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Mar 31, 2014

Workspaces and the next generation workforce – a more joined up approach?


Last week I contributed to a conference on the theme of the next-generation workforce. The organisers wanted me to share my experiences on what it takes to create a truly agile, creative and flexible working environment.

As the audience comprised people from the HR sector, it prompted me to review how I could best engage with them? It struck me that we are actually all travelling on the same road – towards supporting the business. For me, this has been an important consideration: something which has encouraged me to start thinking outside the traditional mind-set of a building professional.  Over time, I formed the view that, the true secret to adding value is to learn how to collaborate cross-functionally with the wider business world, including HR and technology (amongst others).   Hopefully, this blog will set out my stall in terms of developing a trusted path for all those involved in creating and operating workspaces, so we can raise our game for the 21st-century.

As I prepared to craft my messaging for the keynote speech for this conference, I decided to adopt a new approach.  The brief set by the organisers, IQPC was to discuss; – “supporting the Business to Build Agility by harnessing the physical workplace to get the best from the next generation workforce.”  Rather than preparing a traditional keynote, I asked a fellow-traveller, Caroline Waters, (formerly BT’s Director of People and Policy) to join me on the stage.  Coming from the worlds of HR and CRE/ Facilities, where performing within silos remains the order of the day, we discussed our experiences of what it takes  to create a truly flexible and agile working environment.  We identified that we face many common challenges today such as:  trying to stay ahead of the business; learning how to manage wider business changes, and how to cope with the relentless pace of change brought about by the Digital Revolution.  Furthermore, we took this opportunity to share our view that it is now essential for the HR and CRE/Facilities functions to join forces and apply a more integrated approach to supporting the business.  In shaping a new path and looking towards the future,we need to consider three focus areas:


Align with the Business

If we are to emerge from the darkness of our caves of professional self-interest, the first area of focus is to align with and understand the nature of the business we are supporting.  As a first step we need to understand the big picture of business in the 21st Century – I think this can be summarised in one word – change.  Today we’re caught up in a tidal wave of change that is unprecedented and un-relenting.  Take for example the recent crop of innovation technologies which have changed the meaning of time and place.

Furthermore, we have seen the powerful influence of social media not only to shape political ideology but also in terms of campaigning and adding power to consumers.

Moving closer to home, for the first time, we are witnessing the impact of the collision of multiple generations in the workplace. This is driving a new approach to the concept of work.

In a nutshell, we now live in an always-connected world where the rules of the game have changed, before our eyes, over a very short period of time. This, I believe, is changing the very nature of work.   If you compound these elements with the huge cloud of uncertainty of the global economy and the seismic shifts taking place in how we think about the world and its markets– it’s clearly evident that this is a highly challenging time for business.


There is a burning need to develop a new, strategic perspective alongside the delivery of robust tactical solutions.  We need to understand that most business leaders agonise about creativity, innovation and talent. How can we help with this?   We need to think beyond efficiencies and reducing costs to delivering added-value services and expertise which enable and support the business.

As a first step, for all those who remain comfortable in our own silos, it’s time to lift our heads above the parapet and capture what’s going on in the outside world. For me, this first step towards aligning with the business is a critical item on our survival plan. 


Leaving bricks and mortar, policies and procedures behind

The second area of focus involves changing our mindset.    For too long, CRE/FM and HR professionals, have honed their skills on producing high specification commercial work spaces or state of the art HR tools and systems. Historically, this work has been completed in isolation, without taking into account that we are just small cogs in a much larger system – that of enabling a business, a public body or a social enterprise.

Having been introduced to the world of systems thinking by my friend and colleague, Stuart Snelling, it’s now all starting to make sense. In the pre–digital age, for those interested in bricks and mortar, the core principle was: “location, location, location.”  The arrival of the agile or mobile worker and the death of distance is now challenging this perception.   Locked in its 20th century mindset, the majority of the commercial property industry clings to the belief that an organisation’s most valuable assets are bricks and mortar rather than people.   No doubt the HR world can cite similar examples.   

