Workspace is not all about desk space

Jun 7, 2017 | Articles, Practice - Digital, Practice - Strategy

By Brickendon Principal Consultant Jonathan Pell

What do UBS, Macquarie Bank, National Australia Bank, Google, Microsoft, KPMG and Ernst & Young all have in common? Yes, they are all global organisations, but more importantly, they have all embraced, and are advocates of, flexible and activity-based working.

In today’s environment where budgets are being squeezed by rising real estate prices and many organisations are finding themselves with more staff than they have desks, firms are looking for alternative ways of managing their work space. Activity-based working is one of those.

Unlike traditional working styles, where each employee has their own desk and returns to that same location every day, activity-based working is based on the premise that no employee ‘owns’ or has an assigned workstation. Instead, the broader workspace provides employees with a variety of predetermined activity areas that allow them to conduct specific tasks, including learning, focussing, collaborating and socialising. Advocates estimate that adopting this flexible approach to working can reduce costs by as much as 30 per cent, particularly in areas where real estate costs are high.

Activity-based working allows employees to work both independently and as part of a team anywhere and at any time. Like all forms of flexible working it empowers the employee to produce the results expected of them, but also requires a sense of trust between the employer and employee. Advocates believe that as well as saving money on office space, activity-based working also increases collaboration between colleagues and encourages creativity and innovation.

It is however not something that works for everyone, and often depends on the individual employee and also what sort of work they are involved in.

As a result, there is no one-size-fits all model, but in order for activity-based working to be a success, firms need to provide appropriate space – quiet areas for individual work and break-out areas for group discussions – all with adequate digital access and connectivity. Firms also need to provide adjustable ergonomic workstations throughout the office to prevent staff laying claim to particular desks for health reasons and laptops, so staff can take appropriate software with them when they move around. It is also advisable to ensure there is ample touch-down space to cope with peak demand when all staff are in the office at the same time. That is, places where people can connect their laptops to work for short periods, such as touchdown bars or informal meeting or refreshment areas.

Furthermore, for any type of flexible working to be a success, cultural change is needed and must be accepted at the highest levels of the organisation. There needs to be an increased focus on technology as reminders, or other such notes, will need to be sent electronically and screens must never be left open and unattended to ensure client confidentiality.

Firms will have to adopt a clear desk policy, offering lockers to store belongings and help avoid piles of files or papers being left lying around. Advocates claim such a move increases efficiency as staff accept the discipline of returning files to team storage areas and ensuring they are accessible to all. Moreover, shared libraries of reference materials have the benefit of reducing duplication and preventing personal silos of information. 

Conversely, there is, of course, also a downside to flexible and activity-based working, such as fear of the unknown and worries over loss of status, personal space and identity. There are always individuals who will pay lip service to the programme, but won’t follow the flexible working protocols.

Managers also need to consider how much time employees might waste trying to find the person they want to talk to if individuals are always in different locations, what damage could be done to team spirit and collegiality through physical separation and how much time employees would waste setting up their workstation each day?

Furthermore, the issue of confidentiality needs to be considered for staff that work outside the office, perhaps in a shared space open to others looking over their shoulder or listening in to conversations, and also the risk that an employee working somewhere else may become out-of-sight, out-of-mind, and so miss out on important information or opportunities.

It is fair to say that after the initial thrill of being able to work from anywhere subsides, mundane issues such as not carting paper files around and not having to clear your desk every night, may leave some staff keen to re-colonise a fixed desk.

Flexible working also brings up the issue of trust between the employer and employee. It can be hard to measure output and people don’t like being constantly monitored.

There may also be a generational issue. Some people are more comfortable with this type of work set up than others. For many, not being tied to the same desk day in day out helps improve the work-life balance significantly, while others may feel they have lost the sense of belonging and security that having a set desk, or work home, provides. The suggestion of a potential indirect age discrimination claim is not made wholly in jest.

To ensure success in any change programme, relevant stakeholders need to be engaged to create a shared need. Commitment needs to be mobilised and action initiated amongst employees of all rank, with correct behaviours, systems and symbols being introduced to ensure all change is consistent, effective and clearly communicated to all concerned.

In short, to be successful, flexible working needs to be embraced to the full and encouraged throughout the business. The result could be not only a happy, contented, productive workforce, but also lower overheads. Now is the time to change.

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