Wake-up call for the Workplace

Richard Shaw, director at GenNorth
X The Business Desk

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By Richard Shaw, Director at GenNorth.

We have a once in a generation opportunity to make a real difference to the way in which we work. The Covid pandemic and the associated lockdowns have confirmed that people no longer need to be tied to their offices to be effective, which has been liberating for individuals and a wake-up call for many employers.

Research by Gallup suggest that eighty percent of employees are not engaged or are actively disengaged at work, which costs businesses and the wider economy vast sums in lost productivity annually. More optimistically, the research also shows that engaged employees are more likely to say their workplace helps them be productive and that when people feel supported at work they’re more likely to thrive in terms of their wellbeing. They are also less likely to report feeling stressed or worried.

It is clear that none of us know what this will ultimately mean for the future of offices in our towns and cities though there are a raft of commentators speculating about how this will play out, largely through the lens of their own business risks and opportunities. What doesn’t seem to be making the headlines is ‘how?’: how will organisations get from the current situation as we emerge from lockdown to a steady future state, which is predictable and can be used as a basis to drive productivity in offices, homes and benefit place making more generally.

The opportunity to increase productivity, collaboration and employee retention through a move to more flexible working practices is very real but needs to be balanced against the importance of visible leadership, face-to-face engagement, coaching and serendipitous conversation. It is clear that, at present, it is much more likely to take place in an office environment.

There have been a number of announcements from organisations making decisions about future office space based on simple metrics such as a ratio of eight desk for every 10 employees, which sends a message of financially based decision making. Others have essentially formalised the current arrangements where people are working flexibly, largely from home. However, what is actually needed is a re-think about the basic questions of ‘what?’, ‘how?’ and ‘where?’ we work. The most effective results will be delivered through a bottom upwards process that recognises the answer will be different for different people and teams. Only once that has been completed and assessed against an organisation’s purpose should the requirements be translated to its office footprint.

To do this, organisation’s should engage with staff, from the most junior to the most senior. Managers and management will learn that this will enrich their in-depth understanding, and possibly throw up a few positive surprises along the way. The process will help them to understand the activities they do, first at an individual level then at a team level. This can then be overlaid at departmental level to develop a picture of the way each team works, allowing an organisation to consider how to redesign the workflow and workplace to maximise efficiency, productivity and collaboration. This will mean that the business will be able to come to an aggregated position, helping to achieve efficiency and employee happiness.

Different teams are likely to perform different tasks and therefore require a different footprint generally, depending on a range of factors such as workload, deadlines and utilisation. This approach will bring colleagues along on the journey and promote buy-in and loyalty which is particularly important as we all return to work and re-assess our careers and lifestyle priorities.

So, taking each of the questions in turn:

What?
What tasks do individuals do in a typical day, week and month and what does the business need to do to support them, recognising the need for a level of flexibility? The answers to these questions can then be aggregated across a team and then department to get a clear picture of what activities are undertaken, which can then be reviewed using LEAN principles to drive out waste in the process and also to seek opportunities to cluster types of activities based on the amount of business support and collaboration needed.

How?
Each of the clusters of activities can then be assessed against the level of business support, specific facilities, engagement with others internally and externally and also the equipment and technology required to how each cluster of activity will need to be undertaken.

Where?
The rich data gained from a clear understanding of the ‘What’ and the ‘How’ can then be reviewed in discussion with teams to assess where each cluster of activities can be undertaken, which can then be mapped against a typical month to develop a clear plan. For example, this might indicate that a finance department may need to work collaboratively in the office with colleagues one or two days a week but four days in the last week of each month whereas a different department might find that some of its teams need to be together much of the week but others only occasionally. In addition, an alternative portfolio model such as a number of smaller, high quality serviced offices might be a more appropriate solution.

Through this approach, organisations can develop a much more comprehensive understanding of the work that they do on a day-to-day basis and can properly support their colleagues whilst maximising alignment with their purpose and goals. Whilst such an approach is clearly time consuming and requires a comprehensive plan, the opportunity to engage the workforce, bring them along the journey and drive a positive culture, should not be underestimated.

Once the exercise is completed across all of its departments and teams, the organisation will have a comprehensive and robust understanding of its workplace requirements in terms of occupancy and activities. This can then be used to inform portfolio strategy, workplace design and policy along with wider considerations such as driving a reduction in carbon footprint and improving employee wellbeing wherever they happen to be working.

In a world where people have spent a lot of time at home with the opportunity to consider their future careers combined with an aggressive recruitment environment as public and private sector organisation alike are seeking to grow in order to cope with unprecedented levels of market activity, the need to focus on employee wellbeing and accelerate the change in working practices has never been more important. It is time to seize the opportunity to create a workplace legacy and realise competitive advantage for your organisation.

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