Quality not Quantity - Workplace Change Organisation

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Quality not Quantity:
Should Workplace Strategy focus on
Effectiveness rather than Efficiency?
Occasional Paper 1
January 2012, v7.2
Prepared by
Nigel Oseland (WCO) and John Anderson (PeopleCube)
The Workplace Consulting Organisation
© Workplace Consulting Organisation 2012
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One of the fundamental roles of the workplace consultant is to develop
workplace strategies, defined as:
“The dynamic alignment of an organisation’s work patterns with the
work environment to enable peak performance and reduce costs” 1
But is the current emphasis on reducing costs eclipsing the ability to
provide a work environment that enables peak performance?
The experience of many members of the
Workplace Consulting Organisation
(WCO)2 is that the predominant
consideration for workplace strategy is
reducing the amount of space that an
organisation occupies and the associated
property costs, with little or no
consideration of business performance
or lasting effectiveness. The main focus
of the property industry appears to be
on the efficiency (quantity) of the
workplace at the expense of its
effectiveness (quality). Organisations
have been driving for greater efficiency for many years but the economic
downturn has accentuated the focus on savings. The WCO is concerned that this
approach to the design and management of the workplace may be neither
sustainable nor beneficial to the occupying business in the long term.
Nine of the UK’s leading workplace consultants, all active members of the WCO,
attended a workshop to discuss these concerns. The participants debated a
number of related topics:
How do clients measure the success of their workplace?
 how do the core measures of success drive the focus of the workplace
strategy and subsequent design?
What are the current trends in workplace design and planning?
 which new trends in workplace design, furniture, architecture and
technology influence the focus of the workplace strategy?
What are the true objectives of flexible (agile) working?
 is flexible working about culture change, work-life balance and enhancing
performance or simply about reducing cost?
Could flexible working negatively affect performance and a sense of
 is flexible working adopted with an understanding of the impact on staff
and business performance?
Savage A.E. (2005) Workplace strategy: What it is and why you should care? Journal of Corporate
Real Estate, 7 (3). See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Workplace_strategy
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What are the next big drivers for workplace strategy and design?
 how will technological, sociological, economical and political changes affect
workplace strategy and workplace design of the future?
Measuring workplace success
Understanding how clients measure the success of their workplace creates an
insight into the key driver for workplace strategy. The challenge lies in the fact
that often workplace success is measured in relation to a specific workplace
project rather than part of an on-going process. The metrics are often therefore
specific to the project, rather than relating to the impact on a business-as-usual
“Two common measures of success specific to workplace projects are programme
and budget” (GB). An old business adage is “you can’t manage what you can’t
measure”3 but perhaps in practice “there is an inclination to measure the things
that are easiest and most accessible yet are often the least relevant to the
business” (PA). The group concluded that “a key role of the workplace consultant
is to demonstrate the benefits to the client and project team of taking into
account wider workforce issues rather than simply focusing on the measures
relating to the delivery of a project” (GB), which is traditionally the domain of the
In terms of measuring the resulting benefits of workplace projects “the two
metrics most often referred to are cost and productivity, but as productivity
cannot be easily quantified it simply leaves cost as the sole measure of success”
(JE). Even in the knowledge economy, where people are an organisations’ biggest
asset, there appear to be limited attempts to make an evaluation of the impact of
the workplace on their workforce. Whilst it is reasonable for a workplace
consultant to be asked to prove the impact of the workplace on performance, it
seems incongruous for an organisation to ask such a task of the consultant
without them providing their own embedded metrics of business performance
that can be monitored alongside modifications to the workplace.
“Effectiveness is about better business and efficiency is about cutting cost, indeed
efficiency is about turning people into labour units” (RH). In office design, the
natural conclusion is therefore to focus on cost alone, which can ultimately result
in increasing the density of people accommodated in the building. In contrast, in
the retail industry, measuring the productivity (sales) per square metre rather
than the cost per square metre is the norm.
Furthermore, “as the workspace accounts for only 10-15% of any organisation’s
overhead; it would make more sense to improve the productivity of the people
who account for say 85% of the overhead to generate savings” (RH). Although
the amount of wasted space can be significant, for some organisations the
associated cost may be relatively insignificant in terms of the cost to the overall
business. Careful attention should therefore be given to creating a more
productive environment rather than simply reducing the space used.
