The blueprint of a well-designed workplace

As CBRE Workplace Strategies' Peter Andrews writes, the best workspaces have the ability to morph and adapt over time.

About the author

Peter Andrew

Peter Andrew, Senior Director, Workplace Strategies Asia-Pacific, CBRE


Based in Singapore, Andrew is responsible for developing and managing a regional workplace strategies team and driving market-recognised thought leadership, product development, standards of excellence, and quality control across practice areas.

He has more than 20 years of experience and is a specialist in design strategy, strategic briefing, tenant research, building appraisal, space planning and programming.

Before we can explore high-performance workplaces, it is worth examining what is meant by high-performance work.

Productivity is no longer simply about how many widgets per hour a person creates or processes. In the world of knowledge, work productivity is more about innovation, rapid sharing of information, leveraging ideas, speed and quality of decision-making, and even “fail often, fail fast”.

And work is no longer simple and repetitive. It is complex, often involves interaction with others and can move between highly collaborative and highly focused activities, the physical and the virtual, the individual and the group.'

The advent of artificial intelligence amongst white collar and no collar (creative roles in tech and media companies) workforces will dramatically accelerate these changes: the critical skill sets for success will be creative intelligence, emotional (or social) intelligence and the ability to leverage artificial intelligence.

The predominant, traditional open-plan workplace supports an old premise of work – a premise that will become increasingly irrelevant. The alternative is to create workplaces with a high diversity of settings to support the variety of work that is happening and the aspirations and preferences of the people who work in them.

These workplaces will support the quiet and the noisy, the introverts and the extroverts. Companies should provide the technology, change the processes and empower people to be more mobile within and outside the office. Then, give people the choice as to where they want to work and how they want to work: set clear targets so that performance is no longer about turning up and being seen to work. The workplace of the future will have a diversity of people, a diversity of opinions and a diversity of places to work.

Not just about creating a "cool place to work"

Well-considered and well-executed workplaces drive many people-related benefits:

Attract and retain talent

The most obvious way to build an employer brand and compete for talent is to create “a cool place to work”. But beyond the superficial cool design concepts and playful gimmicks, there are many other aspects of workplace design that are critically important to attract and retain talent.

Create environments that allow people to build networks and accelerate their learning and development; recognise people as important and give them the ability to get involved and contribute; build community; and help create meaning, purpose and fulfilment for people at work. Curating delightful experiences will be critical in future workplaces.

Enable high-performance work

A diversity of different types of spaces can enhance both collaborative and focused work while enabling serendipitous encounters. All of these are required to drive innovation. Giving people a choice about where they sit enables them to find places they are comfortable with; be that climate, acoustic levels, personality type or even the mood of the moment.

Promote self-organisation

When people can choose where they want to sit they can also choose who they want to sit with. Whether it’s work groups, project teams, professional groups or even just friendship groups, self-organisation unleashes the ability for people to get their jobs done in the best possible way.

Create a state of constant change readiness

In traditional workplace environments, people get comfortable with where they sit and who they sit with – so comfortable that they decorate, personalise and mark out their territories; so comfortable that any change seems like a big effort.

But to survive and thrive in a digital world that is unpredictable and rapidly evolving organisations need to move away from dragging employees through (just another) large change management programme and instead create a culture of constant change readiness. A diverse, self-organising work environment can be a catalyst for this cultural and mindset shift: hard to achieve but incredibly powerful once achieved.

Four workplace models

Pick up a magazine and it seems that every day there is yet another new and exciting workplace solution. The diversity can be bewildering. CBRE created the Workplace Compass to explain four overarching workplace models. It is called a compass because there is no one singular right solution. Every organisation needs to make its own judgement call on what is right for them today, tomorrow and further into the future. The best workplaces have the ability to morph and adapt over time.

The four workplace models are:

1. Traditional Solution (basic)

2. Hot Desking (basic)

3. Collaborative Workplace (high-performance)

4. Activity-Based Workplace (high-performance)

To determine which option is right for your organisation there are two principle elements to consider:

• Should people be assigned to desks or be free to choose where they sit?

• Do you need a basic or a high-performance workplace?

If assigned desks are the right strategy for your business, then you have two options: traditional solution or a collaborative workplace. The difference is the diversity of work settings (and therefore a variety of work supported) and the degree of mobility that employees have to enable them to work from more than one place.

If unassigned desks are the right strategy for your business, then you have two further options: hot desking or activity-based working (ABW). Both solutions offer the potential to save space (and real estate costs) through having more people assigned to the space than there are desks. Both support self-organisation of work and teams.

The primary driver of hot-desking is the ability to share desks and save money. The primary driver of ABW is to provide a diversity of settings and the mobility that enables choices; and the potential to share desks can create the funding mechanism to create a better workplace.

The capacity to drive space efficiency through sharing is remarkably high: the global turn up rate to work in offices sits just above 60%. Allowing for peaks in turn up times/days these figures indicate potential savings in the order of 20-30%. Sharing ratios need to be very carefully calculated to ensure that there is always a place to work available. In the case of ABW workplaces it is also important that the full diversity of different types of settings are available to choose from at most times (quiet spaces, team spaces, collaborative spaces and private rooms.)

Basic traditional and hot-desking workplaces are generally well-understood options (although high-performance collaborative workplaces and activity-based workplaces are often mistaken for basic hot-desking environments).

It is worth diving deeper into the two high-performance options in more detail to understand the differences and the benefits. It is important to understand that there is more than one choice – and lots of “grey area” in between.

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