Can we rely on workplace utilization metrics anymore?
We are about to start a new workplace transformation project for a company in a very challenging and rapidly shifting business. They seek a radical change in their operating culture and realize the need for a workspace that will support their people in that move.
Their CRE leaders have already engaged a “change management” specialist to assess the current workspace. That consultant will generate metrics about the current use and utilization of the existing workspace and survey the workforce on its satisfaction with its work settings. They may also provide “benchmark” data on the allocation and utilization of space by similar companies in that industry.
Our given mission is to generate a design program and workspace concepts from that data.Over the past couple of decades, we have begun many projects in similar contexts. We are never comfortable in that place.
We consistently find that the current approach to “data-driven” design drives merely incremental change and does not always provide positive futures. It is rare that we have found specifically usable value from metrics derived from an analysis of existing conditions. It is more common that those metrics put us in a difficult place, occluding a good path to the desired transformation by wrapping data around things rather than around purpose, around the cost of space rather than the value of space, around an agenda for new furniture but not around the future agenda of the transformed business.
These metrics arose as part of practice because a company’s facilities people needed data to convince executives of the need for change and break through their typically spare commitment of resources. Now, more typically, it is the executives who are leading the change initiative, and the CRE/FM people who then feel a reflexive need for data to inform the design program and shape the designer’s concepts.
But we are in the midst of a momentous shift in the nature of work and the design of organizations. And since everything about work is changing, everything about the workplace should change, too. That’s why starting a project with an assessment of the existing workspace and the belief that its data will provide the logic for its transformation feels so misleading.
Auto companies and their suppliers need to rapidly transform their products to electrification and autonomy, and disrupt their business models to provide mobility services rather than merely make and count units sold. Health insurance companies need to rapidly move from a claims processing model to a wellness consulting model to meet differing generational needs as well as to become more agile in a very dynamic social, economic and political context. Consumer debt companies have to move from collecting from the few who can pay to enabling many more to manage resources so they can pay. Engineering companies must quickly move from linear processes to integrated processes in order to meet the demand for speed of innovation. And banks need to shift their personas from managing the slow moving assets of crusty industrialists to now keep pace with the investment needs of tech company founders and their fast moving crypto-capital.
Companies, in other words, must stop doing what they want and start doing what their customers want. That is a profound shift. That is a disruption to the very nature of their work, their culture and their behaviors.
So what’s wrong with our current client’s approach to engage a change management specialist to collect data about the effectiveness of the current environment and, from that, define a direction for workspace transformation?
Asking claims clerks whether they have adequate collaboration space will generate positive metrics because, even in its absence, they have no need for collaboration space. Informing them that their company wants them to act as advisors to their customers and then asking about the adequacy of their space for the development future service offerings will not be informed by anything in their past experience. Asking an engineer if his workspace is sufficient may generate an expression of a need for more surface and separation. Informing an engineer that the need for speed requires durable ongoing collaboration with other disciplines and suppliers requires a deeper discussion with them about the nature of teaming in the strategic challenge.
Valuable and useful information to inform a design brief in these contexts requires our clients to start in a different place. Their projects need to start with consideration of the design of work, itself.
In almost every case of business transformation, the organization and processes of work will require new thinking. Those transformations of organization and process will, in turn, require new behaviors as people adjust to the patterns of innovation in business models. The successful transformation will come from a design that supports those new behaviors and provides the settings nurturing the organization’s emergent culture.
We will try to deploy a different planning and design model for our client. Setting aside the current metrics, we will begin a deep conversations about the future of work and the work of the future. We will build personas to help us think about the behaviors required by that work. We will generate and test multiple alternative concepts for an appropriate portfolio of settings that may enable those behaviors. Then, and only then, will we begin to develop the appropriate metrics for the new workspace.
We believe that workplace planners have to challenge the conventional models and metrics that informed the incremental moves that companies have made over the past couple of decades. We can no longer “look at the present in a rear-view mirror and march backwards into the future.”
Let’s together recite that famous Churchill quote: We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us. But the buildings that will shape us should themselves be designed around the shape of the future “us” the organization envisions.