There’s been much written about workplace design in recent years, often contradictory and usually too simplistic. Our industry seems to spend too much time thinking about ‘how it looks’ rather than investing time and effort examining ‘how it works’ and figuring out what real-world problems need to be solved.
Delivering a great outcome requires a sophisticated process linking strategy, design and change, where the first step is to develop an ‘aspirational brief’ capturing five key areas:
- What is the business trying to achieve?
- What is the desired organisational culture in order for the business to grow?
- What experience do we need to create for staff and customers?
- How can we use an analytical evidence-based approach to inform decision making?
- How can new thinking and trends transform the nature of work in the business?
Importantly, there’s a need to view the project through a change management lens at the earliest possible stage. Once the strategy is agreed, we can move on to the detailed ‘functional brief’, where the requirements of each team can be challenged and defined prior to detailed design work commencing.
Looking a little more deeply into business aspiration, we are all certainly familiar with the ‘battle of the buzzwords’ that is common in workplace commentary.
We’ll try and simplify things in this article, starting with two terms that are often conflated: ‘agile work’ is the first, which shouldn’t be confused with ‘agile workplace’. One is the act, the other is the place.
‘Agile work’ is a product-development methodology. Formalised around 2001 by software developers frustrated with top-down approaches to projects, agile work promotes interactions, collaboration and speed of response. Agile teams are self-organising, cross-functional and often collaborate directly with their clients. This ensures that skills and perspectives fluidly enter and exit projects in response to changing project needs.
‘Agile workplace’ is a workplace design methodology. Typically, it has three components:
- An assumption that designing an ‘open-plan’ office will lead to better collaboration and communication.
- Self-organising teams who use all the available spaces in the office, allowing staff to sit wherever they need or want to be effective.
- The adoption of mobile technology – smartphones, lightweight notebooks, cloud computing, Wi-Fi, and messaging apps that enable staff to work from anywhere.
On the face of it, the agile workplace seems like a win-win: it is lower cost as it enables more people to flexibly work in less space; and it ideally improves performance as it enables collaboration and communication. Unfortunately, this can be an illusion when executed incorrectly.
" While having people sit together in an open-plan area might seem perfect for collaborative working, poor implementation can actually harm communication, collaboration, concentration, continuous learning and trust – the very things we were trying to achieve in the first place! "
Why? Teams can be noisy, which distracts the rest of the office, hindering concentration and cognitive ability. Being overly dependent on digital connectivity and the social pressure to be quiet prevents deep social connectedness and lowers interpersonal trust. And furthermore, open-plan distractions and hyper-fast digital connectivity prevent reflection and learning, and decrease the possibility of continuous improvement.
These contradictions and ambiguities can have significant consequences. Harvard Business Review reports that open-plan increases email usage by 67 per cent and decreases face-to-face interactions by 73 per cent – anathema to good agile work. Forbes suggests that open-plan can incur a ‘15-per-cent productivity tax’. In reality, most so-called agile workplaces are a shallow ‘work swamp’, with endless emails and messages, pointless meetings, interruptions by colleagues and a hotbed of workplace gossip.
Many of us are getting in earlier and working later just to get some work done, and in some extreme cases, not showing up in the office at all. In spite of all the scientific evidence, these increasing hours are seen as evidence of productivity and commitment, rather than drowning in shallow unproductive work that swamps us.
To be clear, we aren’t suggesting an abandonment of agile work; it is poor implementations that we take issue with, not the concept itself.
A variant of this thinking is called ‘activity-based working’ (ABW). With ABW, the big idea is that we can work wherever we need to be, working with whoever we need to be with, whenever a task needs to be accomplished.
An effective ABW design provides a greater variety of spaces that enable multiple work modes. Desks are provided on a free-address basis and staff members are encouraged to work anywhere that makes sense – especially in other team neighbourhoods.
The benefit is a dissolving of silos between business units leading to more spontaneous interactions and decision making. Unfortunately, too few organisations are worrying about these important factors. The war for talent has resulted in organisations focussing on aesthetic workplaces (how it looks) that try to seduce digitally savvy millennials.
While this has resulted in some beneficial shifts in workplace design (more natural light, comfortable chairs and greenery), this is merely an elementary baseline for good work. Good work is not just about style, but substance (how it works).
As we have stated, we need to know much more about what work is and how it gets done before we start designing. For agile or ABW to work well, four questions need to be answered:
- How do we collaborate when dealing with complex problems?
- How do we find the time and space to focus?
- How do we learn to learn?
- How do we connect to build more trust?
So, let’s explore what ‘work’ actually means, as it’s a complex topic and it is too simplistic to assume work is one dimensional.
