Workplace strategy: Background and resources from pioneering thinkers

by Nancy Johnson Sanquist and Diane Coles Levine — March 2016 — It is important to note that workplace strategy is not a new topic. As a matter of fact, some of the most interesting and innovative research on the workplace and strategy was done from the beginning of the ‘90s to the turn of this century.  Research by Michael Joroff and his colleagues from MIT, Frank Duffy, Franklin Becker, Martha O’Mara, Ouye and Bellas, as well as Gartner with MIT and 22 industry sponsors, led the way for current workplace strategy thinking. The significant work from these researchers transformed the way we think about the workplace and increased our understanding of its importance of place as an enabler of change and gaining competitive advantage for businesses. Subsequent strategy development work has been built on the findings from these pioneers of workplace strategy.

The Changing Workplace by Frank Duffy (1992). It is in the great UK business guru Charles Handy’s foreword to this book that sums up the importance of all of Duffy’s work and its influence on designing the proper workplace strategy. Handy states, “Francis Duffy’s desire to allow the building to be a framework for a changing variety of behavior has led him into the fields of management theory and the sociology of work where more architects and designers need to reach. It is too easy to think that we already know how people behave and how they want to live. We are easily convinced by stereotypes and we, the managers and workers, adapt to those stereotypes ourselves because we did not know there might be an alternative.” The book included Duffy’s PhD thesis written at Princeton and published in 1974, which formed the basis for his beliefs in tying the workplace to the business of an organization.

Workplace by Design: Mapping the High Performance Workplace by Franklin Becker and Fritz Steele (1995). The following statement from Chapter 1 “Space: The Organization’s Second Most Expensive Resource” reflects concepts that are as true today as they were over 15 years ago:

This book is dedicated to the creation of high-performance workplaces that energize managers and employees alike, to workplaces that use the available resources — people, time, money, technology — to make organizations more competitive so that they not only survive but thrive in difficult and turbulent times. It is about how understanding space, the second most expensive resource an organization has (its people being the first) can be leveraged to help those people work more effectively, and to attract and retain the right people in the first place.

 Another chapter in the book could have been included directly into the book we were involved in, Work on the Move, in 2013 as it is entitled “Developing an Integrated Workplace Strategy” which is one of the subjects we and other authors tackled in the book.

Excellence by Design: Transforming Workplace and Work Practice by Turid H. Horgen, Michael L. Joroff, William L. Porter and Donald A. Schon (1999). In this work, the concept of four dimensions of the workplace — spatial, organizational, financial and technological — is introduced. “These dimensions are interdependent and in a dynamic relationship with one another. A change in one demands change in others. The result creates opportunities otherwise unachievable. Approaching the workplace through these interdependent dimensions usually suggests solutions that might not otherwise be considered.” The goal of workplace strategy then is to “achieve a dynamic coherence between the work and these four dimensions of the workplace.”1

This “dynamic coherence” is created by establishing a relationship among the four dimensions mentioned above and seeing how each of them play out in the workplace strategy process and how the players interact in that process. If there is a gap in the demand and/or the supply of space, it is then necessary to execute various “what if” scenarios to determine how that gap is to be filled (add or dump space, consolidate, etc.). Much of the analytical information needed to support “gap” decisions is captured in electronic format (often in spreadsheets). Integrated workplace management systems (IWMS) linked with other tools (i.e., CAD, GIS and business/location intelligence apps) can also be a great resource for this activity (see Chapter 9).

The Competitive Workplace, by Joe A. Ouye and Jean Bellas (in Japanese and English, 1999). Ouye and Bellas, like Joroff and Franklin Becker from Cornell University, viewed the workplace as an integrated system of interactive parts, an ecosystem, requiring an holistic understanding for planning strategically. They defined workplace as “the entire spectrum, from the organizational structure (processes, information technologies and physical systems) to real estate and facilities (all the way down to rooms, furniture and technologies), which shelter and support the work of a corporation. This includes headquarters, research and development facilities, sales offices, manufacturing and distribution centers, as well as alternative workplaces, such as satellite work centers and the home. The workplace, usually a competitive disadvantage due to improper planning and use, can be changed into a competitive advantage.”2

Strategy and Place: Managing Corporate Real Estate and Facilities for Competitive Advantage by Martha A. O’Mara (2000). O’Mara challenged the old assumptions about workplace location, design, use and management as uncontrollable external components of supply and sinkholes of cost. In her analysis, she also viewed the workplace as a strategic asset and enabler for competitive advantage. She stated her case and declared “the office is here to stay” and defended it by stating that it works if it:

  • Gives real context to the actions of organizations
  • Presents the symbolic and physical embodiment of the brand
  • Provides physical space for the production of product or services or supports the innovation of the creative class and knowledge economy
  • Enables flexible response to heightened competitive pressures
  • Supports new internal work processes while enhancing cultural differences and

CRE 2000. IDRC Research Study. This was the catalyst (much of the work was performed by an MIT team headed by Joroff) for understanding the competency shifts that were changing the CRE and FM professions. In one chart, the story was told that we were moving from early technical and analytical stages (“Taskmasters” and “Controllers”) through a middle era (“Dealmaking”) where standardization reigned supreme to a stage where RE/FM were becoming business partners with other areas of the organization, such as IT, HR and finance. The final stage is the one in which we are attempting to engage now, that of the “Business Strategist” who can “catalyze the workforce” in new workplace practices.

