As the nature of work changes, employees increasingly find their desks aren’t always the most suitable location for every task but struggle to find the appropriate space to do their work when they need it. The favorite response of corporate real estate teams, whose job it is to provide the right space for employees, is to increase the variety of work places available.
But this has a damaging downside. More variety usually comes at the expense of fewer areas assigned to specific employees and this tends to make it harder for employees to find the right space at the right time, and so harm productivity – to the tune of $31 million for the average large company.
But there is a way corporate real estate (CRE) teams can provide access to space suitable for employees’ work without reducing assigned space or developing expensive new space, although it does require a little creative thinking.
The Swiss Army Knife Approach
Most companies have more suitable real estate than they think. It’s within their existing space, but it just takes a slight change in perspective to see.
Think of it as the Swiss army knife approach: just as this handy tool has multiple uses, so too do most types of space. For instance, a coffee bar can be a place to grab a snack, have a meeting, or hold a social event.
The best solution is to enable employees to use existing places in a variety of ways – not simply to increase space type variety (see chart 1). While it’s a good idea to have different types of working environments where possible, what really makes a difference is encouraging and teaching employees to use the same space in a variety of ways.
This strategy works in all types of space, according to CEB research (see chart 2), and means the solution will work for any company no matter what its real estate portfolio looks like.
Chart 1: Impact of better variety of use of existing space, variety of space type, and space assignment on having the right space at the right time n=813 employees Source: CEB 2015 Employee Workspace Mobility Survey
Note: Based on multivariate regression analysis where Having the Right Space at the Right Time is the dependent variable, and Space Variety and Space Assignment are the explanatory variables. The maximum impact associated with a dependent variable represents the percentage change in the dependent variable that can be achieved from a 10th percentile to a 90th percentile improvement in a given explanatory variable.
a – Variety of Existing Space Use measured by the question: I am able to use workspace in multiple ways (yes/no)?
Chart 2: Relationship between variety of existing space use and employees having the right space at the right time across different space characteristics* n=813 employees Source: CEB 2015 Employee Workspace Mobility Survey
* – Variety of Existing Space Use measured by the question: I am able to use workspace in multiple ways (yes/no)?
Best of all, workers are already familiar with using space in this way. For example, employees use individual workstations for their own work, impromptu collaboration, small team brainstorming sessions, or social events. Another example is how staff use private offices for individual work by the person whose office it is, team meetings, or team collaboration work.
But the problem is that employees are not doing so consistently and systematically. Only 37% of employees say they’re able to use the workspace in multiple ways, according to CEB data. And this is because they’re not used to doing so, or they have (some misplaced) assumptions about what they can and can’t do in the space. Plus, different employees have different ideas about how to use the space.
Changing Employees’ Mind-Sets
Resourceful use of space comes from a change in employee mindset, not a change in the design of the space itself. Most companies have anecdotal examples of employees using the workspace in multiple ways: the aim here should be to make this a common, everyday practice across the employee base.
The Swiss army knife approach to the working environment shouldn’t just take place in high-profile spaces with new, innovative designs but everywhere across the office.
It’s also important that Real Estate isn’t prescriptive about how employees make use of the office, but rather enables them to find their own ways to use the space. Direct guidance could discourage alternative uses and limit the potential of the space. If the function instead helps employees explore their own ideas, they’ll continually find new ways to best use of their environment.
Encourage Variety of Space Use in Two Ways
To get employees into the habit of using space in different ways, Real Estate needs to tackle two barriers:
- Lack of imagination: Employees don’t know how to use space differently—especially because they already have ingrained habits regarding how they use space.
- Self-consciousness: Employees believe they can only use space in conventional ways because they’re concerned that managers and peers view alternative space use negatively.
To address these obstacles, Real Estate must first help employees visualize the multiple uses of space and, second, establish new norms for space use. Future posts will explain how CRE teams can tackle these challenges, along with case studies of success stories (see the In This Series section on the top right of the page).