10 min read

How to create an effective workplace strategy

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 In his 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation”, Abraham Maslow famously described a ‘hierarchy of needs’.

At any one time, each of us tends to be focused on one particular level of need. These needs dominate our behaviour.

When we’re thinking about workplace strategy, it’s useful to adapt Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to organisational design.

maslow hierarchy of needs

If we neglect to tick off the basics, our people will never reach the top; and the top what we’re aiming for. Anything less strips our competitive advantage, dampens performance, erodes employee engagement and creates a whole host of maladaptive behaviours.

At the top of the pyramid lies the holy grail of the future workplace: self-actualisation. A workplace that enables this is a workplace where peak performance is the norm. It’s a workplace where people reach their full potential, creativity flourishes and complex problems are tackled head on.

In today’s fast-changing landscape, your workplace strategy plays a fundamental role in equipping your people with the resources, environment and tools they need to adapt, self-actualise and deliver results.

So here goes…

What is ‘workplace strategy’?

Workplace strategy is all about understanding the needs of your people, then providing a workspace that’ll help them do their best work. All this, while minimising costs and environmental impact.

If you want to know more about The Top 10 Workplace Trends Impacting HR & Facilities read this post or download a PDF version.

Wikipedia puts it this way: “Workplace strategy is the dynamic alignment of an organisation’s work patterns with the work environment to enable peak performance and reduce costs.”

Normally workplace strategy involves pulling together information from various business areas – IT, HR, Finance, Corporate Real Estate and Facilities – and aligning the overall strategy with your organisation’s vision, mission, goals and resources.

Workplace strategists understand the impact that the physical environment can have on behaviour and performance. Cubicles, open plan or private offices, team rooms, ambiance and workforce mobility all cause specific behaviours to emerge.

The average cost of unused space in the U.S. is $25 per square foot or more [source: BOMA’s 2015 Office Experience Exchange Report 2015]

The benefits of having a workplace strategy

In reality, we seldom embark on a major workplace strategy change without being sure that there will be some financial benefit. Yet the benefits of an effective workplace strategy go far beyond cost savings. Get it right and you’ll will…

  • Improve output and performance
  • Improve collaboration and teamwork
  • Increase employee engagement
  • Reduce absenteeism and presenteeism
  • Increase creativity and innovation
  • Attract and retain the best talent
  • Increase the value of your consumer-facing and employer brand
  • Reduce costs
  • Reduce environmental impact and improve sustainability

The need to reduce office costs is a major driver for considering your workplace strategy, but it’s not the only trigger. 

Perhaps you’re embarking on a culture change initiative and you’ve been tasked with implementing agile working practices? 

Or maybe your organisation is focusing on improving innovation, creativity and collaboration? 

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It could be that you’re facing a merger, acquisition or a change in headcount? 

Or your lease might be coming to an end, prompting a review of real estate needs? 

Perhaps you’re re-branding or you’ve had a change in leadership?

Major changes like these often provide the spark we need to consider whether our workspaces are really working for us.

Many studies show that commercial buildings account for 40% of the world’s electricity consumption

What’s driving the demand for workplace strategy?

Business leaders haven’t had to worry too much about workplace strategy until recent years. There are several forces bringing workplace design to the forefront:

  • We need to achieve more with less. Budgets are tight and organisations can no longer afford to waste money on excessive energy bills or real estate costs. 
  • Technology enables people to work from anywhere. Nowadays we need to cater for a mobile workforce, making sure they have secure access to everything they need on-the-move; and a productive space to touch down in when they arrive at the office.
  • Work is becoming more complex. As innovation and communication speeds up, spurred on by technology, we need to achieve new levels of creativity and flex our cognitive muscles. Machines are helping take some mundane, repetitive tasks off our hands, leaving we humans to focus on knowledge work. As the demand for creative problem solving increases, so does our need for collaboration, as well as time for learning and focusing. 
  • We’re in a state of constant flux. As the pace of change continues to accelerate, it no longer makes sense to have a static workplace. Instead we need to create an agile environment that allows us to adapt spaces to our changing needs.
  • Cultural expectations are shifting. These days people value meaningful work and autonomy more than ever. To attract and retain the best people – and enable them to perform at the top of their game – we need to provide spaces that are not just functional, but inspiring and remarkable. Workspaces that cater for a more diverse workforce, including the needs of Gen Z and Millennials through to over 65s.

How do you develop an effective workplace strategy?

Discovery: exploring the current reality in your workplace

  1. Understand how space is currently being used. Look at occupancy data to see how, when and where people are using desks, meeting rooms and other spaces. Collect data from sensors that track when people enter and exit buildings and rooms. Ask IT for insights on when and from where people are accessing organisational data. Build a clear picture of how many people are using what; so you can gauge the current reality. Are some spaces unused or under-used? Are some over-used and backed-up? 
  2. Talk to people. Ask for feedback and ideas from leaders and team members in every business area. If you run employee engagement surveys, check whether there are comments relating to the physical environment that can provide further insights on whether people feel the workplace is helping them perform at their best.
  3. Examine the work modes and behaviours currently at play. For instance, some work will be collaborative, while other work will be autonomous. Some activities demand thinking and focusing, while others are more rowdy and social. What about planning and learning activities? What about filing, reading, writing and computing? Then there are meetings: some are formal, others are informal. Some work happens locally, other work happens remotely. By understanding the balance of activities, then combining this with employee and space usage insights, you’ll start to build a comprehensive picture of the ‘now’.
  4. Look at your organisation’s overall strategy: the vision, values, mission, goals and objectives; as well as the way work gets done: processes, projects and tasks. Unearth any changes initiatives that are already underway that could impact how space is used. Get total clarity on your strategic priorities. Is it about lowering costs, improving collaboration, or both?

