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Attendees at Facilitate's recent round table, sponsored by Moneypenny, considered ways in which workplace culture and design can inspire workers. 

Roundtable © Akin Falope
Roundtable © Akin Falope
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01 July 2019 Facilitate

1 There’s value in creating 

a club mentality

21st century workplace managers could learn from 17th century salons – places where people met under one roof to be educated and entertained or to exchange ideas.

“This kind of destination draws people in,” argued Matthew Kobylar. The workplace as clubhouse presents an attractive place to be. Consider the success of WeWork: the company represents just 4 per cent of the UK’s corporate real estate market but has a markedly more degree of influence. WeWork’s spaces appeal to people through coffee, beer and, most importantly, a sense of community.

Humans need other humans, so for FMs, “creating community is an opportunity to make their mark in an organisation”, said Emma Lurie.

At Lurie’s firm, ASOS.com, community building comes from friendly team competitions at an on-site gym.

“We’re also starting a lunch club,” Lurie explained. “People are invited to the canteen for a communal lunch and end up sitting next to someone random. It’s a real networking opportunity and creates community.” 

Given unlimited resources, Ian Jones would design an office “that is the best club in the world”. His dream venue would be themed on New York City’s library with its great variety of quiet spaces. Below that, he’d dedicate a floor to the gym, operating at noise levels that had no consequence for other areas of the building.

But employees still work in tribes, craving their separate and personalised spaces, Convincing them to give up their tribal domains is still a challenge, said Jones.

2 Technology can lead to trust issues  

Citing high-profile examples of workers reacting negatively to being micro-monitored, Jason Cousins said that sensors, sold to staff as offering key insight on their use of workspace, are often used simply to rationalise space. Cue distrust from employees. If their use is poorly communicated, sensors can be counterproductive to engagement initiatives often instigated in parallel to wider workplace change projects.

“Sensors drive engagement away because they are put there to monitor and gather information rather than asking employees how often they use the desk or space,” said Cousins. Data without such context can be alienating.

When Simone Fenton-Jarvis installed sensors at her former employer Twinkl Publishing, the need was urgent. “We were at breaking point with our space. We needed to plan how we were going to use the space in the future.”

Staff showed apprehension, assuming that microphones or even cameras were being deployed. But Fenton-Jarvis appeased staff by measuring banks of desks rather than specific ones. 

Sensors are far more useful in organisations that have already transitioned to desk-sharing where employees sit where they want, contended Kobylar. In this scenario, sensors are needed for efficiency as they can relay location data about vacant desks.

In any event, Cousins argued that sensor use would fall as workspace use is increasingly tracked through the staff’s phones or when they log into computers or swipe their access cards.

“That technology is going to move forward so we know what you’re doing every minute of every day,” he said. The user value in this will be, for example, pre-emptive warnings telling users to grab a sandwich 10 minutes later than usual when the café is busier than normal.

Roundtable 2 © Akin Falope

3 Trust in always asking ‘why?’ 

Maximising employee engagement demands constant questioning of what works best.

“The ‘why’ is a massive part of engagement, and the ‘why’ question needs answering time and again.” Lurie explained. “‘Why’ needs to be repeated as you take [your colleagues] on the journey.”

Kobylar agrees: “Trust is the rocket fuel that powers engagement.” 

Chris Roberts added “choice and control” to the prerequisites for effective engagement. “You’re trying to give people the opportunity to work in different environments, ones they want to work in.” When you put trust in workers, giving them as much autonomy within the workplace as possible, “hopefully, productivity, well-being and morale increase as a result”.

4 Consider culture before design

ITV has to cater for three distinct working cultures: corporates, creatives and production staff. The first group comprises ‘9-5ers’ with routine daily tasks. The creatives require the most fluidity of working, while the third group are like factory workers, working to a process and wanting “everything today and for nothing”.

In a recent ITV exercise, design decisions to accommodate the sub-cultures resulted in three ‘heart spaces’; a nightclub feel for the production team, a café for the creatives and a library for the corporates – joined together by a staircase so anyone can use and move between the spaces.

In his work at Deloitte’s offices, Matthew Kobylar had also separated spaces to cater for corporate culture, including ‘the studio’ where there’s a buzz – “it’s energetic and noisy, and centred around a coffee point”. There is more wood in the design, so noise bounces off of it. The other space is a library with a thick shag carpet and private rooms. “We don’t have a sign saying ‘shh!’ but the architecture tells you the spaces are different”, he added.

Design, then, should come after culture if workplace design is going to be effective.

5 Consultation is important

The Moneypenny workplace has views from every desk and enjoys both a treehouse and a pub. But it’s only like this because the company asked staff what they wanted.

