Can you help with my research on workplace strategy?

Graham Lauren
May 14, 2016 · 11 min read

I am conducting the research you can read here to write a book and a string of pieces for Australia’s The Urban Developer web site, as I have before (see here and here, and now here), as well as other media outlets.

If you are professionally knowledgeable about matters related to the theme of this site, I’d like to ask if you’d consent to be an interviewee or participant in my research, on or off the record.

I’ve been pursuing a theme of “beyond activity based working”, testing out the notion of workplace strategy as an evolution in which building design, modern technology and new ways of working come together to deliver the future of work.

I’m a director of the Sydney, Australia, architectural startup, Shiro Architects, but, by background, also a former Fairfax Media business journalist and editor, hence my interest in researching and writing about the future of commercial workplace design as it affects business strategy and the interests of occupiers themselves, developers, investors and owners.

As architects, clearly we can improve our output if we can achieve better inputs, and through this research, I am trying to get to the bottom of what it takes to get a better workplace-design briefing, and what typically goes wrong in the process when it fails.

I have some definite views on this, and how workplace social technologies can be applied to this task, that I have expressed here and here.

To pursue and promote my research, I am publishing edited transcripts of my interviews here and at LinkedIn, and my aim in doing this has been to bring the right kind of professional attention to my interviewees. (Some early samples are here, here, here and here.)

Although central to my work will be the implications for the design and briefing of the workplace in the overall mix of the future of work, I’m broadening my interviews out to engage specialists in human resources, organisational learning and development, organisational design and change management, and workplace technology, all of whose effort has a significant bearing on its changing shape.

If you are interested in this evolving subject and would be kind enough to give me a little of your time to interview you by phone, I’d be appreciative.

I have included a few notes to the themes I am pursuing beneath, so if you have information you’d like to contribute, I invite you to pick those you’d personally like to talk about on this subject.

In anticipation, I look forward to the prospect of speaking with you on this most fascinating subject.

Thanks for reading.

Graham Lauren

Question: Adapting to agile and activity based working is all about people and productivity, right?

If the engagement of their people is strategically important, are the managers of companies that don’t consider themselves in need of a workplace strategy deluding themselves?

As workplaces are now becoming central not just to the staging of a business, but to change in modern work process and, therefore, organisational performance, how can we tell the successes from the failures?

How are modern work environments and workplace design strategies relevant to the values and attitudes of the emerging generation of workers now entering the workplace?

How are modern work environments and workplace design strategies playing out in the reputations of organisations that deploy them?

In agile, or activity based working, what is the cost of change to those workforces that must endure it, and how should this be managed?

What are the examples of good and bad practice?

Question: In what ways can workplace strategy spur organisational creativity and innovation, and are there examples to point to?

People don’t commission offices because they want buildings or technology, they want business outcomes.

A major Sydney financial institution is changing the ways it innovates and brings new products to market more quickly by instituting a “minimum viable office” to speed its corporate innovation practices.

It now recognises that it has to match the new startup competition.

It must get better at engaging the bright minds within it, and more effective at bringing new products to market with greater rapidity.

The obvious runaway success of its initiative is not just transforming his company’s means of engaging human capital in the delivery of new products, but upgrading its whole way of organising itself for the future.

So, how can the mix of the brains and spaces of the organisation best be optimised to create an inventive, innovative, collaborative workplace capable of such achievements, repeatedly?

As architects, perhaps what is most interesting for us is the way in which this company’s dedication of even a modest space and resources is being used as the fuel for widespread organisational transformation.

Could this happen in any organisation, and what about your own? We’re seeking good and bad examples to draw from.

Question: Shouldn’t the bigger question about the importance of relocating be about a property’s potential for creating new organisational knowledge?

When business leaders plan moves to new premises and new ways of working, they often use workplaces in the hope they will create new knowledge flows.

So, the question is, what would happen if they paid attention first to learning more about possible knowledge flows before they started thinking about moving offices?

How would this change the relocation outcome?

This would surely crystallise a different view of workplace design briefing. (This is what Shiro Architects aims to bring to the party.)

What is your opinion or experience of the impact to the smarts of a business brought about by relocation?

