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30 September 2014

Flexible working: what are the boundaries?

What has been called the ‘New Way of Working’ has now become the norm. Sharing the workplace has become much more common as access to a good work environment is more important than the ownership of it.

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More people per square foot

A typical workspace costs around £10,000 per year, which makes the calculation simple: reduce the number of workplaces (in other words: the required amount of square feet of work space) and you will save a lot of money. A business case quickly arises: consolidation saves costs. From a cost perspective, this argument is clear.

However, there is a danger in sharing a workplace with an increasingly smaller area: a diminishing user experience and reduced employee effectiveness and satisfaction.

In terms of cost, salaries are typically one of the largest costs in most organisations. It’s clear that employees and their ability to work well together largely determine an organisation’s performance. That is why the design of the workplace is so important; organisations are keen to stimulate productivity and creativity in and around the workplace.

Success factors for the workplace

Which requirements must a workplace meet in order to be successful? Perhaps we can learn something from science. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is the location of the City Form Lab, a research department that conducts scientific research into the design of urban areas.

The City Form Lab argues:

“One of the primary challenges of good city design is to maximise interaction between people and places while minimising friction.”

We can directly translate this to the work environment: A good work environment promotes interaction between people and their environment while minimising friction.

If you have too many people working together in one place, the friction increases. When there is no workplace available, a noisy colleague is distracting you, or the coffee stains of the previous occupier are still on the desk, decreased efficiency is quite likely. In other words: there is a saturation point beyond which further consolidation (more employees per workplace) is likely to be counter-productive. The cost savings will look great, but the work performance will lag behind.

The turning point

The main question is: Up to what point is consolidation sensible?

Finding this point is important to effectively manage the work environments. Measuring work productivity is the holy grail of workplace design and it continues to be the focus for sociologists, psychologists, and economists.

We can, however, gain some control by incorporating key information sources and relating them to each other. The starting point is to look at some key parameters: the availability of the desired facilities and the satisfaction with the workplace.

There is typically a lot of data on workspace availability – but often in different environments.
The higher the demand for a service, the greater the chance that this service will not always be readily available and the longer it will take to become available. In other words: your employees are looking for a space to hold a meeting, but all the suitable rooms are occupied or reserved.

Conclusion

Sharing the workplace is a trend that will continue. However, to prevent sub-optimisation, we must better understand where the boundaries lie. The basic technology for this is available; it is just a matter of applying this. Only when you know what your optimal capacity utilisation rate is, can you be truly flexible.

 
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Erik Jaspers
Global Product Strategy & Innovation Director