Joanna Swash explained: “We asked people what they like about the business and how it could be better. We used the outcome to build our new headquarters so it was eco-friendly, with space to communicate and congregate with your team, and with natural light. They are invested [in their work] because they got what they wanted.”

Creativity can be key. Fenton-Jarvis handed a camera to staff to capture what they felt did and did not work in the workplace.

6 A hankering for ‘hackable’ space

Three years ago, law firm CMS moved into a building with collaborative spaces. However, sensors have shown that they’ve not been used sufficiently, said Danny Postill. His lesson? “Aim for design that is as flexible as possible to be able to adjust the space to actual usage habits.”

Changing spaces is a common theme for contemporary FMs, which is why Kobylar extols the value of “hackable space”. How can we make it so that end users can change it to suit their needs? Perhaps through the removal of partition walls and fixed furniture and cable-free Wi-FI connectivity “so that we don’t build it and in five years have to change”. 

Jones agreed about flexible furniture, which enabled him to move 2,200 people into three different buildings during ITV’s relocation. Only one rule was imposed upon staff: No one would have an office. “We used furniture instead of walls; you can do lots of clever things with furniture,” he said. 

Today, Jones and his team spend considerable effort changing the structure of the workplace to suit the needs of their fluid workforce. Teams expand and shrink from four to up to 25 at times, as projects demand. His workplaces have no benches, just stand-alone desks to reconfigure rooms to meed demands. This, suggested Kobylar, was a case of “extreme hackability”.

Roundtable 3 © Akin Falope

7 Communicate with clarity

Problems can arise with how users interact with their workplace teams in the modern world of myriad communication apps and services.

At ITV, a company survey showed staff satisfaction with internal communications below 40 per cent.

Jones’s direct approach to this “fragmentation of communication” was to introduce clear messaging to  those contacting him.

“Different parts of organisations  use different platforms and I had 10 different things to watch,” said Jones. 

“It drove me nuts. So now, you can either email me before 10am and after 4pm, or ring me in between.”

The multichannel communication model also makes it hard to send a corporate message to everybody. Those using internal messaging apps such as Slack won’t be checking emails, for example. 

The solution for Moneypenny has been the Workplace by Facebook collaboration tool, through which Swash writes a monthly update to staff. Using the service over the past two years has reduced email traffic and communication noise. Emails are almost exclusively important business from clients, not chatter from workplace users, which happens elsewhere.

8 Provide apps – but be  tech sceptics too

At ASOS.com, Lurie is launching a suite of apps. Employees can, for example, use a canteen app to pay and pick up food, while the catering team uses it to send staff menus and promotions.

There’s even gamification involved. “We’re launching a new canteen,” explained Lurie, “using vending machines to wrap some products with golden tickets that can be used for a free lunch or coffee at the new canteen. My vision is to make the employee experience of our service as easy as we make our website for our external customers.”

Jones still likes to print out documents to read through and edit, and he’s not alone. “I’m not sure technology is going to push much further than it has already in business,” he argued. “You already have as much technology today that you will ever need because you can work from home.”

Cousins agreed, citing an unsuccessful corporate attempt to roll out laptops with earpieces instead of phones. Users quickly grew tired of carting the kit around and opted to use their mobile phones instead.

But not everyone agreed that we’ve reached ‘peak tech’; Fenton-Jarvis believed “there’s still a lot more to come”.

9 Make the most of  malcontent millennials

Lurie noted the sense of entitlement often branded on millennials, and their sense that employers are lucky to have them rather than the other way around.

It’s a sentiment closely linked to the demand and delivery of employee experience. “It’s about bringing a space to life and giving it a personality and delivering an experience to people,” she said.

Whether anger at a broken coffee machine or disappointment that the mariachi band would not be returning (seriously – Fenton-Jarvis cancelled a repeat performance lest workers began considering it the norm) there was a sense among attendees, summarised by Swash, that workplace managers weren’t seeking gratitude from staff – just recognition by workers of how good they’ve got it.

But there was acknowledgement that worker entitlement and high service demands can be a positive. Chris Roberts said having newcomers ask, “why don’t you have this or that?” can start a conversation with longer-serving staff who have perhaps become too comfortable with existing service routine. “As an FM trying to promote the value of your service, a new employee’s fresh perspective can help to get the message across.”

10 Consider compliance

Swash told the room how Moneypenny chartered a small plane to advertise details of its social events. So it was left to Nuri Rokhes to speak of the compliance restraints that would prevent his financial service organisation offering a similarly creative approach. At ICBC, even a WhatsApp group is frowned upon with financial services compliance front of mind. Rokhes offered valuable perspective on how different sectors would need to tailor their approach to engagement.

Lurie, formerly of the London Stock Exchange, empathised with Rokhes, but at ASOS.com – where the average employee is aged 26 –there’s a reputation of being tech-focused and trendy.

