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Wherever it may be located, our physical work environment, the buildings, private offices, cubicles, workspaces, meeting rooms, team rooms, mobile workplaces or home office and coffee shops have a significant effect on our behaviour and performance. Unfortunately, there has been a good deal said about the hybrid Workplace this last year, but not much is known about it. Even more unfortunate, is that most decisions about the design of our Workplaces are made to appeal to the eye without considering the implications for human performance which will ultimately affect the profitability of our organisation.

An organisational millstone?

There is no template for the hybrid Workplace of tomorrow. There is no successful design model to draw on for spaces that are now temporarily distanced, no proven real estate strategy for a portfolio of Workplaces that are currently empty. Each organisation is unique and so there is the is no cut and paste approach to Workplace strategy that can reconcile these factors while still prioritising the needs of the people so heavily impacted by all this change.

This extraordinary situation is further complicated by the historically siloed approach which meant that HR, IT, CRE and FM had differing views of the Workplace that were often further exacerbated by reporting lines into Finance or Operations.

I advocate that this mishmash and mismatch will be a millstone around the neck of organisations if they sleepwalk into a future thinking that nothing has changed. We need to prepare our organisations for the upturn. The new economy will require increased agility and resiliency if we are to turn back the clock on historically rising costs and occupancy densities that were inexorably married to falling levels of productivity.

How should we take on this unprecedented task? How can we prepare for the impending Workplace re-entry? What should that look like?

Different strokes for different folks

We have seen very different approaches from companies that we tend to look up to when it comes to issues of future ways of  working and the hybrid Workplace that can support it. Counterintuitively perhaps this has been particularly notable amongst the USA West Coast big tech brands who are seen as the forerunners of using Workplace as a tool for competitive advantage.

Their approach has ranged from one end of the spectrum with Apple and Amazon being somewhat prescriptive by insisting their employees return to the office whilst other have been at the other end of the scale with Twitter and Slack taking a more permissive approach allowing the employees to decide for themselves. Facebook and Salesforce have allowed their employees some autonomy by taking a ‘freedom with a framework’ approach.

The Hybrid Workplace Continuum

The answer is complex, but the approach is simple;

  1. focus on the purpose of the future office.
  2. consult your staff and
  3. take a data-driven approach.

However, beware of shiny object syndrome, do not focus on what it will look like! A predisposition to aesthetics before determining what purpose the Workplace will fulfil will have a costly price ticket with no chance of returning it to the shop for a refund.  Your staff will not forgive you either, with one survey suggesting that as many as 40 per cent of employees are considering moving on in the next six to twelve months in what is being seen as “The Great Resignation”

So, the golden rule is to understand what you are trying to achieve as an organisation and the role and purpose of the Workplace in that journey. Then iterate as you go. Workplace in no longer non-core to your business, it is a mission critical enabler of core business. So, as emphatically as business needs to be agile, so does the Workplace need to be.

Workplace Strategy needs to coordinate information from all the fundamental domains of the organisation (IT, HR, CRE/FM, Operations, Finance, etc.). Historically each domain has developed its own strategy with almost no regard for a cohesive approach. Future success in the increasing complex hybrid working world will mean that all the different strategies will need to be integrated and aligned with the overall business strategy.

What’s driving the demand for Workplace strategy?

In 10 Workplace Questions All CEO’s Should Have on Their Board Agenda.  I set out the most important questions business leaders should be asking but in truth business leaders haven’t had to worry too much about a Workplace strategy until recently but now there are several forces bringing the need for an integrated approach to the forefront. Some of these have always been there but the global pandemic has given rise to the acceleration of the complexity that arises when an employee can work from anywhere (WFA)

  • We need to achieve more with less.Budgets are tight and organisations no longer need the same amount and type of real estate with its associated costs.
  • Technology enables people to work from anywhere. We need to cater for an increasingly mobile workforce, making sure they have a productive and compelling space to touch down in when they arrive at the office.
  • Work is becoming more complex.As innovation and communication speeds up, spurred on by technology, we need to achieve new levels of creativity. As the demand for creative problem-solving increases, so does our need for collaboration, as well as time for learning and focusing and the Workplace to support it
  • We’re in a state of constant beta development.As the pace of change continues to accelerate, it no longer makes sense to have a static workplace. Instead, we need to create an agile environment that allows us to adapt spaces to our changing needs.
  • Cultural expectations are shifting.These days people value meaningful work and autonomy more than ever. To attract and retain the best people and enable them to perform at the top of their game we need to provide spaces that are not just functional, but inspiring and remarkable, so they can do remarkable work.

