Workspace as a strategic asset

Space as a strategic asset was last week's question. I got it three times in different ways but they are focused on the same idea – how do we know what space we'll need in the future, and then how do we use it to get best possible performance from the space and the people in it? Here they are:

1. In the last week we've been approached on the subject of domestic companies (in China) looking to make significant change to how they use space as a strategic asset of the business.
2. Wondering if you have any info or articles on how companies are responding to contraction and expansion in their real estate portfolios? Efficiency and cost effectiveness – while also maintaining great environments?
3. A client is looking for benchmarking metrics which would tell him at what point in eroding away his vacant space (flexible/soft/surge space) should he look at options to build or lease more space or look at significant consolidation.

The interesting things about the questions are the challenges and opportunities they imply. Although framed as workplace/workspace issues they are also about the design of the organization and the external trends and context that the business operation has to respond to as it develops and delivers its business strategy.

Thinking of space use as an integral part of the business strategy to drive things like competitiveness, sustainability initiatives, workforce performance improvements and cultural change, offer avenues for innovation that are typically outside the realm of corporate real estate but would demonstrate the value of including it as a strategic asset rather than as solely a cost to be borne.

Looking for benchmarks, metrics, and case studies can offer useful pointers and ideas but only within the context of the overall business strategy. Take the example of business growth of 12% per year. This may not need to involve any change in the square footage of space available. Deciding not to increase the space could help drive a business strategy around people's performance, technology optimization, and process improvement, and thus competitiveness. Here are some ideas:

People: In many organizations the number of retirement eligible people in the workforce is growing. It is useful for the organization to keep the knowledge base, but often neither the retirement eligible people nor the organization wants the arrangement to continue as a full time position. Introducing flexible working hours and/or part time working frees up space.

Accenture has two useful reports on the aging workforce, both suggesting that GDP and organizational productivity increases when older people are retained. See The Seven Myths of Aging and Get Ready for the Silver Economy. This latter report notes that: An aging population poses new questions for businesses. Commercially, there are opportunities to be realized, but for employers, it's evident that a fresh approach is now required as notions of retirement begin to change.

In terms of the role of the employer, the responsibility for businesses lies in learning how to tap into the knowledge and experience of older workers. The aging population is proving both a boon and a burden for companies and the way in which they perceive not only their customers but also their employees.

It is not only older workers who would like flexible working hours or different work-life balance. Changing this aspect of the employment deal could be a beneficial strategy for both employee and employer and have a positive impact on the space requirements. The UK's John Lewis Partnership, for example, says:

Partners [it is an employee owned company] are also looking to us to provide greater balance between their lives inside and outside of work. More than 50 per cent of our Partners work less than 30 hours per week. Our Partnership policies support flexibility to help Partners balance their work and home lives:

  • all Partners have the right to request flexible working
  • we allow compressed hours to allow Partners to manage their commitments
  • we allow home-working, subject to role restrictions
  • short weekly contracts are available
  • sabbatical and extended leave options are available
  • where Partners are in term-time education, we support their educational commitments by encouraging holiday period employment
  • one week of paid study leave per year can be taken by Partners studying for a managerial or professional qualification related to their work.

Consider how introducing or extending a variety of work patterns could impact the use, type, and amount of space an organization needs.

Technology: Advances in information and communication technologies mean that workers can be mobile, and work from any location. Instead of opening up more space, work with the idea of making more of the workforce home based, internally mobile, or both. (Internally mobile means no individual allocation of desk space but booking via a hoteling system or free addressing where people sit in any available spot).

The benefits of better/different technology use include more efficient use of space, energy savings (commutes, building heating and lighting, etc), and employee/customer satisfaction.

A CIO blog, talking about Millennials, observes:
The Millennials, born between the years 1981 and 2000, are 85.4 million strong, outnumbering even the Baby Boomers, according to 2010 statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau. Attracting the brightest among them requires understanding and, yes, even catering to their desires. A big part of that is giving them technology freedom.
Millennials don't want to unplug from work on the weekends and after-hours like their older counterparts, and so they want technology that keeps up with this lifestyle. They're driving today's big tech trends, such as consumer tech and bring-your-own-device, or BYOD, which naturally blends work life and social life.
But it isn't only the Millennials who want the technology freedom to work from anywhere. "You can absolutely devolve into an argument of you-are-young-and-you-don't-get-it versus you-are-old-and-you-don't-get-it," says a Silicon Valley mobile manager. "But people who are the most creative and open-minded are going to adopt the coolest technology, regardless of how old they are."

Space as a strategic asset questions
The CI Manifesto for an Agile Workforce offers six challenging questions that real estate and facilities managers could pose to their business colleagues. Discussing them in an open-minded, creative way would pave the way to a business strategy that encompassed space, people, process, and technology in an integrated, performance enhancing, and scalable way.

1. How are the ways we work right or wrong for our current and predicted strategy? (What is happening in the context that should make us rethink what we need to be doing and how to do it?)
2. Why is work defined in jobs? (Are there other ways of thinking about the way we do our work that would make us more flexible and efficient and help us think differently about space requirements?)
3. Why can't workers be employed by more than one company? (Do we have to have full time employees? Could we outsource or contract work? Can we do shift work keeping our existing space open for longer? Can our employees do some of our work directly for us and some of it via other employers or as self-employed?)
4. Why is most work divided into 40 hour chunks? (Can we be more flexible in the way we think about doing work?)
5. Why can't workers retire at 40 and resume work at 60? (Are we thinking about our workforce in the most innovative and efficient way? Are there ways we could use it differently?)
6. Why do we have to go to the office to work? (Where else could the work be done?)

A recent article in the Huffington Post illustrates the US Government Agency GSA making use of space as a strategic asset. (I worked on this project for two years).

In what ways do you think space and workplace can be a strategic business asset? Let me know.