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Is efficiency effective?

31 March 2012

Nigel Oseland, WCO (Workplace Consultants Organisation) Chair, and John Weaver of PeopleCube share the insights of nine leading workplace consultants examining the tension between the need to reduce real estate cost and creating a work environment that enables building users to maximise the performance of the organisation.

The experience of many members of the WCO is that increasing the efficiency (that is the quantitative measures) of the workplace is determining its effectiveness (qualitative measures). The economic downturn has accentuated this focus leaving many to wonder if the constraints placed on the design and management of the workplace are sustainable for the occupying business in the long term.

Measuring workplace success
How businesses measure the success of their workplace will be the key driver for workplace strategy. Often workplace success is measured in relation to a specific workplace project with metrics that do not relate to the impact of the project on business performance.

“Two common measures of success are programme and budget” (GB). “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 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).

“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 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. Is there an opportunity to galvanise the various stakeholders in a workplace project, business leaders, facilities and property managers and workplace consultants to develop an applicable office productivity metric?

Even in the knowledge economy, where people are an organisation’s biggest asset, there appear to be limited attempts to make an evaluation of the impact of the workplace on the workforce. The group concluded that “wider recognition is needed to consider wider workforce issues rather than simply focusing on the measures relating to the delivery of a project” (GB).

“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.

Workplace design and planning trends
The type of work undertaken in offices has changed over the last couple of decades, mostly due to advances in technology, but also because of changes in the market economy. Technology has automated repetitive processes, liberated individuals from working in one location and changed the way we interact with each other and present information. The workplace has changed to reflect this new type of work; a decrease in private and multi-person offices, balanced by an increase in shared work-settings, such as quiet rooms, meeting rooms and breakout areas. However workplace setting design has not advanced at the same rate. “desk-based working styles have not fundamentally changed in 100 years” (BS).

Flexible working strategies (also referred to as agile, alternative, mobile or new ways of working ) are often formulated to enhance individual and organisational performance enabling control over when and where to work, increased autonomy, enhanced interaction and culture change.

The majority of workplace projects are currently about space reduction because of rationalisation and consolidation of the organisation. Has the original concept of flexible working been hijacked or is its application still to enhance individual and business performance, providing options to work how and when is appropriate to the task?

“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.

Flexible working can meet resistance from middle managers who manage by presenteeism rather than delivering agreed outputs, referred to as the Results Orientated Work Environment (ROWE). Even if all the factors are in place to favour a change in work style, the transition requires a substantial change management programme to ensure success. “Many organisations still appear to be focused on the quantity rather than the quality of work” (CW).

The group considered that “many 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.

The need for personalisation is a separate issue. Ownership and personalisation are sometimes perceived as synonymous. Shared spaces can work but they have to be well-designed, have a sense of belonging, support different work activities and entice people to use them.

Recent trends in workspace design include “using furniture to create private spaces” (BS) through semi-enclosure and high backed chairs. These settings create visual but not acoustic privacy 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” principle familiar in more dynamic organisations.

The workplace of the future
What will the workplace of the future 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 were instrumental in the adoption of large open plan offices just as recent developments have 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). Accessories have been developed to accommodate the desk to fit the tablet, but is this missing the point?

In the world of flexible working, the corporate landscape is changing. The risks are “a loss of cultural glue” (GB), yet 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). “Face to face interaction is extremely important” (KS) 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.

The key question comes down to “what is work” (BW). Tracking software, which measures PC processing time, or jelly beans i.e. presence indicators , are the modern Panopticon, which allows all to be observed, but is this information valuable in assessing how the workplace should work? Attending conferences, reading in a breakout space or networking with colleagues are some examples of work which are not easily identified as such when it comes to assessing spatial needs.

We should 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).

“Office design could 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.” (CW). The new Apple stores 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 Ethic 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. Some workers may choose to carry out process work in isolation, whilst others work in collaboration through virtual networks. The workplace (including technology) can only facilitate work and occasionally be a catalyst for change, but alone it cannot change work processes, attitude to work, or the way work is done.

The real workplace client
Within a workplace project there are many stakeholders, the leadership team and heads of business, the project and operational teams (HR, IT, FM), and the individual end-users. The objectives are to deliver on time, within budget and to save on property build and operational costs. It is therefore no wonder that, the success of the workplace is measured using property or project related metrics.

Improving business performance is the responsibility of the heads of business. The workplace should be an intrinsic factor in an organisations’ ability to function effectively. There is an opportunity for FMs, with workplace consultants, to support the integration of those objectives as part of the measures of success of the project, to include cultural change, increased interaction and collaboration, and enhanced performance.

The modern office with its range of shared work-settings needs to provide the appropriate “quality” of space as well as providing the required “quantity.” If productivity is considered as the ratio of output to input, then reducing the cost base without affecting performance is without doubt a contribution to productivity. The collective assessment of the discussion was that those involved in developing and managing the workplace should be working together to embed business metrics, such as business performance, in the workplace project success factors.

Workshop participants
PA Peter Andrew, Director of Strategy DEGW
CS Claire Sellick (facilitator)
GB Geraldine Bear, Head of Workplace MCM Architecture
BS Brian Szpakowski, Associate Director, Broadway Malyan
JE Joanna Eley, Director, Alexi Marmot Associates
JW John Weaver (host), Manager, PeopleCube
RH Rob Harris, Principal, Ramidus Consulting
CW Conrad Wildsmith, Workplace Consultant, Turner & Townsend
KS Katrina Kostic Samen, Managing Partner, KKS
MW Melanie Woolcott, Projects Director, Aedas
NO Nigel Oseland, workplace strategist, Workplace Unlimited

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