What Has Changed In Workplace Strategies?

In a fifth biennial global benchmarking study, “once alternative” workplace strategies were examined with insights from more than 130 organizations.

By Cathy Hayward

The last decade has been one of the most pivotal in the transformation of the workplace. So it’s no surprise that the Fifth Biennial Global Benchmarking Study, which was first conducted 10 years ago, revealed some dramatic changes in how and where people work.

‘The Once’ Alternative Workplace Strategies Report, presented at this year’s World Workplace conference in Charlotte, NC, revealed a substantial shift in the motivations for, and measurements of, workplace change projects. Ten years ago, the drivers were primarily financial — organizations wanting to introduce agile or activity-based working programs in order to sweat their real estate asset and save money. Cost savings dominated the conversation and were the prime measurement of success.workplace

But now people impacts — increasing productivity and collaboration, attraction and retention of staff, employee satisfaction, well-being and work/life balance — are both the key drivers and success criteria, although cost savings remain a key goal.

The ebb and flow of workplace change drivers generally reflect market conditions, Chris Hood, director of consulting at Advanced Workplace Associates, and one of the founders of the research, told the World Workplace audience. “In a downwards economy, people drivers take a back seat to hard-core business drivers. As the economy improves and labor markets tighten, the focus returns to people.”

It’s good to see the trend toward more human-centric measures of success, agreed Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, who presented the research alongside Hood and Dr. Gabor Nagy, research program manager at Haworth. “I believe this is an indication that organizations are taking a less-siloed and more holistic approach to workplace change. They are realizing that workplaces and work practices that work for people are good for the bottom line.”

But there was a troubling gap between the drivers behind workplace projects and how they are measured. Somewhat paradoxically, while employee productivity is the top driver (cited by 64% of respondents), less than a third of respondents (30%) use it as measure of success. Employee assessments of productivity are typically subjective and not very useful, said Hood. Instead employee satisfaction with the workplace program was the top measurement, followed by employee engagement and cost reduction. With the proliferation of software, big data, sensors, and other innovations designed to measure productivity through access to commonly-available business data, this could well change by the time of the next survey in 2019.

The research also revealed some areas for concern. Ten years ago, sustainability was a serious driver for workplace projects, cited by 25% of respondents. Now it’s mentioned by just 2%. “Does this mean that people have sustainability under control and it’s simply the way they do business, or is this something we should be worried about?” asked Hood.

What was equally interesting is what hasn’t changed in 10 years. Nearly half (48%) of employees are still permanently assigned to one desk, which is only 5% lower than in 2009. Separating people from their desks has clearly proved to be more challenging than many workplace strategists thought a decade ago. And external mobility, including working at home, in co-working places, and outside of the office, which strategists believed would increase dramatically with technology advancements, has remained flat.

Internal staircase with cafes on either landing has encouraged cross-business interaction like never before at Willis Towers Watson. (Photo: Advanced Workplace Associates)

Instead more people are coming to the office but as internally-mobile employees, using a variety of different spaces to work depending on their task at hand. Internal mobility has more than doubled since 2009, from 9% in 2009 to 21% in 2017. Partly this is due to advances in technology including ubiquitous WiFi and cloud-based storage. But organizations are increasingly aware of the power of bringing people together in one place, but with a recognition that mobility and remote working is now a way of life. With fewer people in the office at any given time, the research shows that organizations are opting for smaller desk numbers and employing unassigned and social spaces to accommodate mobile and remote workers when they are present. The steady increase in on-site flexible and public spaces may also indicate a move toward an internalization of the co-working concept and a move toward more activity-based working.

In previous years, the research revealed serious concerns from management that remote employees would be less productive. That worry has clearly been overcome. Only 5% of respondents indicated lower productivity among alternative working participants. Instead the problem has turned full circle and is now overworking. More than half (56%) indicated a concern about employees working more hours when they work remotely, typically in lieu of commuting time. The fact that it has risen to the top in this year’s analysis may relate to a general increase of focus on people factors echoed throughout the report.

That emphasis on people perhaps goes some way to explaining the move towards a more holistic approach to workplace change projects where corporate real estate, FM, HR and IT work together.

While RE/ FM led the alternative workplace programs in a third (33%) of cases, in a quarter it was led by HR (24%), while the executive leadership team run it in 11% of cases. Other departments mentioned included sales, administration, engineering/ design, operations/ production and IT. This cross-functional endorsement has increased significantly compared to previous years with the silos between RE, FM, HR and IT being broken down.

Despite the proliferation of alternative workplace programs — 91% of the 142 companies which completed the survey had some sort of alternative workplace program — there remain barriers to implementation. Organizational culture, including entitlement and trust, is the biggest concern (59%) followed by manager concerns (57%), fear of change (56%), and executive buy-in (52%). Lesser, but still significant barriers, included staff concerns over losing assigned seat/location, lack of IT infrastructure/support, staff concerns over loss of contact with manager/others, security concerns and lack of expertise to implement a program.

Overall this research demonstrates that while the potential for cost savings might kickstart an alternative workplace program, along the way leaders see how making the workplace better for people can deliver far more than they thought. It will be interesting to see how external and internal mobility changes in the next iteration of the research. But what is unlikely to change is that organizations that want to thrive must create workplaces and work practices that support the work people are doing, regardless of where they are.

workplaceHayward is managing director of Magenta Associates, the built environment communication specialists. To download a free copy of the report, visit the Advanced Workplace Associates website.



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