Question: In what ways can property play a part in workplace strategy for stimulating organisational learning?

Does making the culmination of new knowledge flows a possibility for a business create a new and purposeful role for learning and development practitioners in the design of the workplace?

What is the knowledge mix of the organisation as it is now, where is it going, and how can that knowledge be captured and steered by relocation?

Can a focus on possible knowledge flows that can be tapped by appropriate technology solutions suggest in new environments translate into better organisational performance?

Can moving to a new workplace enable more prescient definition of what knowledge is needed and enable more effective processes to get it?

Question: How will your workplace’s design contribute to the creation of your organisation’s data capital?

Pre-internet, buildings probably had little to contribute to the data-capital equation.

They provided little more than shelter for the conduct of work, offering little strategic contribution to its performance.

Now, however, as we move into the age of mobile computing and agile or activity based working, workspaces are no longer the physical manifestation of the organisation chart, but laboratories in which work and its outputs are constantly being challenged in ways it is hard to predict, except for the fact that this is happening increasingly fast.

Companies light on physical assets but heavy on those in data, among them Airbnb, Uber, Facebook, and Netflix, are already rewriting the rules of competition in their respective industries.

Because it describes both an organisation’s current state but also its future potential, there is a compelling argument to be made that data may be becoming the most important measure of all of an organisation’s value.

If data is on par with financial and human capital in its capacity to contribute to the development of new digital products and services, in what ways and through what tools will the workplaces of the future contribute to its capture and creation?

Question: In workplace strategy, how can HR create the ultimate point of organisational differentiation?

In the design of facilities and in the changing work practices they stimulate, workplace strategy offers companies the chance to become ever more differentiated in ways that are valuable, rare, difficult to imitate or substitute, and durable.

What will be the longer term impacts for the practice of human resources management, and what are we likely to see?

Question: To what degree, and in what ways, can the pain of relocation be managed in modern workplace strategy?

In adopting agile ways of working, successful management is now defined by business outcomes and not command by line of sight over your team.

Adjusting to mobile, flexible working is certainly not all plain sailing.

Under its then-new ex-Google leader Maris Mayer, Yahoo! found in 2013 it needed to bring its workforce back on site when its efforts at renewal suffered by workers being absent.

An interviewee of my own close to one of the most celebrated implementations of activity based working at Melbourne’s Medibank head office in Melbourne’s Docklands says, “I think you can’t underestimate the level of change management required and I think you shouldn’t underestimate the amount of continuing change management required.

“You need to budget and resource for that and I think that is certainly not recognised.

My off-the-record interviewee at one of the banks said, “It is painful, because if you don’t get the change really embedded all the way along [in adapting to activity based and flexible ways of working], all you are really looking at is hot-desking, and that is an environment in which workers feel cheated, not valued and honoured.”

What else are we learning about adapting to the new ways of working, and what is your experience?

Question: What are the investment returns on property devoted to agile and activity based working, and who makes the money?

Clearly, if you remove unused desks from office space, you can put that space to other uses.

And if you move to other forms of flexible or agile working, some of that work may now be performed “out of hours” or off the premises entirely.

So what are the calculations someone must make before investing in relocating or refitting space for this purpose? What about those for an entirely new construction of an office building?

What are the necessary thinking processes that ensure a building meets its financial performance goals, and how do they vary between the interested parties?

Question: How is workplace strategy shaping the new ways of working?

The emergence of an entirely different way of working in its mobility, flexibility and diversity reflects the biggest change to work we have seen in 50 years.

Suzanne Murray-Prior, who consults to professional services firms on activity based working says, “I think this is a generational change. It encompasses every aspect of what is happening within our society, whether that is technology, the generational change, the merging and overlay of work-life balance.”

In your view, to what degree is this true or false?

Responsible for an $11 billion portfolio of commercial property at property trust giant, ISPT, Marcus Hanlon says, “I ask the question, is the workforce going to be more flexible and more mobile in three years based on today?

“That’s a no-brainer, but then you look ahead to six years or nine years, and then you have to start thinking, what does that mean to my business?”

What is your view, and what is your experience? What is coming next?

Question: What is the impact of new ways of working on the strategic integration of people and work spaces?

