global’s New York Chapter.

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