thought piece: with the recent merger of SSE with npower, Hugh Anderson takes a closer look at the relevance of the design of the workplace.
Mergers don’t come easy. Setting aside all the time and the cost involved in coming to a final agreement there are the hopes and fears that such a change embraces. Get the internal message of the merger wrong and a chance at least is missed. There are all the HR issues that have to be dealt with, the new work programmes, the contentious issues of who does what and the threats and opportunities that these mean for every member of the workforce. Not surprising that the building (or buildings) tend to take a back seat.
But buildings are more than just the stage where power struggles are played out and certainly more than just so much square footage of overhead that can hopefully be reduced. Buildings (and the interior workspace) are the outward and visible face of management and deserve to be taken seriously. Step into an office and you get an almost immediate sense of the culture of that organisation, and for the workers themselves all sorts of subtler clues are at play in terms of how they are valued and how they are expected to operate. All of which means that the workplace is a powerful opportunity for the new, merged organisation to communicate what the merger is meant to be about.
It’s not possible to turn the whole organisation upside down for the sake of one’s new partner, but there are opportunities at stake beyond creating flashy new break-out spaces, opportunities that can communicate more subtly than a new ethos is in the air. Break-out spaces are important and can indeed be critical in signalling a new type of regime, but there are subtler initiatives that can be tried too. Indeed, without a more holistic approach to the new workplace the expensive new break-out spaces can work against you, being cynically seen as way of buying off worker dissent – and cynicism, as we know, is expensive.
Theories of office planning come and go but they do move forward. Thus, it is worth stopping to see what new approach is being promoted and seeing whether the inevitable disruption of a merger can be put to good effect.
Right now, ideas of office planning centre round the concept of Agile Working, which is NOT just a way of describing ‘open plan’ by another name and NOT just a back-door way of reducing office space. Agile Working does have the bonus of space efficiency, but it is so much more. Agile Working does happen to pick up on opportunities afforded by new technology and does hinge on the idea that some spaces can be shared, but it’s the opportunities for culture change that should make the ears of those currently involved with mergers and take overs, prick up and listen.
There is much that can be said about Agile Working and needs to be said, if organisations aren’t just going to pick up on its superficialities and miss the point. One bit of collaboration space is therefore not the same as another bit of collaboration space. How much it is enclosed, how big it is, where it is located and how it has been designed to work effectively in terms of noise control, its sense of formality or informality, and whether (God forbid) there is any sense of fun about it, can all affect how well it is used and whether the agility it is trying to promote will actually take place. Designers can go into lyrical detail about what they are trying to do, but, most important (if talking about collaboration space) is what it means about a new way of working that is important, and it is this that is significant for a new, merged organisation.
Let us focus therefore on one of the key ingredients of the modern, agile office, namely this same collaboration space. It’s a truism to say that not all organisations are the same and that not all parts of any organisation are the same, but certain trends become clear whatever the organisation. So, not only is the amount of information we generate an irrefutable of the modern office but the way we share and get value out of it is essential too, and it’s this that increasingly needs to be understood.
The issues are increasingly about information exchange therefore and it’s the different ways that we add value to information which translates in turn into the need for effective collaboration space and why this particular issue might be of relevance to the new, merged organisation. In short, different types of collaboration space are growing whatever the organisation but, in particular, amongst those who recognise that a new, creative culture is what is going to keep them ahead of the curve.
Mergers take place for different reasons; to reduce overheads and join forces with respect to new markets, but it can be with some certainty that we can also say that mergers involve ideas about rethinking processes, the ways in which people work, about creating a new and effective work culture.
So it is that the office space emerges as a bit more than just an awkward necessity, an overhead that somehow becomes increasingly expensive the more an organisation becomes sophisticated. Neglecting office space might be dangerous in terms of bringing to the fore negative aspects of change, but seen more positively it can be represent an opportunity to think through the very DNA of your organisation.
Return therefore to the concept of agile working and the notion of sharing. On the face of it such ideas of apparent compromise are unlikely to be a popular, but start to talk about how people work with each other and how sharing information and generating ideas is critical to everyone, and you will rapidly start to appeal to what is common to all workers, the notion, surprise, surprise, that they do actually want to do their job well, that they are itching to get the glitches out of what they see is an imperfect system. The key to moving towards agile working therefore and what it means for the new and merged organisations is not so much about design itself as the engagement process, the co-design, the working out of ideas together. Such activities are powerful stuff and hopefully starting to get beyond the project management-obsessed notion that achieving measurable goals is all that matters.
People, as we all know, are our most expensive overhead but also our most potent resource. Rethinking the office can be a fantastic way therefore of energising that resource, and mergers are the ideal time to do this.
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