Workplace Strategy: What are we trying to achieve?

Having recently finished a series of blogs about Workplace Change Management, I was asked to write a blog or two about Workplace Strategy. Before I could put fingers to keyboard, I was invited to comment on a thought piece about the role of the physical workplace in attracting and retaining talent; and a piece of academic research entitled “Why some activity-based flexible offices work while others do not”. Both have helped shape this blog, but before we get to them, here is a question that I thought worth addressing.

Just what is Workplace strategy?

AWA’s definition of workplace strategy states:

It’s about working out the best spaces, locations, technologies, processes, practices, services, agility and culture needed to support your people and provide a platform for business success.
It’s also about defining and proposing new working practices and understandings to help your people perform at their best.

It sounds deceptively simple, doesn’t it? When reading about workplace strategy, much is said about all of these aspects, and there are interesting debates about the differences between  workplace strategy, workplace design, workplace design strategy and organisational design – raised by Naomi Stanford back in 2012, among others. Essentially the desire is to bring the worlds of place and people together to provide the best environment for people to do their best work.

It is not surprising that when researching this topic, views are driven to a great degree by the business of the author. Hence those designing workplaces and furniture are very focused on the role of the physical workplace in delivering the best experiences for users. When drawing conclusions about what users need, the solutions are almost wholly about the physical – i.e. better / shinier / cooler spaces, funky / comfortable / edgy furniture, rooms with acoustic privacy / no visual distractions etc. etc.

As an example, I saw some research that said respondents reported a loss of c30 hours each month in unproductive meetings. The space designer concluded that the meeting facilities needed improvement – and while that might be the case, there was no mention of the chronically bad meeting management that tends to exist in today’s organisations! Settings can help, but if behaviours don’t change, there will simply be unproductive meetings in nicer surroundings!

I am in no way suggesting that these things don’t matter – there is a lot of evidence that shows these things are appreciated and people find them supportive. But is that the whole story? Does the “place” in “workplace” mean it’s all about the space?

Workplaces are there for people!

Well no, clearly it isn’t all about the space. The space is there to support the people and the work they need to deliver. According to the 2018 Alternative Workplace Strategies report, the people impacts are the primary measure of success, as opposed to cost savings. It seems that people are generally concluding that making changes in the physical workplace have an impact on human performance (even if it’s really hard to measure). Hence you make changes at your peril if you haven’t thought through how these will impact the way work gets done.

Still we talk about the usability / level of supportiveness of the space and the technology when considering human performance. What about the humans themselves and the people they work with? So many papers and thought pieces don’t consider the impact of working relationships and how those impact performance.

This brings us to the need to unite different organisational disciplines when considering the workplace strategy, to ensure it truly embraces all aspects of delivering great work – i.e. the right people, the right relationships, the right management approach, choices, learning and development opportunities, tools, spaces and facilities. It cannot simply be an expression of the strategy for the delivery of the physical workplace.

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What are we trying to achieve?

Like every strategy, the workplace strategy must be a living statement that is regularly reviewed and updated to reflect the organisation’s mission and objectives. For some organisations, the physical workplace is a costly piece of real estate which delivers no real value other than to house people. The workplace isn’t seen as something that delivers value, and those that manage / deliver the workplace aren’t included in the high-level discussions about business direction and how the space can contribute to success. They are regarded merely as service providers, asked to provide space and facilities for the least cost. Humans are a bit of an inconvenience!

Perhaps that isn’t a world that you recognise, but it’s not uncommon. There are also lots of instances where organisational senior management ask for something they believe they need (i.e. “We need our people to collaborate more”), and there is an expectation that this need holds a “space” solution. If people aren’t collaborating, it must be because they don’t have anywhere to collaborate. And so the need for a solution is something laid at Corporate Real Estate’s door.

It is obvious to anyone that has been working in “workplace” over the years that simply delivering a new space doesn’t guarantee anyone will use it, understand why it’s there, or what they are supposed to be doing differently. There is just a simple expectation that providing collaborative space will result in more collaboration. And collaboration is good, right? Everyone’s wanting to collaborate more. Yes?

Collaboration for its own sake?

I’m afraid this is a bit of a hobby horse for me. I’ve been in this situation many times over the years. Clients that are entirely focused on collaboration but are incapable of explaining WHY more collaboration is desirable, what it can deliver, how they want people to work differently and what “good” outcomes look like. 

It is undoubtedly true that providing more places to collaborate will lead to more interactions and collaborations than before – for some people. People that have a need to collaborate will instantly see the value in the new space, and they’ll use it. People that believe they have no need to collaborate (or to collaborate more than before) will think it’s a waste of space. Managers then complain that people don’t use the space, it’s under-utilised and CRE conclude that those spaces aren’t really needed in the first place. We come full circle.

However, if you explain to me why you want me to collaborate more with my team colleagues or with people from other teams – tell me what you’d like me to achieve and what you’d like me to do differently, then it may make sense and I’ll make use of the space. Show me how this aligns to business goals and strategy and that’s even better.

But even then, it’s not all just about collaboration. Research undertaken by Steelcase shows a tendency to over-provide collaboration spaces, at the expense of the need for privacy. Although there seems to be a general acceptance that collaboration is the way in which we work smarter, quicker, more creatively etc., there is also a view that this can lead to group-think. People really need private time to think things through, so they aren’t always having to think and respond in the moment during “collaborative” sessions. As humans we all need space, regardless of personality types and preferences, some more than others. The fact that technology keeps us all a lot closer together / visible to each other is a reason for people increasingly feeling overexposed.

Another example, drawn from the Maral Babapour research referred to at the start of this piece, is that people working in activity based settings, but actually choosing to just work at the same desk all the time, experienced a form of “social exclusion” because they weren’t with the colleagues they wanted to be able to interact (even collaborate!) with. Even the use of quiet spaces resulted in people feeling isolated and disconnected from their team. 

Arguably this has much to do with how the change was implemented, what working arrangements the teams agreed to and how open people were to express their needs to their colleagues, but I’m sure you take my point. Solutions aren’t simple – there is complexity that needs to be thought through and the right mix of choices / options provided.

Conclusion

The over-riding conclusion for me is that “work” is complex and people have different needs which cannot always be met through physical workplace settings. It’s time to put more emphasis on relationships at work, leadership styles and management practices and stop thinking everything can be solved through spaces and facilities.

It is also incumbent on us to ask more questions of those that claim to know what they need in the workplace. Ask the CEO (nicely!) why they feel more collaboration is required – to encourage them to be clear about what they are looking to achieve through this aspect of your workplace strategy. It’s entirely likely nobody has asked them before.

This blog is one of a series of thought pieces written by AWA Associates on matters work and place. Look out for further pieces by following us on LinkedIn or Twitter. Further topics are listed above for you to explore and read at your leisure.