The Agile Workplace: Supporting People and Their Work. This work was conducted by a research partnership between Gartner, MIT and 22 industry sponsors and published in 2001. It was an unusual pairing of the foremost IT analyst organizations and Gartner (collaborating with staff from the MIT School of Archtecture and Urban Planning) along with 22 industry supporters, including AT&T, Cisco, GSA, HP, JCI, P&G, Sun and Peregrine. Their findings also affected the way we understand workplace strategy:

  • They changed the concept of workplace from real estate where work is conducted to workplace as a group of services that enables the work of an organization. They changed the concept of a real estate “portfolio” to a network of places, connected electronically, spatially and socially, which enables
  • Agility is a result of that “dynamic coherence” of work, the workplace and work tools referenced in Joroff’s earlier work.
  • An agile workplace … is one that is constantly transforming, adjusting and responding to organizational learning. Agility means more than having buildings and communication technology ready for alternative uses. It means constantly improving work and the infrastructure that enables it.” (p. 10)

As a result of all of this innovative research, we used the term “workplace strategy” in Work on the Move and associated it with the definitions/goals of these early pioneers to highlight:

  • A dynamic coherence of the interplay between the four dimensions of the workplace — spatial, organizational, technological and financial
  • Alignment with the strategy of the organization and each of the business units, enabling the workplace to become a competitive advantage rather than a cost center
  • The role of the workplace strategist to catalyze the workforce today and in the future
  • An agile environment that weaves together a network of places that align with the external pressures of market forces, the strategies of the business, as well as the internal work environment to ensure it is the most productive place it can be in order to support creativity and innovation

In an article in the current edition (February 28, 2016) of the NYT Magazine, Nikil Saval the author of a history of the office, Cubed, wrote an article for the themed edition of the publication which was on ‘Worklife’ he wrote ‘Laboratories. Does better office design make workers happier?’.  In Saval’s article, he described new work strategies which include a network of disparately designed spaces which are often created with a childlike whimsy, some extravagant and the others futuristic with the goal of enhancing the experience of the worker. As he mused, “Generation Y is searching for greater meaning, poetry, form and atmosphere in the workplace.”  What they also want are access to business technologies which are easy to use, friendly, mobile and making use of augmented reality, as this is what they are used to in their private lives.  Workplace strategies will have to weave the physical and the digital together in a seamless quilt of the real and the virtual in entirely new ways.

While we have been saying it for years that IT and HR have to work with RE/FM more closely than ever, this is finally being recognized as seen in a research paper to be published by Paul Miller of Gartner in the next few weeks.  It is an appeal to the CIO to not only work with HR which Gartner has been lecturing for a long time, but to now come together with RE and FM to create the right Digital Workplace for each employee, including those professionals dealing with the built environment.  New workplace strategies will emerge from this collaboration as we will discuss in subsequent articles.

1Horgen, T., et al, Excellence by Design, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1999), p.8.

2Ouye, J. A. and Bellas, J., The Competitive Workplace, (Tokyo: Kokuya Institute of Office Systems, 1999), p. 10.

Nancy Johnson Sanquist is an industry strategist for the Real Estate and Workplace Solutions group in Trimble, an IFMA Fellow, serves on the Board of Trustees of the IFMA Foundation, is Vice President of the IFMA Corporate Real Estate Council, as well as being a speaker and contributor to CoreNet Global.  She is the co-editor and author of Work on the Move and is listed in Who’s Who in America.

Diane Coles Levine is the Executive Director of the IFMA Foundation. Previously, she was the founder and managing partner at Workplace Management Solutions. She served on the IFMA Board of Directors, is Past Chair of the IFMA Foundation and was named the 2015 IFMA Corporate Real Estate Council Distinguished Member. She is an international speaker and guest lecturer at Vienna University of Technology and MIT Professional Education Programs. Diane is co-editor and author of Work on the Move.

Workplace Evolutionaries’ (WE’s) mission is to “change the world one workplace at a time.” It’s a global community of over a thousand professionals who care deeply about the world of work and where it’s going. Among its members are workplace strategists, change managers, facilities managers, architects, designers, HR professionals, IT managers, academics, and product and service providers. WE members enjoy three conferences a year, monthly WEbinars with thought leaders from around the world, a monthly round-up of the best workplace research and news, white papers, and a vehicle for connecting with fellow evolutionaries around the world. WE is a global Community of Practice within the International Facility Management Association.