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The Value of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Workplace

Smart workplaces are flexible and personalized to attract a high-performing, diverse workforce.

Q4 2018
Traditionally, a company planning to relocate would focus on how to fit people into a workplace. Today, the principles of flexibility and “choose-your-own-adventure” are disrupting decision-making both about a company’s portfolio of workplaces and the design of individual workplace locations. In other words, the focus on choice is evidence that the human experience is becoming a driving factor in design and decisions — especially in those industries that are battling for talent.

As our researchers discovered in JLL’s Workplace — Powered by Human Experience study, happiness is the key ingredient in a unique workplace experience, according to 70 percent of employees globally. Most people are happier and more productive when their office is designed around their needs, rather than around rigid lines of one-size-fits-all “cube farms” or private offices. More than ever, the choose-your-own-adventure workplace can be a critical differentiator that helps attract and retain employees with different needs and preferences — and helps them succeed, too.

In parallel, savvy C-suite executives recognize a direct correlation between a productive workplace and healthy balance sheet. Increasingly, they see that a major driver of productivity is a thoughtfully curated choice of workspaces, fixtures, and furnishings — a catalog of sorts. What is right for each company’s catalog is judged by whether the options advance the business strategy and meet employee expectations. But what is right? What is relevant and high-impact? And what process gives decision-makers certainty?

The dilemma of deciphering between what is relevant and high-impact versus that which is a fad is all too familiar to executives. HR leaders have seen decades-old approaches to employee engagement surveys produce limited insights. Similarly, marketing executives are evolving longstanding methods to develop more meaningful customer insights and understanding of consumer patterns. In both cases, new data is required, as are new modes of analysis and shorter cycles to take action. Collectively, these changes help leaders get smart about employee expectations and the solutions for meeting them.

Workplace Experience
The first step employers can take to get the benefits of a choose-your-own-adventure workplace is to better understand the current workplace experience. Specifically, executives need clear insights about:
  • Who is in the workplace (demographic traits);
  • How they experience each part of the workplace (degree of satisfaction); and
  • What differences arise in the experience of employees with different demographic traits (inclusion).
JOHN WOOSTER is vice president of Consulting at JLL. His experience includes serving as a real estate strategist and change management leader for a multinational healthcare organization and leading organizational development for a highly distributed and mobile workforce. As a workplace strategist at DEGW, Wooster led large-scale workplace projects for the technology, government, and higher education sectors.
For example, a growing number of employees are likely to have disabilities, impairments, and intermittent or temporary needs. On any given day, you might be surprised at how many of your colleagues have a temporary or permanent physical or mental constraint. Most simply make do as best they can with the workplace they have.

You might think that “disability” or “special need” means a person with a wheelchair. The reality is that a need may be less visible and may not be permanent. On any given day, a person might have a short-term condition such as a painful sports injury, stress, or simply a headache. Or, a nursing mother may wish to pump breast milk in a place more appropriate than a crowded storage closet or the restroom.

Needs aren’t limited only to older workers or women of child-bearing age. While aging workers may develop long-term mobility, hearing, or vision limitations, the new generations of workers are more likely than older workers to have autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit disorder, and other less-visible cognitive or mental health disorders. In addition, returning veterans in the workplace may have disabilities unique to their service.

As you can see, understanding employee needs starts with knowing who is in the workplace beyond government-defined demographic groups and those with various other needs. These traits contribute heavily to how employees experience their companies — workplace included. Therefore, it’s imperative for employers to understand the richness and complexity of their workforce. Only then can companies start to more accurately deliver on workplace experiences that result in satisfied, productive, and included employees.

Designing for Choice and Inclusion
The good news is that more companies are going well beyond Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements to create offices that enable people of all needs and abilities to be as productive as possible. Inclusive design doesn’t mean breaking the bank — it means providing flexible, accessible fixtures and furnishings, and providing workspaces suited for a variety of work styles, needs, and preferences. Perhaps most importantly, it entails providing a relevant set of choices and remaining committed to letting employees choose where and how to get work done.

You probably experience inclusive design features every day. It’s not unusual for public buildings to have, for instance, door levers instead of knobs that require a firm grip to twist; flat-panel light switches rather than small toggle switches that require dexterity; overhead and task lighting options; wide interior doors and hallways; and alcoves with generous turning space.

In a broad sense, everyone in the workplace has a need — it’s just a matter of whether it is known and if it is accommodated. Common workplace features that respond to employee needs include:
  • Ergonomic features such as sit/stand desks;
  • Environmental controls for those sensitive to noise, light, heat or cold;
  • Dedicated pumping rooms for nursing mothers, each with a mini-fridge, a power outlet, and a comfortable chair or two; and
  • Gender-neutral bathrooms.
A Few Ways to Deliver Flexibility and Personalization
Designing for inclusion does not necessarily require costly upgrades or radical adjustments in workplace layout. In fact, best practices in modern workplace strategy encompass some naturally inclusive ideas, such as providing different kinds of workspaces for different kinds of work and work styles. A person can simply choose the workspace that is best for them that particular day, rather than a special office set aside for designated people.

Also important, it’s possible to find building and interior design products that promote accessibility with style, at reasonable cost. By combining aesthetic appeal, flexibility, and inclusive design, you can create a workplace that provides a rich human experience for all. Following are some suggestions for foundational workplace aspects that meet the needs of a diverse employee population:
  • Mix up the space offering. Many companies have recognized that people can decide for themselves where they want to work. Forward-looking design is incorporating elements like personal work booths and activity-based work areas, different-sized meeting rooms, informal collaboration zones, and social areas like cafés. A workplace could include huddle rooms, coffee lounges, community patios, and other alternatives to the traditional desk. Strike the balance that best suits your organization’s needs.
  • Flexible furnishings to advance the work. People come in all sizes and shapes, so why shouldn’t your desks? Opt for desks and chairs with adjustable heights and/or that can be moved around easily to create more collaborative space on a whim. Cushioned filing units can double as informal chat chairs. Adjustable monitors and desk height controls create ergonomic comfort for workers of all heights. Sound-absorbing, movable privacy panels can transform an open workspace into a quiet, private spot.
  • Workplace tech that works for you. Nothing invites flexibility as well as connectivity. Video-conferencing, find-your-colleague tools, smart whiteboards, and easy-to-reserve meeting rooms all contribute to a more flexible workspace. And, great workplace technology doesn’t require detailed instructions or a help desk. In JLL’s Workplace — Powered by Human Experience research, 48 percent of employees around the world say their workplace could provide more to help them work effectively. Some companies are recognizing that easy-to-use workplace tools go a long way toward work happiness.
  • Personalization is possible. You probably have a smartphone or smart home device with a built-in “person” who responds to your commands. Today’s building technologies aren’t quite ready to converse, but intelligent workplace technologies are the next frontier for inclusive design. Even now, computer-controlled building systems used in many facilities can automatically adjust temperature and ventilation according to the number of people using an office or the sunlight heating up a room. Some workplaces now provide mobile apps that employees can use to preset their preferred lighting levels, temperature, and even the window blinds to personalize their workspace.
Consciously Make Progress
As you get started providing a choose-your-own-adventure workplace, remember to put your employees at the center, understand who is occupying the workplace, and learn about their needs. Once you do that, the series of workplace decisions become easier. When the human experience is first and foremost in your workplace strategy, inclusive design comes naturally — and creates an environment that is just right for everyone.
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