Why is a Workplace strategy so important?

Workplace Strategy treats the Workplace as a strategic asset and enables organisations to align how they plan, design, and manage their Workplaces with the business goals and objectives of the organisation. If done well, a good Workplace strategy will allow organisations to get the greatest return from their investment. The Workplace is no longer a financial black hole but a value adding contributor to competitive advantage

The need to reduce office costs is a major driver for considering your Workplace strategy, but it’s not the only trigger. Major changes like the WFA revolution we have seen over the last year have provided spark we needed to consider whether our workspaces are really working for us.

The benefits of an effective Workplace strategy and an effective and efficient Workplace designs go far beyond cost savings. Because, if your Workplace isn’t working, your business can’t perform.

The table below provides the organisational and employee focus of the different benefits, but this is an eco-system that should ensure a mutually reinforcing circular equation where organisational improvement benefits the employee and vice versa.

Organisational FocusEmployee FocusProperty costs are reduced.Employees can be up to 30% more attracted to your company over competitors.Organisational focus and values are enhancedThe spaces and services emphasise employee wellbeing.Co-operation and collaboration is cultivated.Talented employees are up to 18% more likely to stay.Reduced environmental impactThe environment engages and energises employees.Organisational agility is enhancedEmployee performance can be boosted by 16% or more.Customer loyalty is boostedOrganisational culture is enrichedInnovation is enhanced and entrenched.Business risk is reduced.Operational resilience is increased.The organisation’s brand is boostedCompetitive advantage is boosted.

So, what is Workplace strategy?

Wikipedia puts it this way: “Workplace strategy is the dynamic alignment of an organisation’s work patterns with the work environment to enable peak performance and reduce costs.”

Winston Churchill as far back as 1943 recognised the impact that the physical environment can have on our behaviour and performance when he said “People shape buildings and thereafter they shape us”.

Workplace strategy is all about understanding the needs of your people, then providing a workspace that’ll help them do their best work. All this, while minimising costs and environmental impact.

Hybrid working is going to involve the need to be much more deliberate in dealing with the complexity that comes with it, particularly for the management and supervision of staff. Trust will have to replace historically well-constructed and resilient control structures. This will mean a much more amalgamated approach with IT, HR, Finance, Corporate Real Estate, Facilities and Operations aligning their strategy with the organisation’s vision, mission, goals and resources.

This will be an impossible task without Leadership providing the direction required to align these disparate functions.

Strategy v Tactics

In a rush to implement this new way of working we run the risk of confusing Strategy and Tactics. Tactics are the actual means used to achieve an objective, while strategy is the overall plan, which involve complex operational patterns, activity, and decision-making that are required before effective tactical execution.

It’s important to consider the knock-on effects and unintended consequences when you make changes in the workplace.

Workplace design is just one of many of tactics we can use. Unfortunately, it is probably the most expensive one but also the one that is most often rushed into without proper consideration.

We are all enthralled by the colourful and beautiful aesthetic images we see of Workplaces from the likes of Google, Apple. These may lull us into a false sense that our staff want sleep pods, ball pits and slides. I realise that this maybe at the extreme end of the scale, but organisations are often tempted to pay ‘lip service’ and move a few partitions, throw in a couch or two and put mural on the wall in an attempt to convince unimpressed employees that they are future proofing the office.

Workplace strategy takes a long-term, data-led view of the entire Workplace eco-system. A trifocal approach involving people, place and process is used to arrive at a converged view of not only the physical environment but how work is done and what support and services employees require to perform at their best. This is then matched to a deep understanding of the organisation’s long-term, as well as immediate goals, and the underlying resources of the business.

In next month’s article I will cover how do you develop an effective Workplace strategy and the do’s and don’ts of ensuring an error free return to the workplace?

People  I  Place  I  Performance

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