Is Workplace Design Briefing Becoming Too Complex For Property Specialists Alone?


By Graham Lauren, director, Shiro Architects.

Increasingly, the physical workplace itself is becoming a feature in the sophisticated, specialised machinery that runs any nimble internet age business.

As such, these spaces must respond to the emerging needs of workplace strategy.

This is the zone in which building design, modern technology and new ways of working come together to deliver the future of work.

That briefing must change to meet complex and challenging circumstances is confirmed in the countless interviews Shiro Architects has now conducted with experts in workplace strategy.

Suzanne Murray-Prior, who consults to large professional services firms on activity based working, says, “The design and the workplace is only as good as the brief the client gives.

“If you have a client saying I want to reduce costs, I need less space, I don’t want to pay for storing files, I want less paper, sure you can achieve that. But that doesn’t truly get at all the benefits of this type of working.

“In organisations that truly strive for collaboration or creativity, it’s very clear what they want to achieve, and while a designer can’t make it happen, they can design a space where it enables the right kind of interactions to occur.

“This will come back to the designer really challenging the business on what’s your business trying to achieve in the next decade?“That is the workplace you want to design for.”

An owner’s perspective

But still, in the rapidly gathering flight to workplace flexibility, property managers’ first instinct is to follow what happened in the past and get the briefing process wrong, Marcus Hanlon says.

Hanlon, executive general manager, property operations, at the giant property trust ISPT, has responsibility for $11 billion worth of commercial and industrial property.

In another career, he was also a key initiator in the National Australia Bank’s move to flexible ways of working for 4800 staff at its 700 Bourke Street, Melbourne, headquarters.

“I think too many times when people are looking at relocating, it’s still driven by technical facets,” he says.

“One is lease expiry coming up; two, it’s location; three, it’s rent and square metres, and, frankly, the property industry really supports that [old-fashioned way of thinking].

“Briefs put out continue to be around those technical elements, rather than stepping back and having the right kind of workshop with the CEO and human resource and chief operations officer around workforce, people, culture.

“The questions these guys need to be answering are of where is the business going to be in five to seven years, from an operational and strategy perspective?“Secondly, what is the culture, and what are the cultural aspirations of the business?“And third, what are their aspirations around the productivity, engagement and collaboration that the organisation most wants to drive?“This is a cultural opportunity in which too much, from briefing through to delivery, is done by technical experts, the property people and facilities managers.”

The transformation of the workplace, Hanlon says, “can’t be seen as a property initiative, it’s got to be seen as an organisational and cultural initiative, in which property is just the enabler.

“The property people should be on the second line, as none of that conversation is around square metres or rent or floor-plate size or fit-out.”

A manager’s view

Tony Walsh, property manager at motor manufacturer Toyota agrees with Hanlon.

Walsh is charged with the need to consolidate various properties into a single, more flexible Melbourne headquarters location. He too is disdainful of traditional approaches to property challenges.

“Typically, a client who has a business need for real estate, races to the solution, and you almost have to unravel the knot to really get to the true goal they are aiming for.

“At an organisational level, where a CEO is trying to achieve large-scale real estate change, without them being coached and engaged in actually clarifying the brief, it becomes very function-based.

“In that case, the leap will go from the company’s vision through to a technical solution, but not necessarily through understanding what the multiple ways of achieving that ultimate vision might be.

“The issue for me is, should there be a way of looking at the emerging ways of working, technologically, and even, do we need to be actually physically in the same space?In his experience, “The assessment is at first undertaken very much in the traditional mindset of, we have x number of people, we have a rate per square metre, we have a box this big, will they fit?“But, are there other things we could explore around that that might give us different outputs?“So, it just demonstrates that maybe some of the strategic thinking around what we are actually determining needed to be a bit wider.

“Can we understand what is important to our people, what is important to our leaders, what is our global vision, what is our cultural vision in terms of our workplace we want to create?Walsh says that, after all, “Workplace strategy is about behavioural psychology of people, it’s not about the fitout or technical tools, it’s about behavioural psychology and change management.

“Everything else is toys that facilitate that way of working.”


Capturing the message

In the move to what many now label “workplace agility”, not only is thinking on outcomes changing, but also ways of getting there.

Methods of briefing and engaging the workforce are themselves in evolution, with web surveys and workplace social technologies now playing an increasingly important role.

The application of social technologies in the workplace is of particular interest to Shiro Architects. It is also something in which we have a view, experience and a methodology to apply to workplace-design briefing.

