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A Waste of Space?

15 October 2005

Studies show that office space is not being used efficiently and it often does not meet the needs of the business. Jane Fenwick talks to Lydia Ney and Jacqui Harrington about an approach that looks at both design and behaviour to identify the solution

ESTIMATES SUGGEST THAT ABOUT 15 MILLION people work in offices. All businesses have them but not many recognise their importance to business effectiveness. As the repositories of equipment, technology, information, corporate knowledge and culture and people, offices can become out of step with the organisations they serve. A joint study by the Commission for Architecture, the Built Environment (CABE) and the British Council of Offices has been commissioned to investigate the position, because as BCO President Paul Morrel explained, “It is surprising how slow we have been to realise that the ‘factory’ of the modern economy is the office building, and how little attention has been paid to seeing whether we have the right ‘plant and machinery’ for those who work in offices to do their best stuff.”

‘Poorly designed offices could be costing British business up to £135bn a year’ headlined more research published recently, this time from architects, Gensler. These Four Walls: The Real British Office argued that a better workplace could make the nation up to 20 per cent more productive than it is today. This finding arose from its survey of middle and senior managers in legal, financial services and media sectors and concluded that a better working environment would increase employee productivity by19 per cent and the managers’ own productivity by 17 per cent.

The Work Foundation’s findings on productivity in the UK in Cracking the Performance Code shows that the added value the top third of companies outperform the bottom two-thirds by £1,600 per worker per annum. Put another way, if just 10 per cent of the UK’s lowest performing companies moved to the performance levels of the top third in the UK, the UK’s productivity growth rate would increase by 0.25 per cent per annum.

Add to this ‘soup’ of conclusions the spiralling growth of mobility driven by technological advances, improved networking and more complex organisations, it is little wonder that the fixed connection, fixed location, single solution workspace is becoming out of step with the need for a more fluid and mobile working environment.

This is a conclusion also reached by BDGWorkfutures’ Lydia Ney and business psychologist, Jacqui Harrington of HHR Associates. It prompted a different approach that concentrates on not just changing the workplace setting but also addressing the behavioural changes needed to make the working environment succeed.

“We both feel strongly that a trick is being missed. Although you can change the surroundings, you can’t always change the behaviour,” explained Ney. “When a project is set up to redesign a building it is often initiated by the property and FM team and it rarely encompasses people who understand the business and HR issues. We now find that some corporates are looking more holistically at their property portfolio and how this is allied to their business. As their businesses are changing all the time, there is a much wider recognition of the need to make property work effectively for them, and engage with their people on how to work effectively. It is not just about asking if they are ‘happy’ or ‘productive’ but asking what makes people ‘effective’.

Harrington continued: “Most programmes in the property world involve a facilities management change process that manages change logistically based around the physical environment itself – giving people places to sit, installing furniture and IT, etc. But the minute you make a change in an organisation it also has an impact on the individual and effects a change in behaviours.”

She argues that it is necessary to give as much attention to managing the change in behaviours as to the change in facilities. This is the process employed by Impactz, the framework developed by Ney and Harrington to measure the psychological impact of a working environment on business effectiveness. In the first instance they examine the business objectives of the organisation. “We look at the KPIs and ask what the organisation is expecting to achieve out of the project, and then we question if their culture will support this,” they said. “We then measure through questionnaires, focus groups and work style analysis highlighting where they are now, observe how people do their jobs, and what is the management style, culture and values of the organisation. Clients can then manage the risk of the project through optimising effectiveness and agility. We don’t just concentrate on the physical environment.”

Ney emphasised that working ‘effectively’ is in part a result of the working environment, in part derived from the work process and in part arises from the management structure. “If one of these is missing you are not leveraging the best return from your property assets,” she said.

They both stressed how an holistic approach requires a continuous assessment of the relevance of the workspace to the business need. “If you change the culture of the physical environment which is effectively what the designer does, then you must also adjust, realign or change the culture of the organisation. Concluded Harrington, “Alternative office concepts that designers deliver make huge promises but they also need behavioural adaptations because they are so different. Physical space is ‘emotional’. A key to success also involves changing the mindset, making sure systems are based on trust, the culture is open to new practices, and communications are improved.”

Working closely with PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Ney and Harrington have been able to put these ideas into practice. The award winning refurbished office of PwC in Birmingham city centre (see PFM November 2004) delivered just what the organisation wanted. A more open plan environment across the organisation and at all levels ensured that what had once been separate activities could develop connected thinking to work across ‘lines of service ‘to generate new business opportunities. Within the first year, PwC suggested a £10m increase in business revenue arising from this strategy.

Clearly the project from a business perspective was a success, but by looking more closely using Impactz techniques, Ney and Harrington identifed areas that had not benefited as much as others. Some tax teams found that they needed to work together closely and benefited less than others from the new hotelling and cross lines of working culture. A simple solution was found by amending the space booking systems to enable more proximity working for these teams.

Some alternative workspaces were observed to work better than others and understanding why revealed some simple and obvious solutions. Booths provided for touch down working had proved to be more popular than open tables in the same area. The reason – the booths had power and data points and the tables did not, and people said they felt more comfortable in the more ‘enclosed’ space.

None of these issues required any physical design changes. Their importance lies in understanding the behavioural impact on the people using the environment to work. Ney and Harrington’s observations have been fed directly into PwC’s latest facility in Uxbridge at an early stage in the design.


● Lydia Ney is Director at BDGWorkfutures and Jacqui Harrington, Business Psychologist at HHR Associates. Jacqui is speaking at the CoreNet Global UK conference in London on 17th November on Psychology in the Workplace.

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