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7 January 2011

Why Do You Need Workplace Strategy?

Workplaces, and the workforce itself, are changing radically in response to a combination of demographic, socio-political, and economic factors. SoVibrant are convinced that this pace of change will accelerate in the next three years. Companies that provide workers with workplaces and support programs that enhance productivity, increase satisfaction, and foster creativity will enjoy a competitive advantage. Those that do not will cease to exist.

At SoVibrant, we are doing some groundbreaking work on these trends and patterns, which has led us to the following conclusion: the very nature of work (what it is, how it’s accomplished, and the tools people use to get their work done) is changing. As a result, we all need very different places and spaces in which to work.

What we have found is that most companies don’t have a workplace strategy of any kind, let alone a good one. And those that do are simply asking people to extrapolate their current task structures and role relationships into the future. Neither individual workers nor managers can do that because the very rules that govern their current lives are changing. They can’t see around the corner.

What we are suggesting is that the “grammar of work” is already undergoing a fundamental shift. If you are trying to design for the future you need vastly different methods and approaches than the ones in common use today in the architectural and interior design fields. We have put together a team of experts who understand this need and address work design from a socio-technical design perspective.

Most work today is based on an industrial model wherein people add value by assembling “pieces” into “wholes.” Manufacturing is the obvious example and the classic case, but this model also applies to knowledge-based work such as software engineering, where object-oriented programming is the base technology. You take little parts, put them together, optimise the flow of data through the process, and, whoop-te-do, you’ve added value – or, in accounting terms, you are “productive.” And the type of work environment that maximises this process is very uniform, consistent, logical and interchangeable. Indeed all the Six Sigma frenzy the past dozen years is about reducing variation and making work processes even more consistent, logical, and predictable.

However we believe this approach is already changing. “Work” in the future (especially for those we call “knowledge workers”) won’t look at all like that. The most value-added contributions will come from the “creative class,” or those whose skill set is more intuitive, who develop new ways of thinking about problems and apply knowledge from one discipline area to another. This kind of work will also be much, much more collaborative.

What does a workplace that supports that kind of work look like? We believe it is going to look more like an artist’s studio at the individual level, and much more like an artists’ collective, or community, at the organisational level.

So you should be asking even bigger questions about workforce planning and strategy. For example, let’s say that today your workforce is 70% engineering and 30% everything else.

What are the implications if that ratio changes to 70% marketing and 30% contractor management? The implication here is that if your company evolves from a “building” organisation to a “selling” one then you have a whole new ballgame in terms of providing workplace resources to a very different work structure and a very different set of workers who want and need different kinds of work environments to be successful.

Finally, the forces of globalisation are driving companies to change their basic business models. In addition, financial frameworks and measurement methods will change dramatically. Consider, for example, how you would manage your company if only 40% of your current workforce were full-time “employees.”

Not only will your accounting and management control systems have to be radically different to manage “1099” staff rather than full-time W-2 employees, but the use of the corporate facilities you still have will change dramatically. Contractors and part-timers still need some work space when they are on site, but much more of that space will be conference rooms, team rooms, and large meeting spaces rather than private offices or cubicles. And that space will be shared, not dedicated to singe individuals. And much of the work that matters to your organization will take place somewhere outside of the facilities you own or lease.

Breakeven points will have to be reduced at least 25% from their current levels to cope with intense competition and the need to survive dramatic ups and downs in the economy. Margin pressure will be extreme. Organizations will become even more leveraged, more dispersed, and more mobile.

This analysis points to the obvious conclusion that in general many of the elements of the current enterprise infrastructure (i.e., IT, HR and CRE) are not aligned in terms of vision and the investments required to support this new reality. All this is to loop back and say, you may be asking great questions today, but probably not the ones that will lead you to designing and delivering the workplace resources that are required to support these new ways of working.
Workplace Strategy

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