One thing that I’ve seen over and over in my career is that few people actually realize the ways their workplace is used across the business. It’s not uncommon for a real estate group to have a complete misconception of the day-to-day reality of a site they are about to run a project in. This isn’t to say they are operating without asking first but it’s just as common that managers at the site don’t realize it either.
Most of our perceptions about how an office is used come from anecdotal information. We experience a shortage of conference rooms on the occasions that we go looking for them or we think things are too loud because we do a lot of heads down work. It also comes from hearing about things that are going on – but the things people usually share are bad events. Most anecdotes around the office are the negatives.
The day-to-day reality of most offices is that everything runs smoothly. There’s usually enough desks for everyone. Most people can get a conference room when they need it. Most people make use of the work areas to be productive. The biggest risk in a workplace change is breaking the culture.
How does one actually learn how the workplace really works? The basic blocking and tackling that occurs in any other group: asking people. Surveys on how offices are used go a long way and systems to track usage data around desks/conference rooms/equipment. Blocking and tackling is most of the job in most areas and it’s just as true in real estate.
The biggest difference between real estate and other areas is that a workplace design isn’t going to change much from when it is implemented. That design is going to be in place for anywhere from 5 to 10 to 20 years depending on wear-and-tear. Planning too much around today can actually be a bad thing because the primary requirement of an office space is to be useful for years to come.
The mighty smartphone currently rules all information gathering mediums. I much prefer to read the news on my phone versus my computer. I strongly prefer facebook on my phone versus a computer. About the only thing I prefer a computer for is for writing and video.
Too often people confuse a larger screen with the ability to cram more information in. Check out cnn.com. On a desktop, it shows three columns of news with four distinct sections and an enormous headline. On mobile, it’s simply a vertical stream of news you can scroll past. Your brain doesn’t need to sort through the information format.
I played trombone in jazz bands through college. I wasn’t great but I was serviceable. But I learned an invaluable (if cliched) design principle during those many years: value the white space. If you fill every single moment up with sound there is no place for the mind to stop and appreciate what it just heard.
You don’t have to cram as much information as possible into people’s faces just because the screen size supports it. How often have you seen PowerPoint presentations where someone decided to decrease the font size on the text so that they wouldn’t have to edit it to identify the real key points? Editing is about ensuring that the person reading is given the ability to absorb and process. If you focus only on absorption, you quickly overwhelm your reader.
Simply because you now have a 65″ television screen doesn’t mean that you should start including more information into the scene. A clean landscape view actually has MORE power on a larger screen because you can understand the scale and depth much better. Simple should always triumph overcomplicated.
Are you letting simple win?
There is a lot of technology in this world that tries to get you to do things its way. You know the systems – the ones that talk about how you don’t need to customize or configure them and in 90 days you’ll achieve millions in operational savings. Let’s call them “Miracle Systems.”
Miracle Systems can almost always be spotted with one easy test: they promise tremendous value with a very short implementation window.
They usually start with a statement about how they have been designed by industry leaders that understand the process better than anyone ever has before. They’ve done the hard work of building your requirements in so that you don’t need any changes for them to implement quickly.
Here’s the secret: no technology will ever work unless you do the hard work first of understanding your processes and ensuring you can fit the technology into your workflow.
Most technology fails because users don’t use it correctly or at all. It’s usually not intentional neglect either. If a user is required to submit a monthly report to the COO showing the change in square footage but the new system doesn’t allow them to track the change in square footage, you likely aren’t going to get good adoption of the system. If the CFO requires a specific NPV calculation to be used by the new system doesn’t run it correctly, the analysis will likely happen outside of the system.
90 days is never enough time to implement any new process. It takes 90 days just to understand the current process. It can take a year to implement a new one. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
I’ve worked in real estate for over a decade now. Every single year I have been in this industry I come across some new and novel approach to defining real estate’s impact on employee productivity. It’s always worth a laugh to me to see various workplace vendors trying to give a productivity increase number associated with sit/stand desks or collaborative areas. There’s simply no studies or numbers that can prove or disprove this effect while also accounting for all other variables. It’s just not possible.
Yet every year someone new takes a crack at it. It only makes sense. If you can be the one that cracks the code for proving the impact of real estate and workplace on employee productivity, you would be in line for millions of dollars of new business and global acclaim. If you can absolutely prove that your desk designs improve productivity by 10%, companies would be falling all over themselves to implement it.
But alas, that’s not how this world works. Productivity is such a nebulous and changing concept that has different definitions for every single employee in the company. What improves one person’s productivity may kill another’s.
What does this mean to you? Carefully question anyone that claims that can improve your productivity through workplace changes. It may happen, it may not – but it will likely never be proven. All you can really do is focus on making a workplace flexible enough to meet the needs of many different types of employees while also aligning the workplace with company culture. If you can achieve these two things, productivity should follow. Just be careful thinking you can prove it.
