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HR in the Space Age

13 August 2008

To attract and retain your people and sustain their morale in a dowturn, it could pay to invest in your workspace. HR professionals are recognising the value of new workstyles that are changing the shape of the modern workforce, as Martin Atkinson explains

THE PRESSURE ON BUDGETS IS RELENTLESS, and maintaining a happy, loyal workforce does not come cheap. After personnel, the company’s property is its most expensive asset, and it is often overlooked in terms of its impact on working styles, morale and productivity. Without doubt, companies that invest in their workspace are indirectly investing in their staff. More emphasis is being placed on employee wellbeing as a differentiator for recruitment of staff at all levels.

Any significant shift in working practices and culture must be driven from and supported by the top of the organisation. The savviest directors and managers are recognising that drivers such as advances in technology and changes in corporate policy (including reducing a company’s carbon footprint) are changing the way people are working.

Major trends such as open plan spaces, hotdesking, remote working and an emphasis on output instead of hours worked, mean it is time to re-consider the fundamental physical needs of staff and the facilities required to support them. Instead of blowing the budget on motivational training and expensive incentive schemes, the key to improved productivity could be hidden amongst the desks and clutter on the office floor.

Until recently, the link between physical environment and employee behaviour was largely underestimated. But as the rigid boundaries of the workplace gradually break down, the opportunity to take a closer look at how office design can impact on mood and attitude has led to some dramatic findings.

According to The Work Foundation, 85 per cent of UK office staff feels that their working environment inhibits creativity, and a further 25 per cent have serious complaints about various office environment factors. Poor lighting, overcrowding, isolation, and a lack of privacy or storage are some of the common complaints, resulting in reduced enthusiasm and inefficient workflow.

Over the next two years, it is predicted that most major corporations will establish a workspace strategy to incorporate more flexible ways of working and advances in technology. The most successful will draw on expertise from both HR and FM to develop environments that compliment working styles, encourage interaction, improve productivity and represent a truly forward-thinking organisation.

The first step to achieving this lies in understanding that the modern workspace now extends far beyond the corporate real estate. A good example are the greater of women are returning to work after having children than previously. According to ‘Corporate Mothers’, by 2010, one in five workers will be mothers, and many of these will be part-time and working from home.

Advances in technology mean many employers are expecting staff to be flexible in working from any business location necessary in the course of their role. This is catalysed by the advent of wireless connectivity and the decreasing costs of laptops and other devices enabling emails to be checked at the airport or on the train. The challenge is to deliver both the technology to allow for flexibility whilst providing the right mix of workspaces to drive collaboration and a sense of belonging.

Instead of rewarding promotion with a better desk and larger office, now a laptop and a ‘Blackberry’ allow for freedom to work outside the confines of the building, whilst saving valuable square feet. Not only does this contribute to the work/life balance but it can also realise some significant savings through the release of space and a rebate on rent, or income from a sub-let.

Removal of dedicated desk space and moving to remote working may be a smarter way of making facilities savings but it also makes the provision of meeting points even more crucial to support professional or social networking needs.

A well planned and designed office embraces the open plan benefits of increased occupancy, but also provides a range of meeting, collaborative and quiet areas so that staff have a mix of spaces that fit the dynamics of their workload as it changes throughout their working day. For example, employees need a convenient, informal place within their employer’s building to chat and share thoughts. The sense of
community and cross-pollination of ideas will boost morale and steer creativity and is well worth the price of installing communal seating and a coffee machine.

As well as the more strategic designs, cosmetic changes to improve company image can help enormously in generating a sense of company pride and attracting upper quartile staff. For example, using lighting that will flood the area with daylight levels where actual daylight is not available, is proven to make a significant impact on mood and productivity. A light and clean workspace is key to the attraction, retention and indeed the productivity of the staff that work within it.

A perfect example of how HR and FM managers can work together to mutually benefit staff and maximise use of space comes from Skandia UK, a financial services provider based in Southampton. Following a take-over by Old Mutual in 2006, this organisation altered its very traditional structure, becoming more streamlined with a shared services infrastructure. It became obvious that Skandia’s portfolio of three buildings needed a re-stack to improve workflow and adjacencies as well as the general environment. Through interviews with human resources and other business unit heads, the FM team established existing and forecast headcounts, space and furniture requirements. Each floor was then designed to work specifically for occupants in terms of functional layout. A new space and furniture policy was devised to allocate space by function and not status, and new, shared areas were created away from workstations.

Surveys conducted after changes were made showed a significant improvement in morale, with employees feeling that Skandia is investing in them. Output has increased and sickness levels have reduced significantly. Occupancy densities have been increased to sub 100 square feet per person, but the staff perceives that they have more space than they had before.

Of course, cost is always an issue, and at a time when purse strings are being pulled tighter than ever, an office overhaul might seem like a non-essential expense. But the evidence speaks for itself. Badly designed and managed workspaces can result in low morale, high attrition and reduced productivity – all ultimately impacting the bottom line.

For those organisations that choose to dedicate a budget to a workspace strategy that continues to monitor the business, the technology and the social networking needs of the employees, the rewards will be a business fit for purpose, fit for the future and with a financial performance to be envied.

● Martin Atkinson, Managing Director, PiMS Workspace


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