The future of the workplace must be lead by HR

According to research from Leesman, activity based working is on the rise. And indeed, while the trend was initially spearheaded by renowned boundary-pushing brands such as Lego and Google, we’ve recently seen greater numbers of more traditional Professional Services organisations adopting the approach. From Big Four consultancy Deloitte’s Amsterdam-based smart-building, The Edge, to 5 Broadgate, Swiss bank UBS’s headquarters in Liverpool Street, even firms from typically risk-averse sectors are now embracing non-allocated seating.

However, despite this widespread uptake, the approach still receives criticism. Authors such as Inc.com’s Geoffrey James regularly condemn open-space offices, claiming that they make employees unwell, cause political turmoil and decrease productivity. In his articles, James cites an Exeter University study claiming that unassigned office seating can lead to a 15 percent reduction in productivity.

Setting aside the fact that this study was published almost a decade ago and that both workplaces and attitudes have changed since then, the claim is difficult to prove. Economically, productivity is linked to the yield or output of each worker – indeed, the GDP measurement was initially developed during the industrial age when it was logical to calculate prosperity in this way. In a modern office setting however, where businesses sell assets such as services, insights and networks, it’s just too intangible to measure.

So, when claims are made about the negative impact of hot-desking or non-assigned seating on productivity, we have to question how those claims are justified. Arguably, it is far more important to look at the happiness and comfort levels of staff, and ultimately how the space affects their ability to do their jobs.

As these aren’t “hard metrics”, they are difficult to quantify. Employees’ opinions and the way they use their workspaces need to be measured through ongoing observation, feedback and interaction. This is further complicated by the variety in ‘culture of working’ within an organisation and the ability of employees to adapt to changes in work environment.

However, as new technologies such as sensing and visualisation mature, some powerful tools are emerging for businesses to build upon. These solutions are providing managers with incredible insights into how workplaces are really being used. More importantly this technology can prove how effective a workplace change management program has been. This insight can then be used to incrementally optimise the space until the final transformation outcome is fully delivered.

In terms of board attitudes to this change and the use of technology, each business area has unique priorities. The CFO would clearly see the benefits of optimising space (and potentially reducing real estate costs), but would want to hedge risks from a failure by employees to adapt. The CTO would require a ‘locked-down’ technology solution with respect to privacy and security and minimal infrastructure impact. The CEO’s concerns would likely revolve around maximising business output with minimal disruption. Success is thus significantly dependent on delivering the people change and this requires a leadership role from senior HR management.

Adding to this challenge, with evolving employment law and changes to data protection law coming in next May, the burden on HR is increasing. One evolving approach is the creation of a new function, potentially overseen by HR, designed to manage the transformation and management of workspaces – enter the Workplace Services Manager.

There certainly seems to be an emerging need for this role. Some facilities management companies have actually started offering workplace services as an outsourced function to do just this, but we would like to argue that this is a core business function that should not be outsourced. Further, delivering the best work environment and thereby benefitting the wellbeing of employees is a core HR issue. HR will clearly have a stake in this role either in partnership with the Real Estate team or by being directly responsible for it.

The role of Workplace Services will be to manage and sustain change that results in the best workplace experience through the use of technology. But perhaps more crucially, it will be the lynch-pin that joins together all service providers, the Real Estate Team, FM team, IT and HR. This cross functional role will need to be delivered at various levels in the organisation right down to each office location in a large corporation. The skillset required for this role is diverse including being an honest technology evangelist (not just a geeky enthusiast), a good communicator, someone who inspires confidence in others and crucially, someone who is good at planning and implementation.

What’s more, by working with these other business areas, it can take responsibility for monitoring the efficacy of the solution using a total cost of ownership (TCO) model and by measuring the returns it delivers based on savings, productivity increase (if measurable) and employee retention.

Even during ‘business as usual’, having this additional resource will be vital for HR managers, especially during periods of ongoing change, such as office redesign or relocation. It’s at these times when other HR issues such as stress, or pressing administrative tasks such as updating contracts of employment, will come to the fore and demand attention.

The trend for non-allocated seating is undeniably on the rise and if executed in a change managed approach this can deliver significant benefits. Flexibility in design will be a critical factor in evolving a solution that is suitable to the unique needs of the business. Mature technology solutions are available with demonstrable benefits of executing the change. A multi-faceted role of a Workplace Services Manager is going to be hugely important in ensuring new technology adoption is consistently delivered as a change management process. By aligning this role to HR, the final outcome of employee satisfaction will be given the highest priority. With this new resource lead by a combination of HR and Real Estate, businesses can ensure that activity based working is a true success.

About Raj Krishnamurthy

Raj Krishnamurthy is a workplace technology expert and CEO of Workplace Fabric, which designs solutions that transform office user experience whilst helping to lower real estate costs. Its platform Freespace is used by over 10 thousand users globally and is deployed in iconic work environments such as the Willis (Sears) Tower in Chicago, the Gherkin in London and the Century Link Towers in Pudong, Shanghai.

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