by Tim Oldman — This article originally appeared in the March/April 2018 issue of FMJ
New Year. New start. The concept of newness is a fundamental part of the human experience. Hitting the reset button has a fabled rejuvenating power. So, why is genuine positive change so often hard to come by? Even the best intentions will come to nothing if they are not supported by a thorough understanding of the conditions that led to the need for change.
And, so it is with workplace transformation projects – our research at Leesman reveals that only 18 percent of new workplaces surveyed deliver noticeable operational benefit. But why?
Since Leesman sprung into life in 2010, we’ve been trying to understand why some workplaces deliver outstanding performance and others don’t. The data we’ve amassed so far has helped us realize the dos and don’ts of workplace design and management – and our clients are leveraging this data to fuel better business decision making, focusing on the employee experience. To date, we have surveyed more than a quarter of a million employees worldwide and the data reveals that a shocking number of workplaces are simply not fit for purpose. Even when there is commitment from leadership teams to allocate budget to “reset” and “rejuvenate” a workplace offering, such worthwhile and often costly endeavors don’t always live up to their promise.
Many of the issues that arise from mismanaged workplace transformation projects add up to create an endemic problem in workplace design and management – that more than a quarter of employees globally do not agree that their workplace enables them to work productively, with a further 15 percent unsure[i].
Take into account only the workplaces that have been surveyed soon after a relocation or refurbishment project, and these figures only marginally improve. On average, 64 percent of employees believe their new workplace enables them to work productively, despite the obvious time, money and effort spent on the design and move process.
There seems to be a gap between the expectations of leadership teams that invest large capital sums in refurbishment and relocation fit-out projects and the results post completion. This suggests that there’s a chink in the chain somewhere; are design, construction, property and FM teams struggling to unite and work together towards a shared goal, or are they looking at the wrong things by which to measure workplace effectiveness?
New York City, 1943: In a small office at 401 West 118th Street “the most extraordinary group of statisticians ever organized” were handed a new problem by the U.S. government – get more warplanes home.
The Statistical Research Group (SRG) was a classified program that had assembled the might of American statisticians to help the U.S. war effort – not with weaponry, but with equations. At its heart was Abraham Wald, who’d fled his native Europe just five years previously.
The U.S. Army Air Force brief was simple enough: minimize bomber losses to enemy fire. Researchers from the Centre for Naval Analyses (CNA) had conducted extensive studies of the damage done to returning aircraft and had recommended armor be added to the areas that showed the most damage.
But Wald noted a fundamental flaw. The prior analysis only considered the returning aircraft, because the bombers that had been shot down were obviously not present for data collection. The holes in the returning aircraft represented areas where the aircraft could take damage and still return home safely. The armor, said Wald, doesn’t go where the bullet holes are – it goes where the bullet holes aren’t.
His work lead to what is now termed survivorship bias – the risk of only looking at the data you have rather than factoring that which you don’t. A logical error concentrating on the people or things that “survived,” a process inadvertently overlooking those that didn’t due to their lack of visibility.
This isn’t to say that the work that the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) had done was wrong or wasted, but the analysis of the data set should have been done in a rounded way through a wide-angle lens.
The world of workplace has more data at its disposal than at any time previously. This has the potential to fuel a new wave of evidence-based, human-centric design. But as with U.S. bombers, it also has the potential to fuel myopic data-driven mistakes, such as focusing too much on space utilization without considering the user experience. By facilitating direct engagement with end users, organizations can begin to create synergistic workplaces with effective real estate and technical infrastructures that support a workforce’s needs.
Each new workplace project – or “post-occupancy” space – fails or succeeds for different reasons, but there are some key determinants within the research. Factors behind effective office environments, for example, include great acoustics, light and air quality, and food and coffee. In fact, “tea, coffee and other refreshment facilities” measures as the most important “service feature” among respondents in the survey with a score of 82 percent. The data also highlights the importance of variety. Offering employees different types of workspaces gives them the opportunity to work in environments that suit their specific needs, and can drastically reduce noise and other distractions as a result.
