Open-access content Tuesday 12th October 2010 — updated 3.30pm, Tuesday 26th May 2020
Flexible working has transformed the Home Office's premises in Victoria, London. Cathy Hayward gets an exclusive guide to the project
14 October 2010
"We carried on using the existing furniture, we just had a different way of looking at it," says Paul Pickhaver, head of the Home Office's Flexible Working programme which aimed to create a totally flexible workplace with few fixed desks.
Fiona Spencer, director of Shared Services at the Home Office echoes Pickhaver's view. "The adoption of flexible working is essentially about changing the way our staff view their workspace. It's about deciding what space you need at any time and releasing it when you no longer need it."
Becoming more efficient about the way the space is used, is the new mantra; and a little over two years down the line, the results speak for themselves. Around 4,500 staff now occupy 2 Marsham Street, a purpose-built open plan working environment constructed in 2005 (see box) which used to support 3,800.
Facilities management costs per occupant have reduced by ?20 per cent and Pickhaver believes this could fall by another 8 per cent. "In terms of building costs per FTE, we have the potential to move from having an expensive London building to average London building costs," he says. Apart from bringing in consultants Advanced Workplace Associates to lead the project and act as workplace change management specialists, little new equipment was purchased.
Density was not increased, so the same (good) furniture remained in place. New adjustable monitors were introduced to support the variety of workstation users and there was some IT investment to allow for staff to log on at any desk but "there was no big investment" says Pickhaver. "The biggest investment was the support we brought in to change peoples' mindsets."
The programme was part of a wider estate management strategy to reduce the Home Office's London estate from seven buildings to two (something which has almost been achieved) and to make a better use of what it had. With several critical lease breaks on the horizon Pickhaver's predecessor Steve Chapman was keen to understand how those buildings could be released and staff transferred across to existing premises.
The project commenced with several months of evaluation to understand how 2 Marsham Street was currently being used. For a fortnight, the project team, headed up by AWA's Helen Guest, monitored 2,500 of the 3,800 workspaces four times a day to assess which desks and other spaces were being used and by whom and to understand the momentum around the building.
This was recorded on a floorplan and cross-referenced with data on business units headcount and from the door entry system on numbers of staff and visitors on site. The team also conducted online surveys and face-to-face interviews to get a rounded picture of users' experience of their workplace and of the work which they undertook in it.
The results were fairly typical on a workplace where little has been done in terms of workplace improvement - a 56 per cent desk utilisation rate and an indication that some non-desk spaces, such as small meeting tables located near teams and study booths were being under-used.
Much of this was down to a lack of continuing education about how to use the space. While staff were initially given protocols about the workspace when they took occupancy in 2005, this had fallen by the wayside and existing occupiers had returned to their old habits while new staff had not been inducted into how to use those spaces.
Basic workplace etiquette was reintroduced so that people understood that working in a break-out space was considered acceptable. "We had to encourage people to understand that just because they weren't at a desk, that didn't mean that they weren't in an appropriate working space. Five years ago there was a definite feeling that if your manager can't see you at your desk, then you're not working," says Pickhaver. It was essential, adds Pickhaver to recognise the importance of having good HR processes in place to ensure that, for example, people were being managed, measured against objectives, rather than visibility at their desk."
With a detailed understanding of how the building was being used, on a floor-by-floor and unit-by-unit basis, in November 2008 the project team embarked on a pilot project (called modeling) involving 200 people across three different locations in the building. A series of workshops allowed the project team to work with the users to design the flexible spaces and create the protocols around how they would be used. This helped them to start to buy into the project, says Guest.
The project team introduced the pilot groups to the three new workstyles: fixed, mobile within the office and mobile in and out of the office. "Mobile in the office was seen as the default, and allocated workplaces were provided for those who needed them as the exception," says Pickhaver - perhaps because they needed specialist software on a computer, or because they had a reasonable adjustment like a specific chair or a height-adjustable desk.
A common challenge with building management is to create usable pieces of space, says Guest. "Having completed the building analysis it enabled the development of a new stack plan for the building in order to release sizeable working areas rather than small pockets of space dotted around the building which is not helpful." The project team restacked each of the 16 floors across the three linked buildings to ensure that the spare space was in large useable chunks which could be used by other teams from other buildings.
There were also IT challenges to overcome - software was deployed to allow maximum flexibility within teams and new solutions were introduced to switch between laptops and PCs at the same desk. The telephone system allows staff to log on to their existing telephone number at any desk and provides voice mail when not logged in.
One of the challenges for the project team was enabling the management teams to understand how they used their space today so as they could then think through how working flexibly might be possible for them going forward. It took a lot of discussion and negotiation, especially so in the early days of the project when there were no internal examples.
Users felt that they were losing something and insisted that they needed more space. "That's where having such concrete data helped as we could go back to them and say 'you have a 56 per cent occupancy rate in your department, you have sufficient space'," says Pickhaver.
"Others didn't understand that although they might be in the building working for much of every day, they weren't actually at a desk all the time, but in different meeting rooms or break out areas. The utilisation data helped to get that message across at all levels."
Champions were appointed within teams to act as the project link and to manage the transition of their own team colleagues discussing their fears, uncertainties and worries supported by their team leaders and material from the project team. One of the key items was the use of DVD clips, which enabled the consistent delivery of message throughout the organisation at a relatively inexpensive cost. Having the right champion is essential, says Pickhaver.
"Rather than a move coordinator role handling a standard move of desks, champions are more influential and effective when they are well-known and respected among their peers and able to discuss ideas with others."