How we work is a balance of solo and collaborative tasks. The degree to which we spend time working on our own or with others varies according to our role, our seniority and our personality type (introversion versus extroversion). From the research on the subject, we can consider ‘work’ to be a combination of collaborative, deep, learning and connective work styles.
Rob Rebele’s research on collaboration explains how the three-to-five per cent of employees who most effectively collaborate produce-over 30 per cent of organisational value. Alex Pentland’s sociometric research illustrates how improving the level to which team members interact and engage with each other results in a dramatic increase in performance, improving productivity by around ten per cent and significantly reducing time-related costs.
With many of us eating silently at our desks to indicate how hard we are working, it seems that having lunch and coffee breaks with teammates is the key to better performance. To be effective, agile teams need spaces in which they can interact and engage without censure from those who their chat distracts and disturbs.
In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport points out that collaborative ideas have to be transformed into products. Whether you are coding, writing or designing, that takes uninterrupted focus.
Newport illustrates how employees of Bell Labs (when developing solar cells, lasers, satellites, et cetera) worked in a hub-and-spoke structure that enabled collaborative encounters and supported deep thinking. Deep work requires spaces in which we can free ourselves from the distractions of collaborative chatter from time to time.
Learning work means sharing different mental models without prejudice or judgment. Amy Edmondson suggests the key to learning work is psychological safety – a space in which people feel safe to ask questions, admit mistakes, offer ideas and challenge convention.
In agile terms, this occurs in retrospective workshops. To ensure retrospection doesn’t become an empty ritual, the findings should be widely shared and easily accessible, enabling everyone in the workplace to learn from them.
Newport distinguishes between connectivity (being logged into digital platforms) and connection (conversations in face-to-face settings). We tend to confuse them, which creates real-world consequences as we see in the emerging critique of social media harming trust and community.
Some organisations have developed internal places of connection, such as pantries or living rooms equipped with recreational equipment, coffee, drinks and snacks. These liminal spaces enable activities that bridge the gap between leisure and work in a design that blurs home and work.
This can lead to traditional managers deeming activities that take place there ‘not-work’, forcing employees back to their desks and leaving the spaces empty and lacking energy. Agile workers need to be given the freedom to utilise such spaces to quickly build trust between members of self-organising teams and their demanding customers.
This brings us neatly to the subject of behavioural change. Let’s assume we have been able to follow the ideal process to determine and design a great space that responds to the needs of the business and staff alike. Unless there is sufficient emphasis on the engagement and behavioural change part of the project, there is a real risk of failure.
A very simple example is the provision of informal relaxed environments that are used for work as well as refreshment. Unless business leaders and staff are seen to be using these spaces to work, staff won’t use them either. They will imagine that their boss ‘won’t believe I’m working’ if they are in a relaxed zone. It’s a simple example but exposes an important truth about behaviour and role modelling in the office.
Behavioural change can be difficult, but far from impossible. Many will say people don’t want to change. We aren’t sure that’s true. Human beings don’t want to make irrelevant, uninformed, poorly timed change; but when guided correctly, people can examine a change concept, experiment and adapt to it.
Providing we have the opportunity to engage, contribute and learn, most people will be able to establish a new normal. The ‘change curve’ graph illustrates this point very well; it shows how engagement levels tend to dip after the introduction of a new workplace initiative until, over time, learning and benefit realisation establish a new baseline.
"Human beings don’t want to make irrelevant, uninformed, poorly timed change; but when guided correctly, people can examine a change concept, experiment and adapt to it "
While everyone will go through the change curve, some will progress through the stages more quickly than others, and not everyone will experience the same low points. Understanding this process helps an experienced change manager guide their team through this process with appropriate levels of education and empathy.
In an environment where employees can move in and out of collaborative, deep, learning and connection states, positive cognitive and emotional states emerge more rapidly. Employees can experiment in spaces designed to enable those activities and enthusiastically share their positive experiences with others who might not yet be convinced of the efficacy of the changes.
While there is no single solution to creating a great space, our version of an activity-based workplace – collaborative, deep, learning and connection – can be adjusted to suit the needs of every organisation. Here are some advisory steps to guide you on your way:
Know what problem you need to solve and focus on business objectives.
- How much of each kind of work needs to be done?
- Use data to inform your design decisions.
- Allow time for discovery; otherwise you’ll never get a great outcome.
- Focus on experimentation, enthusiasm and education to assist behavioural change.
The fundamental argument is that a badly designed agile workplace traps people in the lower reaches of the change curve. This is what leads people to assume that change isn’t possible, making the transformational effort highly disruptive, and resulting in low productivity and apathy.
Following the right process is part of the solution, but most importantly, spend time understanding what the business is trying to achieve. Understand the four modes of work, engage with staff, and your likelihood of success will increase significantly.