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Bradford Keen explores how FM service providers are adapting to the demand of providing employees with a great workplace.

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© Alamy

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02 December 2019 Bradford Keen

The convergence of culture, space and technology – call it workplace or employee experience – enables staff to perform at their best, boosting organisational productivity. As businesses focus more on the employee experience, FM providers are adapting their service models to meet this need. Kate Smith, head of workplace, UK, at CBRE, says most of their large FM accounts have a dedicated experience lead. For other clients, the FM team has rebranded to workplace or experience. Their emphasis is on biophilic design, healthy food and encouraging movement through stair use and fitness classes.

A shared experience

The shift in focus from compliance to experience – and employees’ productivity – has been stark, says Dr Alex Morris, head of workplace wellbeing at Mitie.

“The employee experience must consider the physical environment as well as the tools that enable productivity,” she says. Air quality, for example, can increase employees’ productivity: by 11 per cent – a “healthy ROI”, Morris adds. 

Clients tend to approach workplace based on their areas of expertise or interest, says Ian Baker, head of workplace and design consultancy at Emcor UK. Some might consider space a key factor in workplace productivity and focus on utilisation audits and how alterations to space could boost employee output. 

Other clients focus on technology to analyse how people move around a building, book meeting rooms and connect with others. There is also an emphasis on how environmental factors affect employees’ cognitive performance. 

Smith says CBRE’s tech clients were some of the first to appreciate the value of the workplace-productivity relationship. “As they emerged and grew, they needed to attract and retain tech talent when competing with peers and start-ups.” Indeed, recruitment and retention have been driving forces behind clients’ understanding of the value of workplace.

But this is increasingly true for most industries, too, as employees’ expectations of the workplace change. 

CBRE’s Live, Work, Play study found that 79 per cent of millennials consider workplace quality when selecting a new employer and 69 per cent would trade other benefits for the right workplace experience.

Organisations have recognised that workplace strategy and operational execution depend on employee experience. 

“Our research shows that when businesses get the workplace mix right, they drive improved employee engagement and productivity,” says Mark Caskey, EMEA CEO of corporate solutions at JLL. “However, it’s not just productivity at stake – our clients are also considering how their workplaces can be a tool to attract and retain talent, and even shape the organisation’s culture.”

Emma Potter
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© Getty

The workplace, well placed

Linked to employee productivity, perhaps inextricably so, is employee wellbeing. Yet not all employers are taking note. Health is often seen as a cost rather than as an investment in people. “We see that in very low-margin or reactive businesses there can be less focus on wellbeing and more on productivity, which is storing up problems for future success,” Morris says.

Nevertheless, Morris adds, organisations increasingly understand the importance of providing a ‘good place to work’ – “making sure that both the physical environment and the culture supports people to be both productive and happy”.

Baker says it’s perhaps more prudent to think of the relationship between workplace and productivity, treating wellbeing as an intrinsic element of the workplace. “If you have a high-performing workplace, you will tend to have checks and balances in place to make sure that those employees’ wellbeing is looked after.” Taking this approach also connects the productivity narrative with workplace experience, he adds.

Journeying through the workplace allows for identification of “obvious blockers to productivity”, Baker says. Ineffective car parks, inadequate canteen food – these can create “emotive angst and frustration”. Even ridding workplaces of plastic and disposable coffee cups – while not necessarily linked directly with productivity – empowers employees as they see their organisation recognises their values.

Caskey also notes the importance of employee perception. “Fundamentally, if employees feel as though a company is invested in their wellbeing, and supportive of their individual needs, they are more likely to respond with motivation and loyalty to the company. This, in turn, will naturally boost productivity.”

CBRE’s 2019 Occupier Survey revealed that cost reduction trailed alignment with corporate goals, employee engagement and talent attraction in order of importance of CRE strategy. “CRE has outgrown the traditional efficiency metrics of utilisation, desk-sharing ratios, cost or space per person and we are working with our clients to measure effectiveness of the workplace, including ease of work, health and mental effort,” Smith explains.

CBRE has completed three studies in the past three years. “Overall, our research has proven that people perform much better in a well-designed workplace that supports them in making positive choices in relation to their health,” says Smith.

In the past, measuring workplace’s impact on productivity and convincing senior stakeholders of it has been more about “faith than science”, Smith says, and, often, workplace transformation is still seen in terms of real estate reduction rather than workplace quality. But this is changing. Smith says the research and pilot studies, building proof-of-concept spaces and using app-based and sensor technology provide valuable data to clients. 

“The other very clear change is the convergence of the people (HR) and place (CRE) agendas… demonstrating a clear understanding of the power of the workplace in attracting and retaining talent and transforming performance and culture versus the narrow view of CRE as a cost to be controlled and managed by the finance function.”

The linking-in effect

The data shows more organisations are investing in their workplaces, Caskey says – “whether that’s in design, digital tools or other amenities to deliver a workplace that drives a great experience for their people”. Positively, he adds, CEOs are often driving this change. 

FMs are always searching for the business case of workplace. Morris points out that employee wellbeing makes economic sense: the average ROI on wellbeing provision of 4:1. 

The client-provider relationship

Clients want more for their staff so service partners are having to adapt. “The relationship between provider and client is getting more intertwined in this way with both working together to share learning and best practice,” Morris says.

Mitie has increased “joined-up working” between its departments such as combining workplace with wellbeing. But it has also hired experts to follow technology advancements and new academic research. “We not only have a psychologist on board, but also have a number of PhD students embedded within the business looking at the relationship between environment and productivity,” Morris explains. 

Baker says there could be a greater focus on KPIs for employee productivity or performance, but it would be difficult to determine who was responsible for which element of the workplace. “I know that we have used [Leesman employee experience benchmark surveys] as a tool to have self-apportioned KPIs for some customers.”

We might also see the workplace-as-a-service model arrive, against which service providers would be assessed on the performance rating of that workplace. This could even influence payment structures – with the value being based on the improvements made to the workplace that results in clients’ boosting their employees’ productivity, says Baker. 

Trading the language of ‘productivity’ for ‘workplace experience’ and ‘performance’ might be better, adds Baker. It will enable faster change and have a greater impact on building occupants.