A holistic workplace strategy is built on 3 interdependent elements: the built environment (the ‘bricks’), the digital platform (the ‘bytes’), and the behavioural way of working (the ‘behaviours’). They are all crucial elements in a successful workplace transformation, but they are not always given equal focus. The emergence of hybrid working strategies forces a rethink on where we need to focus our attention when it comes to developing an effective workplace strategy.

Key Points

  • A holistic workplace strategy consists of the highly interdependent elements of the built environment (the ‘bricks’), the digital platform (the ‘bytes’) and cultural change (the ‘behaviours’)
  • Workplace transformations tend to focus primarily on on-time delivery of the built environment, with change management investment needs being underestimated. (i.e a ‘buildings first’ approach).
  • For Hybrid workplace transformations, the built environment will no longer be the primary source of meaning and belonging for employees. So, a ‘behaviours first’ approach will be needed to deliver success.

Bricks, Bytes, Behaviour

Why the ‘bricks’ and ‘bytes’ of Workplace Strategy tend to be favoured over the ‘behaviours’

The execution of a workplace strategy has been predominantly focused on the delivery of the built environment and digital platforms. The needs of behavioural change management (including leadership development) took something of a backseat; an afterthought focused on close to, or following the move-in period.

This is, perhaps, not all that surprising. All projects involve a level of compromise. When compromise is needed in a workplace transformation, it’s easy to understand why the behavioural element might be given short shrift in favour of the ‘bricks’ and the ‘bytes’. Why is this? In short, it’s about visibility. For the built environment and the digital platforms, a clear line of sight can be seen between investment and outcome. A critical path, while complex, can be relatively simple to develop to map out a program of lead-times for such criticalities like tenders, design specs, equipment and furniture purchase, office fit-out and so on.

Whereas for the behavioural elements, the line of sight is not so clear. It is more difficult to demonstrate how each dollar invested in behavioural change will result in measurable outcomes for the organisation. In addition, it is sometimes assumed that if the built environment is achieved and the technology is in place then the behaviours will follow. Undoubtedly, the office design plays a major role in how we behave, but it is not enough for a workplace transformation where cultural change is what is really at stake.

The ‘behaviours first’ approach for your workplace strategy

This inordinate focus on the ‘bricks’ and the ‘bytes’ could be described as taking a ‘building first’ approach to workplace strategy. An alternative is to take a ‘behaviours first’ approach. A ‘behaviours first’ approach to workplace strategy is to first ask, “Where do we want to go as an organisation and how might a way of working help us achieve that?”. When this question is answered then (and only then) should the questions of the built environment and digital platforms be approached.

A ‘behaviours first’ approach has always been important but the increased focus on hybrid working will make it critical to workplace transformational success. Hybrid is on the tip of the tongue of many CEOs at the moment. When we talk to organisations about the challenges and opportunities faced when approaching hybrid work, they ask questions like “how do we maintain a sense of belonging?”, and “how do we maintain flexibility and at the same time encourage social interaction and cross department collaboration?”, and “how do we ensure our people are healthy?”. What they rarely ask about (initially, at least) is about the office space. And they are right! First and foremost, should come questions of organisational purpose, organisational goals and organisational aspirations. Then, let’s talk about how a physical space might enable their vision to come to fruition.

What then becomes the purpose of the office?

In this context of questions regarding hybrid working, a new more profound question emerges: what then becomes of the purpose of the office? What is the office for? The question offers a multitude of paths to beat a trail on (“Traveller, there is no path. The path is made by walking.”, the poet Antonio Machado once said). There are many expressions that hybrid working can take, but there is one thing in common with them all. There is less focus on the office as the central place of work. Accordingly, work is no longer necessarily a ‘place you go’. The office will no longer the space that binds people together, the primary source of what it is to work. It will still be hugely important, make no mistake. But in a hybrid working model it will not be the bedrock it used to be. Organisational purpose, behaviours, culture and leadership will be the binding factor when employees no longer assume they will in the office during all their working hours.

Therefore, a ‘building first’ approach to workplace strategy will no longer be fit for purpose. In a hybrid workplace a new anchor for culture, leadership and purpose will be needed. New ways will need to be found in order to create a sense of what the organisation is in the absence of the built environment playing the role enabling connection and belonging. There are many ways that this could the manifest but without a doubt it will require a ‘behaviours first’ -not a ‘building first’– approach to workplace strategy.

So, where do we start?

A behaviour first-approach: where to start and how to approach it? Well rather than asking ‘what type of space do we need?’ and then diving headlong into office layout, furniture styling and online collaboration tools, instead try to take a step back from the detail and approach it strategically with the following set of questions:

  • What are our strategic goals?
  • Do our current ways of working support or inhibit us achieving those goals?
  • How might a new way of working (and a new way of leading) better support us?
  • Then, what is an office design that supports this new way of working?

Easy questions to ask. Difficult questions to answer. But, the answers will make for a much better workplace transformation and a great hybrid working experience.

Want to know more? Just reach out to me or one of the Veldhoen + Company team.

Or read more on the future of work. 


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