29/11/2010

By Tim Oldman, Leesman

The role of the “workplace” is changing. It is no longer realistic to approach the design of the “office” as a two-dimensional problem combined simply of people and space. With technology advancements slowly but surely cutting the tethers that have previously defined from where employees can contribute, a new cross-generational nomadic employee is challenging the established protocols and will look to savvy business heads to back them.

And the UK is in danger of lagging behind in the best thinking. Increasing numbers of European employees do not consider that they even need to be in an office setting to be productive, with up to 60% suggesting that they would choose positions with a lower remuneration if the position had greater leniency and flexibility on the choice of where they worked. So forget “work” as a place you go. It is a thing you do.

So can a lethargic un-inventive British business landscape cope with what a post-recessional recovery might bring? What shape will the most inventive and responsive real-estate structures take and who will be the key players in defining that landscape? The workplace designer, or the dynamic business leader, willing to challenge the sausage machine tried and tested design proposal? And why are the leading class examples cropping up first across in mainland Europe?

As has been the way for perhaps a decade, the Dutch are seen by many as some five years ahead of the majority of British business in creating structures and systems that allow their staff to work more flexibly.

Here, the impact of the economic slowdown is evident in very many property strategy reports, but our own research amongst 262 businesses showed that 71% positively supported the notion of the corporate workplace as “a strategic asset in the development of the organisation”, suggesting that the majority of businesses value the contribution of the workplace in supporting organisational development. But do business heads really see workplace as an asset?

Businesses are quite obviously looking at ways to reduce expenditure on office space. 58% of businesses reported that they were actively trying to reduce the office space they use, by increasing workplace densities. But compressing occupant densities and or dispersing teams with remote or flexible working strategies brings with it new challenges in terms of infrastructure, workspace design and management style. Increasingly, managers will have to shift from traditional “supervision” relationships to those foundationed in “trust”.

It is generally accepted that this displacement will continue, giving birth to a new breed of corporate workplace environments where there is considerably greater need for spaces to capture a heightened sense of spirit and act as brand beacons, not just to customers, but also to their nomadic staff. These spaces will need to engender collaboration and interaction in hugely greater proportions and will require a dramatic increase in the collection of spaces that support these activities.

So why now do so few businesses seek to understand how to measure their performance in these respects and focus then, on where they can do better? This is not about bean-counting “total cost of occupancy” austerity measures, it is about understanding that a happier, more satisfied employee is a more engaged employee. And that a more engaged employee will give greater discretionary effort, take fewer hooky duvet days, be less likely to hop off to a better offer elsewhere and is, above all else, more likely to be a considerably more productive employee. Ker-ching. A happy satisfied employee is a more profitable employee!

Design of good workplace environments is a creative, innovation agenda, managed by skilled and experienced right-brain practitioners. But an age of austerity calls for a new champion with greater left-brain wiring, who is focussed on how to optimise the satisfaction and engagement of the occupiers of workplace. X-box lounges and giant beanbags may appeal to some, but the vast majority want a workplace that simply allows them to realise their true potential.


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