“What really struck me during my initial weeks at ASOS.com were the executives who asked, ‘what do you want from me? What can I do for you?’ It was the first time I’d ever been asked. I was blown away because I have been so used to going, ‘This is what I need from you; this is what I want; what are you going to do for me?’ It was really refreshing; personally, I was engaged right from the first conversation.”

Generally, said Kobylar, FM is gaining much-needed corporate visibility.

“You’re starting to see companies with a chief experience officer or vibe officer to control the touch points that people engage with in the business under one banner. And I’m seeing it happen in larger organisations with global footprints. Their CRE teams are realising that they need more control over multiple streams, bringing together the disparate experiences.”

11 Big picture, small engagement 

Of Moneypenny’s approach, Swash said: “It would be easy to chop budgets for the little things we do.”

But the small things all add up. Whether or not they come together into a single cohesive engagement strategy, the net result is staff get a morale boost.

Fenton-Jarvis agreed, giving the example of Mental Health Awareness Week and how some organisations focus on it with great enthusiasm for a week but forget about it for the rest of the year. Consistency is key. “It has to be little bits that add up to the big thing so that employees then say, ‘I like going to work.’ That’s the engagement piece.”

The ‘little things’ can also incline staff towards their own contribution to the positive vibe in the office. A good organisational culture depends on everyone being a vibe or experience manager to some extent, said Swash.

Engagement demands getting everyone involved. Roberts argued that the person who handles the printing paper should feel as empowered to perform as the CMO. 

12 Everyone needs to embrace the identity and culture

If you work for an organisation whose CEO signs their emails with an emoji, the logical next step is to have staff download an app and make personalised emojis as their official email signature – another Fenton-Jarvis initiative at Twinkl. Adding a Twinkl clock icon to the subject lines of emails further denoted a unique level of urgency and, therefore, priority of task.

It’s an example of the importance of shared culture – ‘shared’ being the important word to underscore – something of even more importance when two or more organisations are merging.

Roberts explained how his firm had to integrate three organisations, each with its own distinct culture, into an overarching Computershare culture. The approach was slow and steady, the new acquisitions adopting the parent firm’s “visual references” in their buildings, such as its “unique colour palette” and the branding of its three core values – certainty, value and integrity – on walls.

“We didn’t really engage with them at that stage but rather said, ‘You’re part of the Computershare family now’; we’ve not changed anything other than a little decor in the office. That helped.”

Seeing senior management and leaders living the culture they espouse is essential for workforce engagement. Kobylar cited Deloitte’s CEO, who sits in the firm’s workplace bistro every day; staff see their leader using the space and do the same.

Swash told of a law firm client that threw a staff party in the style of Moneypenny, but the leadership didn’t bother to attend. “You need senior management to live and breathe everything they come up with,” she said.

13 Opt for everyday appraisals

Engagement works best when leaders know how to lead and when staff appraisals transition from annual and formal to frequent, informal chats.

Computershare launched a five-day training scheme for managers so they’d all be familiar with policies and consistent in processes and approaches. The result has been an improved understanding of corporate culture, Roberts said, with silos torn down and employees feeling heard.

For staff to feel heard, they need to respond to calls for engagement. Initially, when Fenton-Jarvis switched from appraisals to a single daily question for employees to answer, there was low engagement. She forced employees to answer the question before they could access their emails – and engagement scores climbed from 69 to 92 per cent because issues were resolved quickly and people saw management was listening.

Moneypenny also ditched annual appraisals when Swash took over as CEO, switching to direct conversations between employee and manager every four weeks. Meetings happen for 30 minutes over a coffee for a “really nice chat with someone who can actually help you”.

“Staff churn has gone down, sickness has gone down; we find out who is unhappy, who has ambition; it’s created a continual flow of conversation and has been key in terms of knowing what’s going on in people’s lives.

“Sometimes there are big changes like systems and processes, but a lot of the time it’s the small things that make a difference. I like to think of the 1 per cents all over the business. If you change those tiny things, they all add up to a big impact.”  

Key takeaways 

“Keep people at the heart of what you do and don’t use tech or gimmicks for the sake of it”

Simone Fenton-Jarvis 

“We need a cohesive message that comes from the top”

Ian Jones 

“Empower and engage people so that they’re onboard with continual change”

Jason Cousins 

“Engagement is constant and consistent”

Chris Roberts 

“You need to pass information on but give people the opportunity to have a voice”

Emma Lurie

“Wider engagement. It’s about listening to as many people as possible”

Danny Postill

“How workplace fits into the overall business culture. Decide who you are – values, attitudes, culture – and be really clear about ‘why we do it this way’ and what impact it has on business. Don’t dilute it and know the value of all the tiny things you do in the business”

Joanna Swash