The recent shift to mobility (which empowers 21st century workers to work anywhere, any time) has raised a whole new agenda for those of us interested in driving change.  Why is this important or relevant to somebody like me?  During my years at the BBC, my principal concern was to turn property into a strategic asset. Over this transformational journey, we sought to understand how broadcasting was changing in order to anticipate the needs of the BBC in the digital age. The BBC’s move from analogue to digital taught us how to see the bigger picture: we started to look beyond   rent per square foot or building specifications to grasp the wider, positive impacts which a relocation could make on enabling organisational evolution.  With this in mind, whenever a new facility is required it should never be seen as just a “property move” but rather a valuable business opportunity to drive change and align with strategic goals.

Therefore, we need to place adequate emphasis on business outcomes and benefits as opposed to just thinking about outputs.  We need to stop focusing solely on efficiency and make “effectiveness” a key priority.  Fundamentally, there is a need to redefine our value proposition as support functions to become enablers of productivity. Where we apply strategic insight to empower organisations to achieve real competitive advantage


Break down the boundaries to collaborate as high performing teams

As the poet John Donne said: “no man is an island.” This brings me to the third focus area – that of collaboration.  This is a complex area, as it calls not only for those of us dealing with the physical aspect of the workplace to get our act together but having put our house in order to move forward to engage in a different manner with the worlds of HR and IT.  It is clear to me that if we are all really part of a much bigger delivery system.  Therefore, we have to figure out how to better understand our fellow travellers from the worlds of HR and IT.

For those of us concerned with the physical aspects of the workplace, we exist in a fragmented system comprising many players, all of whom have a part to play.  By virtue of historical circumstances, we have become locked in orbit around planet Workspace, travelling in splendid isolation.  So if our system is that of creating and operating the workspace, how do we fit into the bigger picture?   We need to adjust from a purely building centric focus to a wider one focused on people and enabling them to work anywhere and anytime.  We need to evolve from the narrow disjointed focus which is based on the three tribes of the asset/transaction management, facility management and design construction management.

This is compounded by the inward looking nature of the industry and legacy mind-set that demonstrates reluctance to change.  Overall, the industry is not really aware of how to create value outside of property value – adding business value is an alien concept when it should be a core element of business thinking.   A workplace should no longer be regarded as a high cost liability but as asset from which hidden value can be unlocked. It is no longer a cost centre but a profit centre.

Moving on to the wider aspect of collaboration, we need to build engagement with HR and IT professionals rather than just talk about doing so.   The workplace should no longer be regarded as a place to contain the people who work there, but as a base from which they are free to explore the new 21st century world of possibilities.  Collaboration will be key and will drive the formation of new 21st century business models with little bearing on the Taylorist inspired models that are fast running out of steam today. These are driven by the need of Boards and CEO’s to harness the value enablers of creativity, knowledge management and ability to cope with ambiguity.  They must move to a business model where engagement, flexibility, authenticity and sustainability are evident. Without making this transition, they will fail to attract and retain the 21st Century worker (most of whom will be Digital natives). 

To close – most professionals are introspective by nature in that they are trained to be high performing subject matter experts and whilst this is not at issue, one has to consider the changing nature of the business environment in which we operate.  Many of the goalposts are shifting and most organisations are trying to cope in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) business environment where the role of those responsible for enabling business must be reinvented.  I see greater collaboration across traditional boundaries as essential. In our discussions of the past few weeks Caroline Waters and I came to realise that the need for such is growing because it’s no longer about cost-reduction, it’s about bringing a mindset towards  value creation.  The realisation that it’s not just not just about the building – the bricks and mortar, enabled me to get a better grasp of how we can not only drive efficiency but also contribute to the effectiveness agenda. In this way, we will add real value to our organisation by enabling it to improve operating efficiency.   

People and place are a company’s most valuable assets and only by developing them both in tandem will you unlock the true value and discover that the integrated whole is more than the sum of the discrete parts. Or to put it another way:  creating communities of common interest will do more to generate value than building show piece warehouses to house departmental silos.   It’s no longer about servicing buildings or people contracts, it’s about enabling people to deliver greater agility, creativity and innovation. In a nutshell, it’s no longer about building or system performance it’s all about business performance. [ENDs]





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