There’s a principle in decision theory called MECE – Mutually Exclusive and Collectively Exhaustive. It essentially says that when you define your decision criteria that shouldn’t overlap and they should include everything you are going to base your decision on.
For example, you shouldn’t leave finance out of your decision list because “it will take care of itself.” Finance is part of 99% of all major decisions and so should be included. Similarly, finance should only exist in one part of the criteria and not exist in multiple places. You shouldn’t have Total NPV as a criterion and then the cost of a single piece of software in another. You are double-counting the software in that instance.
This is a difficult principle to wrap our heads around, particularly if you’ve never encountered it before. Putting all of our HR related issues into one box and finance related issues into another seems like we are separating topics that go in hand. You can’t have a project that expands workforce without also increasing costs.
The goal of MECE is to enable us to understand the trade-offs that exist when we make decisions. Expanding workforce may be good but is the decision ranking offset by the incremental increase in costs? Without understanding our independent thoughts on additional capacity versus added costs we can’t score that trade-off.
At the same time, if our criteria overlap and include combined topics we’ll never have a clean evaluation framework for making our decision. The goal of decision theory is to assist in making quantitatively supported decisions. A decision framework that doesn’t provide clean scores will naturally keep us in the qualitative realm.
There are certainly problems with MECE. The first being that it isn’t always possible to separate criteria completely. To use a baseball analogy, if you value players that hit homeruns but also players that drive in and score runs you are double counting since a homerun always leads to both an rbi and run as a result. It is very difficult to separate criteria without going down to valuing player specific attributes such as bat speed and reaction time – the data for which is either not available or difficult to work with.
Designing an office plan is one of the most difficult things to do in support of a business. Every group works differently, has different technology or privacy needs, wants different levels of collaboration space, cares about the creative nature of the space, or simply wants to sit next to the people they work with the most.
The fact is, designing the ideal workplace is nearly impossible. In reality, the best you can hope for is to design a workplace focused around flexibility so that occupants have the ability to control their productivity themselves. And that is the biggest win possible – when you enable people to find their own productivity sweet spot you will improve the average productivity of the office considerably.
Designs that focus on getting everyone to the same average productivity may improve the bottom end but it will cap the top end productivity of your superstar employees. Typically a fixed workplace limits collaboration more than any other item which is the area that allows for exponential productivity increases. If you uncap the potential of your top producers you will find greater net business improvement even if it means some of the poorer performers self-limit themselves through bad decisions.
The self-limiters are also now going to have nowhere to hide because their productivity is their own to control. A flexible workplace gives no excuses to anyone to not be at least at average productivity. When there is no place to hide, the best rise to the top.
There is a lot of anger and dissatisfaction in the working world toward open plan offices. For those not up on what open plan is, it is the office design with no private offices, workstations that have half-panels so that you can see through the entire floor and often it features unassigned seating. The common dislike of it is that it usually leads to a louder office that isn’t conducive to heads down work that requires a lot of concentration. Many also argue that it leads to too much idle chatter and lazing about the office since there is nothing separating you from your neighbor.
In defense of this design style, I always point out that no workplace design/strategy can work without an accompanying change in management philosophies around how work gets done. No one who does 10 hours of heads down programming should be forced to sit around people who talk on the phone all day in an open workstation. But at the same time, there is no reason to give that person a quiet, private office because their work is being performed in isolation. They should be enabled to work from home or from another quiet venue of their choice that supports their style of work. A private office is expensive, especially when everyone thinks they need one.
The biggest problem then becomes managers who refuse to let people work away from the office. There continues to be a management belief that you can only manage people that are right in front of you. My manager sits in England so I can personally attest that you don’t have to be present together daily for productivity. Yes, some people don’t work well from home because of their home environment or they don’t feel comfortable not being at the office. The open plan office can make accommodations to grant more secluded areas for work and that should be accounted for.
Additionally, there is a cultural change period that occurs when people first move to the open plan environment. It takes time for cultural norms to develop in a given office to understand when you can start a general conversation with those around you, whether you can take conference calls from just anywhere, whether parts of the office become dubbed “quiet zone,” etc. These norms eventually develop and give everyone an opportunity to work in ways that make them most comfortable.
Open offices also promote more collaboration. When I say collaboration, I don’t mean conversations. I mean that these offices encourage you to sit around people you are working with so that the simple 10 second questions can be asked when they occur that lead to quicker resolutions and solutions that would happen via email, text, phone or other indirect communications. Also, as the people you are working with change you can change your location to be around the new people that you are beginning to work with. Simply being around people encourages everyone to know each other better across small interactions ultimately making a team more familiar and comfortable with working with each other.
There are clear and obvious trade-offs of course. No single office design is perfect. Different organizations will always have different needs. The designs implemented for each should be individually tailored. But the concept itself is good, it just takes work to get right and to perform well within.
Isn’t that true of almost everything in life though?