Nuance in a Binary World - Pt.2

May 26, 2020 | In ARTICLES & RESEARCH | By Neil Salton, ChangeWorq Founder & Managing Director

Nuance in a Binary World - Pt.2

A message from your office to you … “Rumours of my demise are greatly exaggerated …!”

This is what prompted me to write this series.  We’ve been bombarded with dire predictions e.g. ‘no-one needs an office anymore’, ‘the future of work is from home’, ‘we should increase the size of our for social distancing’ and so on.

We are told that the solution is either this or that; whereas even a cursory glance reveals there are other possibilities – hence my choice of title and argument for nuance.

This is a longer article as I’ve had to refer to research data and provide my assumptions to ensure we talk about the same things.  I hope you can take some time out to follow the reasoning, so let’s get started.

Working from Home’ (WFH)

One example, perfectly lacking in media nuance is the ’Work from Home’ (WFH) story.   Almost overnight (for understandable reasons), we began the world’s largest Workplace Change experiment as the doors of our office buildings were locked.  An experiment for which most companies and workers alike were staggeringly ill prepared.

We’ve witnessed companies being dragged, kicking and screaming into 2020; hurriedly trying to equip their staff for WFH, and breathing a sigh of relief thinking their job was done.  Think again; it’s not about equipment, that's merely an enabler.  The real answer lay in engagement and guiding people through the process of adaptation and training, supported by the right hardware & software and that was the gap.

Early on in the pandemic, I was amused by a social media meme that asked the question; “who determined your IT strategy?  The multiple-choice answers were CEO, CTO, CIO or CV19 … funny, and yet uncomfortably true.

The end result was scared and confused workers struggling to balance work with the demands of 24/7 family life while learning how to deliver home schooling.   The effects were amplified in my part of the world, by some having to deal with this in small apartments that are often shared with extended family members. 

We heard about inexperienced team leaders failing to motivate their now virtual team members. We even learned there were a depressingly large number of people wondering what a Zoom call even was and especially how to act during a call. 

(Some tips: raise your laptop to eye level up, use a headset, avoid bright lights or windows behind you and do your best to manage background noise) 

As if this wasn't enough, stress levels rose as we worked longer hours.  Remember those informal 5-10 min catchups at the coffee machine?  Those became yet another scheduled 30-minute call (note the productivity loss …) and so it went on.  And yet, the digital voices continued to claim that WFH is the new normal and the office was dead 

To be fair, it’s not all bad news.  Many people have discovered that it is possible to work in locations other than an office.  This is no small win.  For years it’s been a struggle to break the mental and physical chains tying office workers to desks.  At the very least, we can see a chink of light, as the barriers to adopting a more flexible working style melt away while we grappled with this difficult moment in time. 

My take is that for some people, WFH should be an option for some colleagues undertaking some activities, some of the time. Finally we can see that WFA should be one of the choices while simultaneously recognising that being in an office, has value for organisations and individuals alike. 

Collaboration & co-creation remain difficult in the virtual domain.  Now these meetings have to be scheduled, which either misses the moment, or maybe the moment doesn't even arrive!  Freedom & spontaneity are essential to enable innovation.  We don't know when an idea is going to hit us so when an idea comes, and we want to get inputs from colleagues to make something happen; often there is no substitute for being in the same space.  If you are interested in this topic, I’d recommend Matt Ridley’s new book ‘How Innovation Works’.

What does it mean for the Office?

First, let’s think about what the office is actually for.

The idea of coming back to the office to sit side by side at row after row of desks with occasional interaction in dull meeting rooms, isn’t a good reflection of what work should be like for Knowledge Workers.  I think the office is still the best option if we need to Connect & Communicate.

Clearly, this is a little simplistic - at some point we have sit down, focus and actually get something done; but it’s the main reason to be in the office.  A working day is a mix of solo & group activities (typically 35:65% split depending on job role). What we need to is to figure out how to organise a space to enable effective working, while making it safe for our return.

FOMO in an important factor too … we all need to be connected to what is happening in our organisation, in addition to discussing what was on TV last night – this creates social cohesion and is important as we navigate our return to work.

Economic impact on the Workplace 

As government restrictions lift and we return to the office (we must, for sound economic, social and psychological reasons), a solid financial, cultural & spatial framework is needed, one that balances safety, performance and reassurance. 

Focussing first on the economics of the workplace, let’s examine the cost factors involved in creating social distance in the office. 

All offices have a variety of work-settings, not just desks, so we must account for this to get an accurate read.  Every office layout is different, so for the purpose of this article I am going to describe a range.  Your own office will be unique, but is likely fall within this spectrum 

Style 1 ‘Traditional’ office layout
Hierarchical in nature, with personal offices for executives, larger desks for senior managers, smaller desks for staff, meeting rooms and maybe some break-out space.  Some Government departments are good examples of this model 

Style 2 ‘Non-Traditional’ layout
Space is non-hierarchal with no executive offices or variations in desk sizes.  We find more adhoc collaboration space, enclosed meeting spaces, refreshment and social space etc.

Technology companies are often examples of this model 

Style 1 tends to use a higher percentage of leasable area for offices and desks (70-85%) whereas Style 2 is typically 55-75%.

One way of creating greater distance between staff (decrease density) is to by increasing desk size.  But even a modest increase in desk size from 1.4m to 1.8m, means an increase in the Lease Cost per Head.  For a style 1 layout example, this can be in the range of 15 - 30%compared to style 2 where it can be 12 - 25%.  These are conservatively stated, with many cases tending toward the higher end of the range.