Much of the issue rests with the siloed and territorial nature of work, which can result in a number of disciplines competing over turf. Client teams, particularly the stakeholders whose input is crucial to understanding how workplaces operate, aren’t always involved in the design process at an early enough stage, or in a rigorous enough manner. This is a familiar story to facility managers, who have long claimed that they are insulated from crucial design and build decisions, only to pick up the pieces when avoidable problems inevitably occur.
Client groups must therefore strive to be better clients to their design teams, while design teams should look to include their clients in the design process in a meaningful way. Both groups should treat workplace as seriously as they would other key organization-wide projects that impact organizational performance, such as recruitment and major new technology implementations.
Moreover, design must never be for design’s sake. In order to succeed, any workplace transformation project requires an adequate level of change management to ensure that both the organization’s objectives and the employees’ needs are met in the new space. Simply put, the client group must do its research. A leadership team’s desire to design workspaces that encourage new ways of working, for example, must be accompanied by the right behavioral transformation programs to help guide people through the change.
Often, however, transformation projects do not prioritize employee needs. The design of an office space must be user-centric; if it is not, this jeopardizes employee satisfaction and output. According to the data, a significant number of new workplaces measure unfavorably against the Leesman+ workplaces – the highest performing in the index – in the following areas: a sense of community at work, an enjoyable environment to work in, enabling productive work, and a place that fosters pride.
Respondents in the new workplaces highlight considerable dissatisfaction with noise. Within the Leesman research, “noise levels” has an average satisfaction rating of 34 percent, while almost half of the workplaces surveyed do not reach 30 percent satisfaction.
Although these new workplaces score well in some areas – for example, “accessibility of colleagues” has an average satisfaction of 74 percent – responses in other areas are wildly inconsistent. Respondent figures for “variety of different types of workspace” range between less than 10 percent and more than 95 percent.
In response, facility managers should amplify the need to address these areas of deficit, such as noise levels and variety of space, by looking at the available data as well as the empirical evidence that their job affords them on a day-to-day operational basis.
Additionally, workplaces must not push collaborative work at the expense of concentrative solo activities. While the current workplace zeitgeist elevates collaboration, and organizations trip over themselves to adopt these new trends, the research suggests this could be having a negative impact on important individual working. In fact, the data reveals that employees whose workplaces do not support their solo work are more likely to disagree that their office enables them to work productively, irrespective of how they feel about their collaborative work.
Deafening debate around “knowledge transfer” and “collaboration” seems to have resulted in a series of spaces that overbake the collective work at the expense of the concentrative solo activities. Perhaps this is because the abundance of media stories focusing on the latest industry “buzzword” – stories that are being consumed at executive level – are insidiously turning leadership teams into accidental followers of workplace strategy fashion. While it must be tempting to follow popular trends, appear progressive, or even hope that some of that “new” magic rubs off, it is vital that FMs help the organizations they support make evidence-based decisions that consistently place employee needs at the center. The fact that a large percentage of workplaces globally do not support employee needs is a case in point that more work needs to be done.
The sheer amount of money that is ploughed into workplace transformation projects suggests that they should produce more value. The good news for facility managers is that they are in a position to have a positive impact in the areas where refurbishments and relocation fit-outs fail. By understanding the reasons that some workplaces perform well and others do not, a clearer picture of workplace effectiveness emerges, and organizations can begin to turn their offices into tools for competitive advantage.
Facility managers and FM service providers are the ones with the power to demonstrate the value of the workplace. As a profession that places people at its core, maybe the industry needs to be a little braver in the pursuit of enhancing the employee experience and justifying its decisions to CFOs? By designing workspaces that support employees, the workplace can be transformed from a cost center to a crucial component of organizational performance.
New might not provide any guarantees, but a new chapter in workplace design has begun.
Founder and CEO of Leesman – the world’s largest workplace experience and effectiveness benchmark. Tim is a regular and respected keynote speaker at conferences across the world.