What's in a name?
What's in a name?
24 July 2018

thought piece: What does the label ‘workplace consultant’ actually mean?

In general organisations exist within a physical context, be it office, factory, school or home. Some organisations are constrained by their surroundings either physically or psychologically while others are lucky enough for this not to be an issue – at least for the time being. Then there are those for whom changing their physical surroundings can be an inspiration and for whom physical space is more than just a ‘support system’. For them their physical environment is an expression of what the organisation is and where it wants to go. These are the organisations that are not just changing but actively wanting to go places and for whom the office is a route towards progress. These are organisations who benefit by specialist help, including that of workplace consultants.

Like organisational management itself, managing the workplace has always been with us, but maybe not by name. Consciously or unconsciously we organise the context in which we work. Mostly organisations muddle along, and mostly problems are not too complex to be handled instinctively. But sometimes scale, or a particular need calls for a more structured approach. On other occasions tightened circumstances force us to be more clever with our resources (excess space can be a wonderful ‘waster’ that few of us can afford). Then there are those times when a change, not just of ‘work process’ but ‘work culture’ is called for when it’s good to admit that we don’t have the skills, experience and time to deal with the challenge ourselves. On these occasions workplace consultants, like other professionals, can earn their keep, but are these expensive professionals generally necessary?

An effective workplace is not just an indulgence, something appreciated by designers and space planners. It is about good business. It exists in order to help organisations help themselves, and in a world of increasing complexity and finer margins, it is something that can help the organisational machine run more sweetly or be much more.

There is the ‘bread and butter’ of workplace consultancy ensuring that space is not wasted, and this aspect is what is generally known as ‘space planning’, something that that can be done with more or less style but possibly does not go much beyond juggling with the pieces that are currently available. What has become known as the discipline of ‘workplace consultancy’ makes use of space planning but then tries to look further ahead. It essentially deals with change; a clear change that has to happen now, but also that kind of ongoing change which is the challenge of all forward-thinking organisations. It deals with flexibility and the accommodation of new technology. At the heart of the matter it is about space, but space, not just in terms of square footage and the kind of rent it attracts, but the way it acts upon people and processes. Whether there is not enough or too much can be critical at different times, but the characteristics of the physical environment can affect the workings of an organisation every day of its life. Thus, more than space, workplace consultancy is essentially about people, how they work, singly or with each other, how they interact with technology, what motivates them and what impacts on their general sense of wellbeing. To say that it is about worker productivity is possibly to be too simplistic, but to say that by means of enabling flexibility or improved interaction and communication (or where appropriate, peace and quiet) it sets the scene for productivity, would possibly be to state the obvious.

In working as a workplace consultant therefore, understanding the characteristics of the building (or buildings) is part of the challenge, but the greater challenge is understanding the organisation, not just its structure and its processes but its culture and what it wants to be. To this extent getting under the skin of the organisation is critical to understanding what is necessary to support its culture, or the particular change in culture that is being looked for. Consultants talk of ‘engagement’ but one or even two-way monologues achieve little. The art is to listen (and filter) and then enable different persons within the organisation to listen and learn also.

Coming to an effective solution is therefore about understanding the people that make up the organisation and then working with these same people to reach an appropriate solution, understanding how they might interact to better purpose. To this extent workplace consultants are midwives to a solution or part of a team which includes management, the organisation’s HR and ICT departments and key representatives of the workforce; and effective engagement will be that which ultimately leads to a ‘buy in’ to doing things differently, to a joint realisation of what might work for the organisation.

Workplace consultants are similar therefore to other types of management consultant but what is unique to their way of working is the nature of space itself, that which provides a context that we all relate to. This simple fact is sometimes overlooked or made to consign anything that smacks of construction to the level of housekeeping. But space is potent and unique in the way that it simultaneously deals with a whole gamut of physical, psychological, managerial and cultural issues. It is the natural vehicle for talking about processes and relationships. It is something we all recognise in the way that it helps or hinders in the way we work. It merits more attention than that of the practical eye of the building manager.

Is workplace consultancy therefore the same as design? This is the other mis-categorisation that can be made. It clearly involves design and what designers should be working towards, but the answer is ‘no’. (As Neil Usher says, “if the brief is a design then it’s not a brief, go back and start again”). Firstly, it is not intuitive but makes use of objective data to inform its conversation and its recommendations. Secondly it focusses on the major issues of size and general arrangement before it gets seduced by aesthetic form. Mostly however it is different because its focus is always on the effective behaviour of people not just the reorganising of the physical environment.

To take a contemporary example; that which is known as ‘agile working’: The concept suggests a way in which offices can be organised so as to make best use of resources over time. It is about achieving optimum utilisation of space and involves a way in which facilities can be so distributed as to be shared to best effect. It can radically reduce wasted space (by between 40% and 60% in recent cases of a College and a Local Authority) and this, when multiplied by heating, lighting and cleaning etc., translates into a staggering saving over time. But more importantly the concept is about reinvigorating a workforce, enabling people to work differently. To go into its detail briefly, it is not about ‘one size fits all’ open plan, but about providing that array of different types of space that allows different individuals to work as their task or their personality dictates (and giving them the permission to use these different types of space). To that extent it is about far more than saving space, it is about translating effective people into effective, successful organisations.

‘Efficient’, ‘effective’....? Increasingly the challenge is also for workers in progressive organisations to be creative, and this is where the subtleties of interaction at a personal level can add up to more than just doing the same thing in a more efficient or intelligent way. (Remember people can be creative in a multitude of locations and not necessarily through collaboration). The argument possibly starts to sound a little fanciful and certainly changes to the physical environment are not going to transform an organisation, but discussions around our physical environment can be a catalyst, or the humble vehicle for dealing with issues which do ultimately constitute cultural change and that ‘something else’ which, together with those office helpmates of new technology and management style add up to providing that spark which can lead to market breakthrough. Not an insignificant prize worth aiming for; something which might just pay for that workplace consultant! (And by the way, they are far cheaper than management consultants).

Hugh Anderson
July 2018

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