Drucker P. (1993) The Practice of Management (Reissue Edition). New York: Harper Business.
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Figure 1 Business costs4
One key question is whether the original concept of flexible working has been
hijacked by the drive to reduce space or whether, as originally intended, it
enhances individual and business performance, providing the choice of how and
when to work that is appropriate to the task. Workplace strategists often find that
space is only utilised for 50% of the time and therefore propose flexible working,
including desk-sharing, to reduce the amount of under-utilised real estate.
Flexible working strategies (also referred to as agile, alternative, mobile or new
ways of working5) are also grounded in the benefits for individuals and for
organisational performance that are not related to space, such as control over
when and where to work, increased autonomy, enhanced interaction and culture
change. However utilisation is becoming a more common metric that tends to be
used to inform the workplace project rather than measure post-project success.
Workplace design and planning trends
The type of work carried out in offices and daily work activities have changed
over the last couple of decades, mostly due to advances in technology but also
through changes in the market economy. For example, technology has automated
repetitive processes resulting in more of a focus on interpretation and a faster
service. It has also changed the way we interact with each other and present
information, and it has enabled us to stay connected even when we work away
from the office. The economic landscape has witnessed a push to globalisation
and off-shoring of services. Following the migration from a manufacturing to a
service-based economy, we are now gradually moving towards a creative and
innovative economy.
Nevertheless, despite economic and technological change, it seems that
workplace design has not advanced at the same rate. “desk-based working styles
have not fundamentally changed in 100 years” (BS). Of course, the workplace
has seen some changes over the last 10-15 years. This includes in some sectors,
a decrease in private and multi-person offices, but an increase in the variety of
work-settings, such as quiet rooms, meeting rooms and breakout areas, providing
privacy and enhanced collaboration as and when required.
CABE/BCO (2005) The Impact of Office Design on Business Performance. London: BCO.
Burt K. et al (2010) Making Flexible Working Work. London: British Council for Offices.
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More recently there has been an
“interesting trend in using furniture to
create private spaces” (BS) through semienclosure and high backed chairs. Whilst
it is laudable to provide more private and
adaptable spaces, is this a means of
creating visual privacy at the expense of
acoustic privacy? These settings do not
connect directly with the building as
traditional partitioning would do, making
them more cost-effective to operate and
adaptable for future modification to the layout of the space, supporting the “build
a stage, not a set”6 principle.
During the workshop, the participating WCO consultants agreed that the majority
of workplace projects are currently about space reduction because of
rationalisation and consolidation of the organisation. Whilst it was thought that
organisations are occupying less space, in general it was perceived that the
quality of workspace was improving. The current observation is that “the amount
of space per workstation has stabilised, but desk-sharing has been introduced to
decrease the amount of space per person” (MW). This is often referred to as the
dynamic density, i.e. space per person, whilst static density is the space allocated
per workstation.
Implementing flexible working is not a panacea as not every office worker has the
freedom to work flexibly, either because of their role, their management or their
personal circumstances. The reason it is proposed as a core component of many
workplace strategies is the ability to improve employee interaction and support a
culture change in the business, as well as redefining how people work. However,
the truth is that flexible working is usually implemented because it is fundamental
to increasing desk utilisation and the dynamic density, and thus reducing space.
The group observed that in places where flexible working is being introduced the
“people accept desk-sharing in the current climate of uncertainty even if they feel
uncomfortable with the concept” (GB). In contrast, “for many it still seems quite
radical not to work at a desk ... people still like to have their own real estate at
work, a real psychological need to own space” (BS). The group also agreed that
despite the stereotypes of the new generation of workers, most prefer ownership
of their desk. This need may be a pre-conception based on territorial behaviour
and habitualisation. After all we don’t feel the same need to indefinitely own a
hotel room or a library space so we should consider these perceived differences
and work with the occupants to overcome them.
The need for personalisation is a separate issue. Desks can be personalised
without ownership and vice versa, but the people perceive ownership and
personalisation as synonymous. Shared spaces can work but they have to be well
designed and promote shared ownership, a sense of belonging and a variety of
settings that support work activities and entice people to use them.
