For most of the last hundred years, organisations have looked at their workplace and offices as an expensive hygiene factor, “if we have 100 people we have to provide a seat for 100 people”. Slowly organisations have started to see the power of leveraging the workplace as a strategic enabler, and recoup on the investment. This happens on a number of levels, from the very basic ‘property’ focus, i.e. how do we showcase our brand in our space, or how do we more efficiently use space? Some organisations have been taking this one step further, by considering how to use the workplace as a way to attract and retain talent, how does it form part of the value proposition, and how can it support their people in what they do, more effectively.
In my opinion, those organisations who really get it are truly thinking strategically about where they are heading. They ask themselves what does that ask of our culture? and how does our approach to supporting people at work ensure a consistent experience in our property/workpalce strategy? i.e. where do we have workplaces and what form do they take? From shared spaces to co-working and single occupier spaces, the experience of the workplace(s) themselves, the tools, processes and systems are all supported with and brought to life by the culture that is nurtured throughout the organisation. A culture that defines the way we ask, and expect people to operate, expect people to lead, and to be led. Those organisations who genuinely consider that every part of the workplace experience is a decision that can support their vision, are going to stand out. They will create the best experience and the best opportunities for their people.
When I talk to teams and individuals about working in a contemporary way, (and by that I mean adopting a way of working more independent of time and place, enabled by culture and technology) most of them are nervous about a few things:
- The change itself,
- The loss of ownership of space, and,
- The sense that teams will become disconnected.
I can 100% understand these challenges, however to me they are fine examples of the reasons to adopt a new way of working:
Nervous about the change itself:
People fear the unknown, and this is perpetuated when they have poor change experience. (PROSCI still reports ~70% of change initiatives failing). We know however that changing the way an organisation works is a tangible and transformational change initiative that has the ability to impact everyone in an organisation. Considering the rate of change is increasing, along with complexity, we actually need to invest in getting better at change, not avoid it. This kind of organisational change requires commitment, investment, and focus. In fact all change requires these things, but change programs of this nature are more likely to get the buy-in where there is a tangible outcome where people have a clear sense of “what’s in it for me?”.
Nervous about the loss of ownership of space:
In our traditional way of working, although not said explicitly, we tell people when, where, and how they will work. People aren’t stupid either, so in their effort to connect they quickly adapt to the norms and culture of the organisation. We’re social animals after all. But without realising it, most of our choices are being “taken from us”. So when someone suggests they will “take away” the one thing I do ‘own’ and have control over, i.e. my desk, that can be a scary thought. So to help navigate this, I’d suggest when we give people the empowerment and autonomy to contribute to their outcomes in the way that works for them, that we demand they make conscious choices for themselves and the people in their care. So that they feel a sense of connection and shared ownership, and the desk becomes a simply a place to do some work rather than an object of identity.
Nervous about the sense that teams will become disconnected:
When I talk to teams about what contributes to ‘their sense of team’ on average >70% of the things that contribute, are in how the team acts and behaves. For sure sitting next to someone gives people a sense of connection, but I challenge the view that co-locating with the same group of people for 5 days a week creates a genuine sense of meaningful connection. Further, nearly every leadership group I talk to wants to see greater cross-functional collaboration and connection. So to me the answer again lies in conscious, and intentional actions. How do leaders ensure their functional teams take the time to do the things that actually contribute to genuine and meaningful connection? Whether it be team lunches, celebrations, or meetings… but we also need to free up some time for individuals to connect to the many other forms of teams and relationships in an organisation, that we know are essential to the matrixed and cross-functional ways we need to be working.
I strongly believe intentionality and consciousness around how an organisation chooses to work is one of the most powerful tools for transformational change, organisational development, and leadership development. However, there must be clarity about what an organisation wishes to achieve. There must be the curiosity to withhold judgement, and the discipline to stay away from the details. Only then can you stay true to the vision whilst the organisation inclusively develops their own way of working.
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