There were few issues identified by staff later in the process which hadn't been raised and resolved in the pilot groups, says Pickhaver. After the initial pilot, there was a period of reflection and evaluation before the decision was taken to embark on further pilot projects after senior management discussions. Gradually between spring 2009 and May 2010, the pilots were increased until now almost the entire building is working flexibly.
The phased nature, in line with the proposed stack plan allowed space to be freed up in line with the lease breaks in other premises and the induction of new staff into the building. The last group of people moved in earlier this month from an external building. There are now 3,800 desks supporting a population of 4,500 people and Pickhaver believes there is the potential to increase the population further to around 4,940. Average utilisation has reached a maximum of 80 per cent and the desk sharing ratio is 8:10.
While it is easy to see any form of change as a negative, Guest says that many employees have discovered for themselves the opportunities which working flexibly brings once they have made that transition. For some it can be very hard to imagine what it might be like when you are used only to working in a traditional approach with an allocated workplace where you are told to sit. "Some secretaries, for example, who had been stuck at a static desk near the boss, but away from the rest of the team for years, were delighted that they could become part of a four desk pod," says Pickhaver.
Other users have said how easy it is now to pull together a project team quickly and that there is a real buzz about the place. Team leaders like being able to sit with different members of their team.
The flexible environment also allowed the organisation to adjust its working arrangements quickly in response to the change in the government, says Spencer. "That wouldn't have been possible with our old way of working."
Some of the pilots coincided with the swine flu outbreak and the project team faced calls for the programme to be halted on health and safety grounds. "We had to deal with those concerns although we were already providing hygiene wipes for the workplaces as part of the kit of parts for delivery," remembers Pickhaver.
The key to the success of the project was to ensure consistency both in communication, delivery and operation, says Guest. "Every work area must look and feel the same so people don't have to relearn the system each time, they can simply sit down and start working." Each workstation has a generic set-up with an adjustable chair and the same desk furniture.
But working at a different desk each day is only part of it, adds Pickhaver. "The idea isn't just to change the desks around but to change the way you work. Some people complained that it took 10 minutes to set up their desk with all their papers and personal items from their locker, but that's because they were taking their old ways of working into a new environment" he says.
With most administration forms online, such as expenses claims, payslips, together with most communication, less paper is used which helps to support the clear desk policy. "We found that people filled their locker with things from their old desk and then found that they didn't really need all that after all and it remained untouched." The new environment not only looks tidier but also reduces the risk of sensitive documents being left out.
Although the project to introduce flexible working is essentially complete, Pickhaver believes that it must remain on the agenda for it to continue to be a success and to prevent users and the organisation slipping back into old habits.
When FM World visited 2 Marsham Street last month, desks were clear and this helps to make the building feel like a newer one rather than one which is five years old - something the new Home Secretary Theresa May commented on when she arrived for the first time earlier this year.
It's not just the occupiers who have been on a steep learning curve. The changes also proved a challenge for the Home Office's Total FM provider Ecovert and the delivery team, says Pickhaver. "The work environment had to be right on day one of each delivery. This took a lot of work and effort on the part of everyone to seek to achieve this, due to the unsettling nature of the changes we were asking people to undertake."
Also, "Customer service expectations have increased. Staff expect more and they expect it quicker. They won't put up with poor performance." Supporting more people with the same number of desks means that floors can be more heavily used, so for example, a broken PC has a greater impact and a bin may need emptying more often. Ecovert FM have facilities service assistants to monitor service across the building and to ensure they stay on top of customers' needs. Some things have become easier - the strict clear desk policy makes cleaning easier, for example.
The building's green credentials have also been affected. While the Home Office's overall sustainability performance has improved by reducing the number of occupied buildings, because 2 Marsham Street is supporting more people, it is also using more energy to heat, cool, and light it, which affects the individual building's performance. But there are also savings with paper and printing as staff report that they are working more on line for example.
And more needs to be done, says Pickhaver. ''Now that we have introduced a new way of using ?our workspace, we need to build on this - to realise the further benefits and estates efficiencies that new technology and changes to our workforce can help us deliver."
Biography of a building
The 2 Marsham Street (2MS) site was formerly occupied by three 18-floor office blocks known as the 'toast rack' or the 'three ugly sisters' and was used by the Department of Environment. Demolition started in April 2002 and took 17 months to complete.
The new Home Office building was constructed under a 29-year, £311m PFI deal with construction company Bouygues UK and sister FM firm Ecovert. The Home Office HQ, known as 2MS, was designed by Sir Terry Farrell and Partners. The plan for the site was to create a new and vibrant civic community with a strong sense of place, integrating a large government office building with public spaces. Construction began in November 2002 and 2MS was officially handed over on 26 January 2005.
The external design includes arts enhancements including lettered, etched ?and coloured glass running the length of the exterior. Inside urban design ?has created a building which embodies a community-orientated district. ?Three areas of 'pocket parks' within the site create an additional external space and views for office workers.
The building houses: Ministers and the Permanent Secretary; The Home Office Board and HQ functions they manage; HQ functions for Identity & Passport Service, National Policing Improvement Agency, UK Border Agency, and the Office of Security and Counter Terrorism.
Net internal floor area: 54,000 sq metres
meeting rooms: 144
break-out areas: 32 (2 on each floor)
washrooms: 100 (with 304 toilet cubicles)
restaurants: one (two café bars and 40 vending points)
pipe work: 20km
heat pumps: 260
plant rooms: 100