Many organisations still appear to be focused on the quantity rather than the
quality of work (CW). Flexible working ultimately comes down to trust and
responsibility; if managers do not trust their staff to work or if the staff lack
responsibility then it will fail regardless of the design and technology. In
particular, implementing flexible working meets resistance from middle managers
who manage by presenteeism rather than delivering agreed outputs, referred to
Edson J. (2011) Three tips for designing a work space that embodies your brand. Design, Nov 30.
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as the Results Orientated Work Environment (ROWE) 7. Even if the all the factors
are in place to favour a change in work style, the transition requires a substantial
change management programme to ensure success.
The workplace of the future
With concerns over hyper-efficient layout, what will the workplace of the future
primarily be used for and what might it look like? Will the current trend for agile
working with desk-sharing and remote-working continue? Will the office as we
know it become redundant?
New technologies at the turn of the 20th century (typewriter, phone and
dictaphone) were instrumental in the adoption of large open plan offices laid out
with rows of desks. Ironically modern technology, over the last fifteen years or
so, has enabled the shift to flexible working. “Technology first tethered us to the
desk but now it enables mobility” (MW). The new wave of mobile technology, in
particular tablets with their intuitive interface, is having the biggest impact on
how we work and use space. “We are seeing the humanisation of technology …
tablets are the future” (CW).
Some of the group thought that sitting at a desk using a tablet does not “feel
comfortable”. Accessories have been developed to accommodate the desk to fit
the tablet, for example extendable arms. But is this missing the point? This type
of technology encourages work in alternative work-settings thereby liberating the
user from a workstation.
In the world of flexible working enabled by technology, the corporate landscape is
changing. The risks are “a loss of cultural glue” (GB), lack of loyalty, a decrease
in interaction and collaboration, or reduced mentoring of new members of the
team. Of course new technologies enable new ways of interacting. “People can
socialise and feel a strong sense of belonging through on-line social media
networks, especially generation Y” (CW). However, the group also recognised that
“face to face interaction is extremely important” (KKS) and there is a need to
“build attractive spaces that entice people back into the office” (BS). Maybe these
spaces will have a different objective to the traditional office, just as facets of the
way resources are used may change. In the future it is likely that individuals will
bring their own technology to the workplace, rather than relying on employers to
supply it.
The key question comes down to “what is
work” (BS). For example, attending
conferences, reading in a breakout space
or networking with colleagues are just a
few examples of work which are not easily
tracked or identified as such when it
comes to assessing spatial needs. Tracking
software, which measures PC processing
time, or jelly beans i.e. presence
indicators8, are the modern Panopticon,
which allows all to be observed, but is this
information valuable in assessing how the
workplace should work?
Ressler C, and Thompson J. (2008) Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: The Results-Only
Revolution. New York: Penguin.
Ross P. (2011) Jelly bean working. Worktech’11 North, Salford, June.
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We also need to be cognisant of technological determinism. “Just because we can
be mobile doesn’t mean we need to be … we must recognise the diversity of
workers and businesses. The discussion around technology in the workplace tends
to be focused on what is available and how it can be integrated, rather than what
is required to enhance how we do things. Organisations are about people, process
(systems) and place … technology should be the cultural glue to reconnect
people” (RH).
Perhaps “office design should take a lead from Apple stores which revolutionised
the retail environment … Apple’s bold step to create a radically different
environment, in terms of 'quality' and 'functionality' of the space, was a huge
success resulting in better sales and customer loyalty etc.” (CW). The new Apple
stores also appear to encourage exploration and play and the WCO workshop
participants discussed the “idea of work as play, and the workplace as the
corporate playground” (GB). For example, “the Play Ethic9 philosophy could be
used in defining the workplace of the future” (MW). One simple viewpoint is that
the workplace “is all about making people happy” (BS) where a happy worker is a
productive worker. Interestingly the idea of measuring Gross National Happiness
as an alternative to GDP dates back to Bhutan in 1972 and year after year is
being adopted by more nations as a serious metric of “wealth”.