If these layout adjustments are made, that implies a reduction in headcount if the total space remains constant.  For style 1 example this can be up to 30% and up to 25% in a style 2 case, depending on the desk size and circulation space changes.  In both examples the impact of cost or headcount between the 2 styles is greater for style 1 as the proportion of space for desks/offices is larger, which drives the higher lease cost per head or headcount drop. 

These changes have to be balanced against the refurbishment and disruption costs of implementing measures like these.  These are big numbers and must be carefully balanced against the clear need for an appropriate working environment.  

I should make it clear that I am not purely making an economic argument.  I hope it’s clear from this and my earlier article that the human dimensions are incredibly important.  In fact I think we can gain long term benefits by emphasising behaviour change rather than quick-fix spatial adjustments. 

What else should we be thinking about?

Peak occupancy is another important data point and from our utilisation study database, we see find that peak-occupancy ranges from 48% to 74%,averaging 64% across all our studies. This data helps to figure out the degree to which we approach social distance point, because 100% occupancy is an overestimation which will drive the cost of office re-entry too high.

Note that, that these figures are from pre-CV19 studies, so peak figures on return are likely to be higher.  We expect that governmental restrictions on international travel will remain in place for some time, so our colleagues who normally travel for their job travel are likely to be in the office more often.  Remember, those who travel are already equipped for WFH, so this can help to manage occupancy and safety, with no economic impact, as the space doesn’t need to change as you have no cost of travel. 

The combination of density and peak occupancy are important and must be considered together as we have illustrated here.  Finally, it’s worth recognising that either style 1 or 2 users don't spend all their time at their desk – it’s typical to see average desk use ranging between 20 – 55%.  The question is, if you aren’t at your desk, where are you?  Generally, staff are to be found in meeting rooms or chatting nearby. As you will see in the final conclusions, adopting more flexible ways to work (beyond style 2) can improve our effectiveness and help us to manage space post CV19.

What can I do?

There are many scenarios, so it’s isn’t possible to find a silver bullet, but here is a summary of recommendations you can consider:

Split Teams

The split team strategy is a manageable, sensible approach and easily communicated to staff. This gives everyone the chance to adjust, and for the ‘circle of trust’ amongst colleagues to expand (see my earlier article).  It allows the operations team time to adjust to a new behavioural and cleaning regime for the office (more on this topic in a forthcoming article)

Workplace Furniture Options

Beware the quick fix of simply changing furniture to ‘create distance’.  While there are some interesting ideas, some seem less convincing i.e. transparent high desk partitions.

If you have spent any time in an office, you know that if staff are at desks and need to talk to a neighbour, they slide their chairs back and speak.  In this case the barrier plays no role, so the effect is lost.  Granted when you are working on you own, they may contain the airborne droplets from coughs and sneezes, but if you aren’t wearing a mask and covering up when you sneeze, then we need to have a very different conversation about personal hygiene and not desk panelling.

If you are looking into these options, note that the life of the virus on these surfaces is a factor to consider.  A recent U.S. National Institute of Health (NIH) study* found that the virus can survive for up to 2-3 days on plastic and stainless-steel surfaces

Some of the good ideas are the semi-enclosed settings for 1 person.  These provide some visual and audio privacy with the ‘newly discovered benefit’ of creating distance.  These were a good idea even before CV19 hit us and remain so now. From time to time, we all need a place to focus and concentrate, without disturbance and these setting achieve that.

WFH Strategy (Working from Home)

I recommend WFH as a key strategy applying for individual work and virtual meetings. In Singapore, our government has established this as the default mode, and we aren’t alone.  As government restrictions loosen, I recommend keeping it in place as an option for some tasks, for some of the time.  

We are in the process of analysing the results of our Work from Home Survey.  Early indications are that many workers have adapted well and want this to be a feature of their working life going forward.  We’ll be publishing those results next week, so keep an eye out for the findings on our website and LinkedIn.

A note on WFH policy.  It’s common to see a ‘ration based’ approach, i.e. ‘you can WFH 4 times a month’.  My recommendation is: if WFH makes sense for employer and employee, then have an ‘as needed’ policy.  This creates a sensible dialogue between colleagues about when and how, although you must take care to ensure the policy is deployed in an even-handed manner.

Some managers have difficulties managing their team outputs remotely, so coaching may be required.  Talk to your management team and help them understand why it makes sense to be in the office for specific activities e.g. collaboration and social cohesion and enable an effective WFH mode on other occasions.

A well thought through WFH strategy needs to make this point and managers need to create reasons to bring teams together when the time is right.  This should be planned and communicated simply and clearly, explaining the mutual need to embrace rights and responsibilities for staff and the organisation.

Workplace Change - Activity Based Working (ABW) 

This period has demonstrated we must improve our state of readiness.  A pandemic has happened before e.g. SARS in 2003 and it seems likely to happen again, so as workplace practitioners we have to play our part and rethink the future. 

I am of the pinion that the ABW model offers advantages.  ABW allows you to work Wherever you want to be (according to the task at hand), with Whoever you need to be with and Wheneveryou need to work, (including at home).

A well designed ABW space provides less desks and offers a great deal more adhoc collaboration, concentration & meeting spaces of all sizes and types. This means that the lease cost per head equation described above improves and with greater choice of work-settings, we can make better decisions about what and where we go.

ABW spaces are more adaptable and we can adjust how we gather at each work-setting and manage distance by behavioural change (assuming of course that the peak occupancy and density calculations have been correctly planned).

ABW isn’t a space-based solution – it’s a behavioural change.  It’s a mode of working that requires a change in organisational culture, trust based management and measuring outcomes not presence. It’s a topic that deserves more coverage, so I will set that aside for future article.

Thanks for taking the time to go through these important topics and feel free to contact me if you have any comments or questions; details below.  See you next time. 


Neil Salton

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*NIH Study information sourced via: