The nature of work is changing rapidly, and the workplace must adapt to keep pace. Technology allows knowledge workers to work anywhere at any time, improving their productivity while enhancing mobility both within and outside the office. In the office, employees can be freed from a static, dedicated space, thanks to technologies such as Voice over IP, wireless phones, and wireless computer networks. This allows them to seamlessly move from workstations to team rooms to private offices to café settings - wherever their work takes them within the office. In addition, these technologies allow employees to be productive when outside of the office setting as well, including at locations such as client sites, home, the local coffee shop, while traveling, etc.
Changes in the nature of work allow office environments to be managed as "on-demand" resources, with rooms and workstations allocated by reservation or on a first-come, first-served basis. The on-demand approach is often part of Workplace Strategy (WS) solutions. Although technology enables these environments, Workplace Strategy should be defined more broadly as a process of leveraging traditional office environments to enable more innovative and flexible workplace practices, settings, and locations for work to take place. The process must take technology-driven changes into account, but other considerations - sustainability, aesthetic appeal, and adaptability - are also integral to the process.
For corporate real estate managers, the direct benefits of WS include reducing per-employee occupancy costs and enhancing space flexibility to react to sudden swings in headcount. Some companies may be able to save money by reducing their overall space usage and shedding unnecessary space. In other cases, WS improves space utilization and provides options for increasing employee density in the future without acquiring additional space.
Even more significant than the direct real estate benefits are the potential benefits to the overall company, including increased productivity, greater opportunities for team collaboration, and an enhanced ability to attract and retain talented employees. More than two thirds of corporate real estate (CRE) managers surveyed by Jones Lang LaSalle in 2005 said their companies are concerned about an impending shortage of knowledge workers. A non-traditional office environment may appeal to younger workers accustomed to cell phones, text messaging, and working on laptops in crowded coffee shops. The freedom to work remotely also appeals to older professionals who can reply to e-mails from their kids' soccer games.
Resistance Is Common
Despite the benefits of WS, the introduction of change may initially be unsettling to both employees and managers. Even at companies where the value of WS is recognized, selling the concept and progressing to its implementation can pose challenges.
CRE managers who have driven WS initiatives involving open-plan work environments, telecommuting, flextime, and on-demand space options report that objections about distractions and loss of privacy are common. For example, some employees insist that privacy is critical to their operations. But after further exploration, it may become apparent that they are expressing a personal desire rather than a true business requirement. It may also mean that providing a more varied set of space options, including individual privacy rooms throughout the space, can fulfill employee needs. Other common objections are from business unit managers who raise concerns about the upfront technology costs of WS, fear of lost productivity, as well as a personal sense of lost control when employees work in remote locations.
Most obstacles can be overcome with thorough planning and expert execution. Methods for getting buy-in more easily include:
• Aligning the WS program with the business goals: For example, if a business unit leader's goal is to reduce costs, WS can be structured to produce savings in the intermediate or even short term. If the mission is to foster greater collaboration among business lines, open-plan environments and team rooms should be emphasized.
• Recognizing IT and HR as key partners: The human resources and information technology departments have as much of a stake as the corporate real estate group in achieving a successful WS program. All three groups must recognize the benefits and agree on strategy at every step. Disconnects among these three groups may ultimately weaken the potential benefits.
• Ensuring that WS initiatives are realistic and suitable for a particular organization: CRE managers must understand how people work before a more productive environment can be created for them. Interviews with business unit leaders, employee surveys, focus groups, and direct observation of employees are among the methods of collecting information on work patterns and space usage that will point to optimal solutions.
• Coming to the table with meaningful data: A realistic analysis of the costs and projected savings can be a powerful tool in demonstrating the need for and potential benefits of a WS initiative. It is important to present a strong business case.
• Adapting to specific needs: Gathering and analyzing information helps ensure that all issues are addressed. For example, one company recognized that one of its business lines dealt with confidential government contracts frequently. Therefore, CRE managers adapted the open plan to section off that unit from the rest, while enabling collaboration within the unit. A consulting firm, which has implemented a desk reservation system for all employees, allows those who are in the office every day to establish standing, long-term reservations that allow them to work at the same desk without interruption. A consumer product company recognized that not all job functions lend themselves to telework, so the company requires employees to apply to enroll in the mobility program and reviews their performance annually. Creative ideas led to new solutions that helped these programs gain acceptance and produce positive results.
• Getting personal about the benefits of workplace strategies: Workers at all levels need to understand not only what they are giving up, but also what they are gaining. A well-conceived program enhances individuals' ability to be more productive in the office, at home, and on the road. To the extent that a program involves newer furniture systems or allows more natural light to enter the space, it may result in a more aesthetically pleasing work environment. Whether it is a new wireless laptop, superior client meeting facilities, more teaming areas, or the flexibility to work from outside the employee's primary office, it is important to highlight the personal benefits.
• Continually refining the WS program: After a program is implemented, employees and managers should receive surveys to provide feedback on what elements are working and which require refinement. In phased programs, lessons learned from initial phases can be invaluable in enhancing later phases. Positive feedback should be reinforced and disseminated throughout the company, so that employees who might be resistant to change are persuaded of WS benefits.