Monday, August 24, 2009

Work space - the next frontier

Concept of changing workers' mindset through better use of space catches on

DESK-SHARING may sound a little threatening to some but it is one example of the way modern offices are being reshaped to bring about efficiency and innovation.

Government agencies and companies in Singapore are looking to introduce such strategies to get the most out of their physical space.

They are following in the footsteps of global multinationals which have, for the past decade, used technology and a mobile workforce to embrace workplace strategies to cut costs and improve productivity, said Mr Peter Andrew.

He is Asia-Pacific managing director of DEGW, a London-based global strategy and design consultancy that looks at how offices can better use space and change the way people behave within that space.

Organisations in Asia are just beginning to catch on to the importance of that, he said. 'In the past 18 months, about 90 per cent of our business inquiries have related in some way or other to people looking at this. It may be part of something bigger, but it's on the agenda,' he said.

There is more to this than simply using space more efficiently to save on costs. Productivity can be improved by streamlining processes in an organisation, breaking down barriers between departments and helping firms get products faster to market, Mr Andrew said.

Crucially, an effective workplace strategy makes the employees feel like they belong to a distinct work environment.

Mr Andrew said: 'When I walk into that space, does it feel like I work for an insurance agency? Do I feel like I am working for Google?

'Some organisations are really good at representing their brand and their space. Others, when you walk in, you just don't know what kind of company it is.'

Mr Andrew, who has post-graduate degrees in corporate real estate and facilities planning and management, moved to Singapore in January last year to set up DEGW's Asia base here.

He said organisations are asking not only how they can get more bang for their buck from their physical space, but also how this will lead to productivity gains.

He cited the case of a client who wanted to build 30 meeting rooms to counter staff perceptions that meeting rooms were always booked.

But DEGW found that the firm's large meeting rooms were rarely used. It was the four- and six person-sized meeting rooms that were in high demand. The company was advised to build just five rooms to meet the demand, saving itself $250,000, Mr Andrew said.

But what matters is not just physical space; how people behave within that space is also important. This change has been made possible through new technology which allows for a more mobile workforce.

With laptops, for instance, the work and the employee need not be confined to the desk, which has given rise to the concept of desk-sharing, or hot desking.

In the old way of thinking, if a company had 100 desks, it usually had 90 to 95 people working at them, Mr Andrew said. The company kept spare desks in case the boss or another project team visited from another office.

But using the new approach, the company can have the same number of desks, but it can now support up to 130 people as staff are mobile and share desks.

'So if I'm running on 110 people, and suddenly a business opportunity arrives, or a government regulation changes, I can bring in a project team and just throw another 10 people into that space and know that I can absorb it. I can respond much faster without any real estate implications.'

This also helps to push back workplace capacity changes till later and minimises the need for extra physical space.

These new concepts have understandably faced resistance - especially from middle management.

'The higher leadership is quite for it, down at the grassroots, the 25-year-old level is quite interested in our work. The problem is the big lump in the middle, they feel threatened by what it means to them and what it takes away from them.

'It makes people accountable for what they do and not who they are.'

But changing mindsets through work space improvements has big benefits.

If you just change the space but do not invest in changing mindsets, then to the employee it may look different but it still feels the same.

'And if you try to change the mindset of people but not the space, then employees are told to act differently but when they come in to work, nothing has changed, he said.

'But if you change space and mindset at the same time, that's when you can transform,' he said. 'It's a case of 1+1=3, there is a lot more value-added.'

Some companies here that are already implementing desk-sharing strategies include Microsoft, IBM and Standard Chartered Bank, he said.

While there are still few examples of this in Singapore, he is optimistic that within the next six to 12 months, there will be changes.

DEGW is working with government agencies and large local corporations here, but he is contractually bound not to reveal who they are.

But he adds the disclaimer: 'Mobility plays out in different ways in different organisations. Companies think there's one solution... there are probably four to five different models of how you implement these solutions.

'The nature of mobility, desk-sharing, all the factors are different, even within the same industry. That's where corporate culture becomes key.'

Source: Straits Times, 24 Aug 2009

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