Tony Walsh says the new networked technologies importance to briefing is, “Massive … You have different personalities in the workplace and we all need quiet time, we all need social time, some people need lots of quiet and little social, and others are the other way round.

“So, providing these spaces that are flexible to the people’s diversity, their way of working, what helps them to be as productive as they can be is very important.

“Not to listen is a critical flaw. If you’ve at least listened, you might get some solid gold insights.

“You have to pay homage to people’s feedback, as that can take you a long way with people’s engagement in the new work environment.”

The key to success lies in engagement

In the transition to the new ways of the workplace, Stuart Munro, Sydney head of workplace strategy at Colliers International, concurs that worker engagement is key to success.

“One of the biggest shifts is the move towards the power of employees [and] the magnitude of change is high for organisations when they are moving to new ways of working.

“We talk about not just managing change, but getting people to engage, transform and embrace change, and ... if they start influencing some of the solutions that is going to be positive.”

Marcus Hanlon goes further, reckoning that, “One of the concepts of flexible working is that you can work anytime, anywhere at any hour, but that whole flexible working environment is a root challenge for an organisation.”

Rebecca Hosking, a workplace accommodation strategist with long experience of working on financial services workplace transitions says, “I agree that workplace design tends to be as good as the briefing it is based on.

“But I think you can’t underestimate the level of ongoing change management required.

“It’s not unusual to hear ‘we’ve moved in, we’ve done our job, we’ve told you how it works, good luck, see you later,’ but that doesn’t work.

“People think we’ve just spent all this money on a brand new building and a big project, so we shouldn’t have to spend much more on it going forward.

“But, I definitely think that to make sure the change keeps working for you, you do need to do that.

She says that the change management effort has to be sustained: “You need to budget for it and you need to resource it, and I don’t think that is recognised sufficiently.”

What sort of workplace are you creating, and why?

Marcus Hanlon says that above all in workplace design briefing the bigger question of purpose matters above all.

“The conversation is not so much about shoehorning people in. It is about what sort of culture do we want, what sort of workforce and what sort of capability are we going to have within the workforce?”

And this is a considerably different question against the experience of most property professionals unused to reconciling the hard matters of property acquisition and fitout with the soft and woolly stuff of employee relations.

The upshot is that we are in a new age of briefing in which the creation of a high-performing contemporary work environment is now far too complex to be left to property specialists alone.

The new, new question of workplace design

But now let’s lob in an even more challenging question for all of those involved as buildings become just one of the growing number of moving parts in an ever more challenging workplace-design equation.

Whether business leaders articulate it as such or not, in moving their organisations to new premises and new ways of working, they commonly wish to use those workplaces in the hope of creating new knowledge flows.

But what would happen if they focused the knowledge flows before they started thinking about moving offices, and instead worked around those?How would this change the briefing outcome? Moreover, how would you begin to go about it?This is now a much bigger question many of us with a professional interest in the design of the workplace will be challenged to answer.

Ten questions for those about to undertake next-generation workplace-design briefing

How have you considered using your relocation/fitout as a trigger to change the way the organisation operates, and to what degree is workplace change intended to be its outcome?

What will you factor in as non-building goals for the exercise, and how will you measure its success?

How do you intend to run your briefing, and what alternatives have you considered in the way you construct the brief for this project?

How have you considered using your relocation/fitout to change the ways in which your organisation addresses its higher goals, such as in directing its strategy or shaping its culture?

How have you considered using your relocation/fitout to introduce changes in way the organisation uses technology?

How have you considered ways in which to use your briefing to make your workplace a more attractive place through which to compete in securing the best available new staff?

How have you considered using your relocation/fitout as the catalyst for introducing new ways of working, such as in flexible modes of engagement, more working off-site or in attempting to enlist new kinds of worker?

How have you considered using your relocation/fitout and its briefing process to inspire increased innovation and collaboration across the business?

How have you considered using your relocation/fitout to get better use out of the minds you employ, and in what ways have you considered how using those minds could be introduced into the way you brief for it?

How has your briefing process factored in post-occupancy data collection as a means of constructing your organisation’s unique body of competitive “data capital”?

Graham Lauren is a director of Shiro Architects and is leading its workplace research for a book themed “beyond activity based working”. It addresses among other things the challenges to owners, investors, developers and occupiers of commercial office space in adapting to a rapidly evolving workplace and economy.

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