The role of the modern workplace is a topic of debate at present. Commercial real estate continues to account for a major proportion of business input costs, so maximising the value that can be derived from these assets – especially in an uncertain economic climate – remains a key focus for businesses. What steps can companies take to achieve this?

There is a growing recognition amongst business leaders that the value of the workplace goes beyond purely functional concerns, such as head count per square foot. The working environment is acknowledged to be a fundamental business tool that supports employee engagement and boosts corporate productivity. It is also now well established that the workforce’s expectations of what an attractive workplace should offer are continually evolving. Adapting working environments to meet these needs can be a critical tool in the battle for talent.

The motives for rethinking the way we design and manage our work spaces are clearly established, but to date no practical way of going about this has been developed. If we want to unlock the true value of our working environments, then we need to move beyond the rhetoric to develop tools and processes that drive change.

Plugging the knowledge gap

One reason why this hasn’t been done so far is a sheer lack of research into what makes an effective workplace. Few studies specifically examine the way we experience these environments and how in turn this can impact performance or behaviour at work.

However, there are lessons and techniques that we can borrow from more consumer-facing industries. The consumer world has spent a great deal of time and money to further its understanding of how the world around us influences human behaviour and opinions, such as purchasing decisions or brand perception.

We can learn a great deal from this consumer research. Interserve, together with Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA), is reviewing the findings of over 100 consumer studies to turn this knowledge into practical steps to creating effective workplace experiences that support commercial success.

The steps to change

We’re now at the third stage in our research process and have begun to map out a practical guide for businesses – from establishing a clear brief and vision for the workplace, to delivering an effective, performance-enhancing space.

The brief is critical. Although there are practical considerations to take into account, such as allowing space for future growth, an effective workplace brief should look beyond this. Consumer research shows us that the built environment can have a powerful impact on people’s perceptions of a brand or business and resultant behaviour. A workplace is in many ways a corporate showroom and businesses should evaluate what messages and values they want their working environment to convey to both employees and visitors.

This is what will shape working practices and cultures down the line. For example, is collaboration key to how a business wants to operate in the future? If so, then the brief should explore ways to communicate this and encourage interaction between teams.

For employees, by employees

A central finding from consumer-focused research is the power of the emotional connection. Customers are much more likely to stay loyal to a brand if they feel it understands and cares about them. Physical surroundings play an important role in this opinion-forming process. If business leaders want work environments to positively shape employees’ working practices in the same way, then they must feel part of any workplace changes and have their requirements taken into account.

A central mechanism for coordinating this input is vital and businesses should establish teams of ‘workplace guardians’ to guide the process. This will help companies to relate feedback from the workforce to wider business aims and objectives. By putting in place the relevant management channels and structures, it will also signal that the workplace experience is something that is taken seriously.

Workplace guardians must be drawn from diverse backgrounds. The inputs into an effective workplace experience are many and varied. Businesses should look to bring together the knowledge of HR teams, facilities management professionals and technology specialists to name just a few.

The devil is in the detail

Creating an effective workplace experience is a meticulous process. It is futile to design a welcoming and engaging front-of-house space only to have this let down behind the scenes. Any workplace changes must be considered in the round.

Businesses need to map out every interaction that employees or visitors will have as they pass through a facility. Once again, there are techniques we can borrow from customer-facing industries. Pioneered by the hotel sector, the concept of customer journey mapping involves a building’s team tracing a guest’s route through the premises to ensure their experience is positive from start to finish.

Finally, the path to creating a successful workplace is not a one-stop process. The needs of businesses and employees are continually evolving. Workplace guardians will again have an important role to play in this, monitoring for change and ensuring that the work environment keeps pace.

Creating successful workplaces is a long-term commitment and it will take businesses time and money to put the relevant structures in place. However, with the potential to dramatically change the way we work for the better, the efforts and the rewards are well worth it. 

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