Planning your workplace strategy

Armed with the information you’ve gathered in the discovery phase, you can form a picture of the desired outcome.

How much space do we actually need?

Do we currently have too much space, or not enough?

Are our facilities located in the right places?

What sort of spaces do we need to support our employees to do their best work?

Do we have the right mix of spaces?

How will we measure success?

workplace strategy

Depending on whether your focus is on cost savings, collaboration, or both, you’ll need to consider a range of strategies, for example:

  • Adding more informal spaces, like bean bag areas or cafes
  • Introducing zones for specific activities, like brainstorming areas with whiteboards, or areas for focused concentration
  • Lowering or putting up partitions
  • Making the workplace more visually stimulating
  • Clustering workstations or spreading out
  • Introduce spaces for physical activity and booster breaks
  • Reducing or increasing overall footprint
  • Implementing hot-desking or office hoteling
  • Adding ore cubicles, individual offices, or shifting to open plan
  • Creating multipurpose space, with flexible furniture 
  • Using internet-of-things devices to automate heating, lighting and more
  • Equipping people with infrastructure and tools to work from anywhere
  • Using satellite offices
  • Introducing more flexible work schedules or agile working practices

Consider the consequences of your workplace strategy

It’s important to consider the knock-on effects and unintended consequences when you make changes in the workplace. 

For instance, you might want to improve collaboration by reducing the number of private offices and opting for more open plan areas. Yet research shows that open plan layouts can increase stress and lower productivity, due to distractions and interruptions. 

Meanwhile there’s a correlation between distance and face-to-face contact: if you sit closer to someone, you’ll interact with them more frequently. 

Then there’s remote working. Most research shows that enabling people to work from anywhere improves engagement and performance, yet companies like IBM opted to bring people back to the office because their research showed that face-to-face is more effective for them.

Rather than follow ‘best practice’ and adopt a one-size-fits all approach, carefully consider the nuances of your organisation. Your workplace strategy will be most effective when you balance diverse needs, build in as much flexibility as possible and take measures to counteract any unintended consequences.

How do you get buy-in for your workplace strategy?

Build a business case for your workplace strategy

When you have a carefully considered workplace strategy plan in place, it’s time to present that plan and get buy-in at board level and beyond. 

Develop a business case that takes into account the cost savings, from real estate costs, energy bills and reducing the amount of time employees waste due to the current workplace design.

Help people visualise the impact of your workplace strategy

Develop concepts that help people visualise the outcome of the changes you propose. Graphics, CAD drawings, models and simulations can paint a thousand words. 

Make sure your workplace strategy includes some quick wins 

Your workplace strategy should lay the building blocks for long-term, continuous change. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get a few quick wins under your belt. Consider whether you can run pilots with a limited group of people, e.g. one specific team. That way you can provide the value and learn lessons for a wider rollout.

Also remember that low cost solutions do exist. Cloud based SaaS tools, for instance, can be flexible, scalable and quick to deploy. Consider the tool kit your people need to work more flexibly, then find technology partners you can trust.

Show how you’ll implement and manage the changes proposed in your workplace strategy

Put together an implementation project plan, that includes milestones, tasks and governance. Show the ‘what, where, who and when’. Provide detail on what will be measured and how you’ll report on it. 

Will employees need to be temporarily relocated and what is the impact likely to be? 

Don’t forget to include a plan for managing change. Change management is ultimately about communication. You’ll need to engage leaders and team members along the way. By equipping managers with the materials they need to get their people on board, you’ll be able to garner support and minimise any disruptions during the transitional period.

To help get buy-in at every level in your organisation, it’s important to adopt an agile ‘test and learn’ approach. By eliciting feedback every step of the way, people feel listened to, while you avoid going down the wrong path based on false assumptions.

It’s likely you’ll require support from every business area, not least IT, Facilities, HR, internal comms and Corporate Real Estate.

Read more about The Top 10 Workplace Trends Impacting HR & Facilities.

Workplace Strategy Manager Roles

Rather than delegating the responsibility out to one or more current employees, some businesses may even go as far as hiring a workplace strategy manager.

The person tasked with this role will oversee the workplace strategy and may even have a dual role in corporate real estate and facilities management depending on the needs of the company. Some of the main responsibilities within this role will include identifying opportunities for cost savings, helping other departments plan and execute events, and managing changing in the workplace. 

As a workplace strategy manager, you need to be able to effectively communicate with your team the need for change and consider the impact this change is going to have on everyone. Not only that, you will be responsible for supporting every employee through this change and help them to embrace it. 

Essential Workplace Strategy Manager Skills

The majority of individuals that fall into this role will likely have experience in facilities management and need to be a strong leader, with a well-rounded skill set. Some of the crucial skills a workplace strategy manager needs: 

  • Space management
  • Strategic and critical thinker 
  • Project management 
  • Organisational skills
  • Problem solver 
  • Working knowledge of different safety regulations
  • Experience managing workplace technology and data 

If you want to dive deeper, get a FREE copy of our eBookYour Definitive Guide to The Future of Work: Looking Beyond the Hype to What You Really Need to Know (and Do).

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Jane Young

Jane Young

Last updated September 10, 2018