The participating consultants agreed that the workplace of the future will be a
place of hospitality, networking and learning. It also seems sensible that the
workplace offers real choice, and that choice is about enhancing happiness,
collaboration, performance, and loyalty. For some workers their choice will be to
carry out process work in isolation, for others it will be about creative
collaboration through virtual networks. The workplace (including technology) can
only facilitate work and occasionally be a catalyst for change, but alone it cannot
change our work processes, our attitude to work, or the way we work.
The real workplace client
Within a workplace project there are many stakeholders, for example the
leadership team and heads of business, the project and operational teams (HR,
IT, FM), and the individual end-users. Ordinarily the property, FM or project
management team engage a workplace consultant to establish the brief for a new
workplace. The objective of these teams is to deliver on time, within budget and
to save on property build and operational costs. It is therefore no wonder that,
for the majority of workplace consultants commissioned by property teams or
project managers, the success of the workplace is measured using property or
project related metrics.
The objectives of the property and FM team tend to be connected to short terms
goals that are related to the ring-fenced nature of delivering the workplace
project. Improving business performance is the responsibility of the heads of
business. They will most likely aim to achieve this through organisational factors
such as motivation, management and marketing. The workplace should be an
intrinsic factor to an organisations’ ability to function effectively. Increasingly the
role of the workplace consultant is to integrate those objectives as part of the
measures of success of the project, to include cultural change, increased
interaction and collaboration, and enhanced performance.
Kane P. (2004) The Play Ethic: A Manifesto for a Different Way of Living. Macmillan.
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If productivity is considered, in its most simple terms, as the ratio of output to
input then reducing the cost base
without affecting performance can be
considered a contribution to productivity
The collective assessment of the WCO
workshop attendees was that most
organisations do not monitor how the
workplace is supporting the organisation
on an on-going basis. If the objective of
the property and FM teams is to improve
business performance, rather than cut
costs, then workplace design might take
quite a different direction to the
homogenous large floor plate open-plan layouts we see in many of today’s
Workplace strategy should consider the workplace to be a facilitator, perhaps a
catalyst, for change and for creating better organisational function and business
performance. Organisational improvements are seen as the realm of the
management or business consultant whereas workplace planning and design is
the realm of architect or interior designer. The workplace consultant bridges the
gap. A key role for workplace consultants is therefore not just mentoring the
property and FM teams but also integrating their goals, and the objectives of the
workplace, with those of the business.
Using allusive business metrics, such as business performance, and convincing
the project team to adopt them as success factors in workplace strategy is a big
challenge for workplace consultants. It is part of our role as is testing how new
workplaces, new design and new initiatives are providing benefit to the business.
To begin with, this can be partly achieved through post occupancy evaluation and
benefits realisation studies to determine whether “peak performance” (quality,
effectiveness) as well as “reduced costs” (quantity, efficiency) was achieved.
The original intent of the landscaped
office (Bürolandschaft) and agile
working practices was to enhance
performance whilst reducing costs. It is
just that the latter is easier to do and
easier to measure. The modern office
with its range of shared work-settings
needs to be well-managed as well as
well-designed; fortunately a range of
proprietary tools are available to ease
the management. The people also need
to be trained in how to use the new
space, be shown what is culturally acceptable through management example, and
be convinced that their new working environment is appropriate for their work
activities though effective change management.
The core role of the workplace consultant is to understand the business,
determine its workplace needs for now and the future, challenge the perceived
requirements, develop innovative workplace solutions, and brief the designer and
project team in order to realise them. Creating the appropriate “quality” of space
as well as recommending the required “quantity” should be the underlying goal of
all of those involved in developing and managing the workplace.
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We are grateful to the workshop participants for their time and input:
Peter Andrew, DEGW
CS Claire Sellick (facilitator)
GB Geraldine Bear, MCM
BS Brian Szpakowski, Broadway Malyan
JW John Weaver (host), PeopleCube
Joanna Eley, Alexi Marmot Associates
RH Rob Harris, Ramidus Consulting
CW Conrad Wildsmith, Turner & Townsend
KKS Katrina Kostic Samen, KKS
MW Melanie Woolcott, Aedas
NO Nigel Oseland, Workplace Unlimited
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