What brought the 15 of us together was a shared fascination with workplace and enthusiasm for improving it and helping people make better use of it brought together. That and a sense that the worlds of FM, HR and workplace design are often too segregated.
We had talk of current ways of working being dysfunctional and outmoded, but also of current good practice. More and more organisations ‘get it’ and many workplaces are being shaped to support business imperatives of effectiveness and agility.
However, it is not just a question of getting the design ‘right’. As Caroline Waters, ex-Group People Director at BT pointed out, employers also need to empower and enable employees to use workplaces flexibly and build in fluidity to workspaces.
Indeed, the most successful cases of effective workspaces are not always the impressively designed ones – architecturally beautiful buildings can fail in their core function. Equally, it can be the ones where employees have been able to shape and adapt in line with the needs of their work.
This is one of the reasons a workplace strategy needs to dovetail with a people strategy. The initial design of workspaces needs to accommodate such fluidity, but it will only develop if the right leadership is there, creating a culture of permission in which employees can try out new ways of working.
Emergent workplace design can also happen at an organisation-wide level, not just for individuals and teams. One example shared was the atrium floor at Innocent Drinks, said to have been covered in fake grass originally to save on the cost of carpet. But this then became a feature in itself, with picnic tables being added to create a distinctive meeting and dining area.
We also discussed the measurement of workspace effectiveness. While some showed concern that measurement should not be put on a pedestal, others argued for its importance, especially if questions of workspace are to make it onto board agendas. But as Tim Oldman, CEO of Leesman put it, the most important step may be to think of workplaces as assets and focus on making the most of them.
Underlying these points of discussion – and the various other areas we touched on, such as avoiding too narrow a focus on offices – there was agreement that there is an obvious intersection of workspace and people management that should be explored more.
The FM and HR professions have central parts to play in this. They need to think how their roles interrelate and move away from an introspective view based on purer specialisms. As Chris Kane, BBC, put it, we need to see an ecosystem, not distinct management systems.
The shift is already happening in pockets. Successful workplace design projects are often those in which HR and FM are actively involved from the outset. This needs to be encouraged and replicated.
If the professions are to be better aligned, the BIFM and CIPD clearly have a lead role to play. But bridging this gap is not for the professional bodies alone. As CIPD’s Peter Cheese commented, we need to encourage conversations on the ground too. Practitioners in both fields should be linking up and talking to their counterparts, wherever the twain shall meet.
Nor are FM and HR the only professions that need to be connected. We both need to go beyond this, building better connections with other key players, like finance and workplace design professionals.
Any line of attack clearly needs to be multi-pronged. Research will help us understand what potential there is. Commentary and initiatives such as awards will raise profile and draw attention to the issues. This roundtable was but the start of a journey. We don’t know where it will end, but we think it’s worth taking.
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