When work can be undertaken in such a physically frictionless manner, it means that the physical space in which it is actually performed is itself either a strategic enabler or a disabler.

Either it facilitates and accelerates the right kind of communication and co-working, or it doesn’t.

Workplace strategy, as the defining envelope describing how the the work is done, is now attaining a focus previously only given to what was done.

No longer is work supervised and accounted for by line of sight under which managers needed to be able to see and monitor the presence of those working for them.

It is accounted for by the performance outcomes of those who in the new workplace may no longer be visible to their superiors.

How does this change management and the capacities required of managers?

Question: Does the effective workplace need any longer to be a physical office on a fixed lease?

In its adoption of flexible work practices and activity based working, Australia is currently in the lead, relative even to those in the UK and US, according to Robin Brinkman, associate director office leasing at agents Knight Frank.

And the model of the workplace is being broken by a host of property innovations such as WeWork, Liquid Space, third spaces, flexible spaces and membership spaces.

Unprecedented change in the workplace and the nature of work is the reason why property owners, investors and operators need to be on their game in ways they never have before.

They have to become service providers and facilitators, as seen in the example of Westpac and its move to a workspace with concierges acting for the staff.

The new organisational forms are truly head-scratching for agents and owners and investors as in many ways the importance of the building becomes less relevant.

Simon Hunt, managing director, office leasing, at Colliers International in Sydney, told me that space shrinkage in big tenant leases was already happening.

“The bigger tenants are becoming smaller. They are moving from A to B, and a lot of the big legal and accounting firms are taking 10–15 per cent less space.”

What comes next, and what are the as-yet unrecognised pressures unfolding for property owners, investors and developers?

Question: What is the importance of place to the successful modern workplace?

How much weight should we give to the Australian Turnbull government’s recognition of the importance of cities in driving economic performance, and making connections between people ever more important?

Is the motivation to create a new-style workplace now far more than a matter of having a geographically convenient, convivial place to work?

If they expect anyone new and valuable to turn up, will all companies be required equally to invest wisely and imaginatively in the physical workspace to make themselves attractive to talent?

To what degree is location a factor in the competition for talented workers in the modern workplace?

Taking banks alone, Westpac, the National Australia Bank and the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, among the plethora of others have invested so much in future-state activity based working environments, but to what degrees are such facilities a success?

Could the same quality of performance and of people not be attracted to anywhere other than the CBD if the facilities were the same?

Is there something psychologically different between the organisations and that operate at the edge of town, say, on business parks, and those that must be present in the CBD?

How important is workplace geography, and why?

Question: What are the technology considerations built into the decision to move to agile or activity based working?

One of the purposes of moving into new space fitted out for activity based working is generally that of fostering collaboration.

We’ve read about the revolutionary growth of Slack over recent months, and the Australian Atlassian’s Nasdaq listing at the end of 2015 made its founding partners instant billionaires, suggesting that its collaborative tools must be getting something right.

Clearly also, pervasive wi-fi throughout an office building is an entry requirement, but what other questions must be answered satisfactorily by chief information offices before a workspace is fit for activity based working purposes?

Question: What comes next?

The internet and the networked economy are not done with the property industry yet, so what have I missed above?

Who are the companies pushing the boundaries that will reshape our workplace, and from which industries will they come?

What are the pressures to change? Operational sustainability? I’d put organisational learning in this bag. After all, you don’t get much sustainability unless companies begin to learn how to do things differently.

Where will tomorrow’s specialists come from, and how will their skills reshape the critical dimensions of workplace strategy and commercial workplace property occupation?

If you have insights to share on any of these questions, please share them with me so we can get the discussion moving.

Workplace strategy

Workplace strategy is where building design, modern technology and new ways of working come together to deliver the future of work. Shiro Architects’ research focuses on understanding how to create a better workplace-design briefing for the future occupants of commercial space.

Graham Lauren

Written by

Shiro Architects director and business writer, writing, reading and researching workplace strategy, learning organisations and knowledge architecture.

Workplace strategy

Workplace strategy is where building design, modern technology and new ways of working come together to deliver the future of work. Shiro Architects’ research focuses on understanding how to create a better workplace-design briefing for the future occupants of commercial space.

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