One of the biggest movements in real estate right now is the rise of agile or flexible workplaces. Introducing increasing levels of flexibility into the workplace is directly tied to reduced space requirements and (ideally) increased productivity. The productivity piece is almost impossible to prove or disprove. But the reduced space is a very easy measure.
The biggest complaint about flexible workplaces is that it is all about controlling the employee’s day. Having a sensor at every desk screams “big brother” to employees. Who wants a device that reports on whether they are at a desk?
That’s the opposite of what is actually occurring. Most flexible workplace programs with sensors generate less intrusive data that badge swipes. Unless individuals are required to check into a desk to use it, sensors don’t actually tag data to the individual. All the sensor does is report on whether a space is in use – a simple true/false status. It’s the opposite of control.
Controllable workplaces, those that have named seat assignments or require a check-in, can provide extreme amounts of workplace data. But even with increased data, very little of it can help you do anything more than knowing whether an employee was in the office or not. This level of data (which is most prevalent in traditional offices, not agile workplaces) can get personal quickly without any actual benefit.
Agile workplaces provide flexibility with very little control. In fact, control often goes directly against the concept of flexibility. The more control you have on how space must be used, the more different types of dedicated spaces you must provide.
The Holy Grail of real estate strategy is developing a way to tie your real estate and workplace design directly to operational productivity. In so many ways, it is obvious that the design of a workplace has a direct impact on productivity:
- If space is in the wrong geography, you can’t hire the people you need.
- If space doesn’t include the basics needed to do the job, the job doesn’t get done.
- If people feel unsafe or unwelcome in the office, they don’t do great work.
- If people feel uncomfortable, they don’t do great work.
- If there aren’t enough seats, it is difficult for people to work together.
- If there are too many seats of the wrong type, you can change the culture.
It’s easy to see how the workplace can impact culture. But the challenge is in separating the impact of the workplace from the myriad of other variables that influence the equation:
- Corporate culture and its alignment with the workplace.
- IT and technology to support productivity.
- Collaboration and the ability to work with the people you need to work with.
- Shifts in the business or commercial opportunities.
- Business product maturity and changes in the sales cycle.
You quickly get into a correlation/causation debate on what caused the impacts. Over the past decade, I have come to the conclusion that it is quite impossible to directly measure the impact of the workplace on business productivity. What you can do is determine if the workplace is having a positive or negative net impact on productivity. You can tell this by surveying the users and understanding what is and is not working for them. Compare their scores from before and after a change.
What you cannot do is tie actual business improvements or declines to the workplace. The only thing you can count as a direct contributor is the cost reduction/increase of a space to the net costs of the business and its impact on operating costs. Outside of that, be wary of anyone who says you can do more.
[Editor’s Note: I hate the term Millenials so I use Gen Y to help avoid many of the common mental stereotypes that exist around the term.]
Everyone in the CRE space is familiar with the sensation of seeing articles talking about how Gen Y are changing the way work is done. They don’t like to go to offices, they don’t work from 9 to 5, they text instead of calling, they prefer social media to email. The tropes are many.
I get very frustrated reading this because it’s not a Gen Y thing, it’s a technology thing. Smartphones and internet connections on the go make it convenient to work whenever and where ever necessary. Social media platforms are a better communication platform than email. Text messages are more convenient than phone calls. This isn’t something that is true for just Gen Y – Baby Boomers and Gen X operate the same way when introduced to these tools.
Is it true that Gen Y has adopted these tech tools faster than others? Of course, they started using it as early as elementary school in many cases. It takes time for others to learn about it and time for developers to make the tools enterprise friendly. It takes even longer for organizations to figure out how to push it out and get unfamiliar employees comfortable with it.
This isn’t a generational battle, it’s a technological revolution. Don’t confuse the two.
At the end of the day, workplace supports business operations. It’s the place where employees perform the tasks that keep the company operational and earn the company revenues. Done well and everything is a well-oiled machine, done poorly and activities can grind to a halt.
Operations that are running smoothly often perform like a well-practiced orchestra. Everyone knows their cues without needing to reference the conductor. One Action 1 happens, Action 2 immediately follows. When Action 2 is complete, Process 3 kicks in. From Process 3, Report A and B are immediately generated. There’s a tempo to everything that happens that allows for an expected outcome.
When everyone is not on the same page, Action 2 may complete without Process 3 kicking in. Only when a downstream manager yells loudly enough does that process kick in. That could be 30 mins, 2 days or 2 weeks later than it should have. That time delay is the proof of an organization out of sync.
Workplace plays a critical role in how all of this comes about. When people are comfortable in their environment they are more likely to be proactive. Discomfort leads people to worry about themselves and their personal situation ahead of other considerations. Similarly, a well-constructed workplace provides opportunities for people to more easily work together on getting to the outcomes of each step. Whether this is through an open-plan design or through a more traditional office is completely separate from everything else.
Whether this is through an open-plan design or through a more traditional office is completely separate from everything else. It’s simply that the workplace must support the operation. Some companies have built nimble operations that can adapt to any type of environment whereas other companies are much more structured to a single way of working.
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.
I was in a workshop recently where the word neighborhood was used a lot. The context was the workplace and how to promote cross-team collaboration. The solution our workplace partner had given us were neighborhoods.
There is nothing particularly unique about thinking of the workplace as a series of adjoined neighborhoods. This thinking goes back a long way and doesn’t even need to be tied in with a modern, open workplan. What got me really thinking about it though was the discussion of it from a colleague perspective and not just a seat layout. The workplace as neighborhood allows for us to think differently about how people work within an office.
I’m going to own up that I’m a bit behind on the most recent thinking on this topic so it’s possible that many in the industry and sitting there laughing about how far behind I am. But I’m guessing there is a large group that, like me, may not have been exposed to this yet. So for their (and my own) benefit I’m going to keep going.
The beauty of neighborhoods (geographically speaking) is that they don’t have firm edges. Maybe today they are bounded by a particular street but the reality is that tomorrow the neighborhood may have crossed over culturally. Neighborhoods are collective groups of people that are located together geographically which causes them to experience many shared events, allowing them to think in similar patterns. Some neighborhoods are big and diverse. Others are small and personal.
In the workplace, the exact same is true. Some groups of coworkers will grow and include 20 or more people that enjoy a shared drink after work every week with an interchanging group of people that are as much socially connected as professionally. Other neighborhoods may only be 2 people that happen to keep the systems on and running and their introverted natures keep them from branching out into something bigger.
Setting up the workplace to encourage soft boundaries that are easily crossed and easily can quickly and efficiently promote a one team mentality. This serves to more readily allow people from different groups to work directly together but also to allow the many micro-cultures in the office to move closer to a single norm.
I’ve been involved in a few workplace transformation projects in my career and all of them (without exception) begin with managers saying that it will never work for their team. “Sure, in principle, it could work for everyone else, but my team is different. We are all in the office every day, we’re already collaborative and changing how we do things will cost the company money.”
Whether managers intentionally don’t know the habits of their team or simply misunderstand how the work gets done, I’ve never encountered an initial meeting that went any other way. Even project sponsors and champions will fall back on the theory for their own “small” teams. It is an infallible rule of the workplace.
I’ve come to believe that most of this thinking comes down to incentives and expectations (don’t most things in life?). If a manager says that half of their team works from home 3 days a week yet there isn’t a work from home policy they could get in trouble from their bosses above them. If they delegate so much that they themselves work from home 4 days a week and don’t actually know how things happen in the office you get the same effect. Similarly, many teams may disguise their work patterns because they don’t want their boss to realize how often they work from places other than the office.
Much of it can also come down to the office safety net. Many people believe that as long as they have a desk with pictures of their family, pets, and vacations they have job security. Surely it is easier to lay off someone who isn’t assigned to a desk than someone who has a permanent seat? By keeping all the seats (regardless of impact on performance) they are protecting their people.
What they refuse to realize until after it is all said and done is that new workplaces often support teams better and create more flexibility. They don’t realize that refusing to participate comes off like they are going against corporate strategy (what real estate group drives through a workplace transformation without executive blessing?).