IFMA’s Workplace Strategy Summit Was Like “Christmas in June”

Kate Lister digs into the hot topics that emerged from IFMA’s second Workplace Strategy Summit, including:
  • We must stop confusing intentions with outcomes and start measuring results.
  • It’s all about community: images that dominate the service and product provider catalogs may be attractive, but they may not be delivering what employees want and need which is, among other things, a place that supports them as a community.
  • Offices must supply privacy and quiet spaces if they expect employees to remain productive in open office environments.
The site of this year's Summit was an 18th century mansion set on 250 acres of tranquil English countryside. Photo by Tom Harnish.

The site of this year’s Summit was an 18th century mansion set on 250 acres of tranquil English countryside. Photo by Tom Harnish.

More than a hundred professionals from around the globe gathered in early June near London to probe the future of work and place to help set the IFMA Foundation research agenda. For those who attended, this second IFMA Foundation Workplace Strategy Summit was like Christmas in June.

The first Workplace Strategy Summit, which took place at Cornell University in September of 2012, was an extraordinary success by many measures. It helped focus the IFMA Foundation’s research agenda and was the catalyst for the formation of one of the newest IFMA Communities, Workplace Evolutionaries (WE). The 2012 Summit also clearly revealed a need to expand the conversation to a global level.

And the 2014 conference certainly was global. Workplace strategy professionals from Thailand, Iceland, Australia, and more than a dozen other countries yielded a profusion of new insights and ideas. “The Summit succeeded in bringing together a group of remarkable individuals,” said Michael Schley, an IFMA Fellow, the chair of Workplace Strategy Summit program, and the founder of FM:Systems. “We spent three days exploring the ideas at the ‘edges’ of work and place.”

The setting for this year’s event was an 18th century mansion set on 250 acres of tranquil English countryside. It added both interest and a sense of community for reconnecting with old friends, physically meeting virtual colleagues, and making new connections. Presentations and panel discussions were interspersed with round-table projects, various social gatherings, and a tour of some of London’s workplace gems gave everyone a chance to both learn and play a part in the conversation that will help shape IFMA’s future.

It’s time to measure results

Cornell University’s Frank Becker, PhD, challenged the industry to stop confusing intentions with outcomes and start measuring results. “Would an investor plow millions of dollars into a stock and never bother to track how the investment performed?,” asked Becker. “Of course not, but that’s what most are doing with their workplace strategies.” They’re basing multi-million dollar decisions on the latest fad or fashion.

Citing a hospital example where several small changes in the workplace and work practices made a clear difference — the difference between babies living or dying — he urged government and industry to “test, not guess” through “project-based structured inquiry.”

What do employees really care about?

Ziona Strelitz, director of UK-based ZZA Responsive User Environments, shared findings about what employees really care about in a work environment, and it’s not amenities. Her research challenges much of what’s being designed into workspaces today. The office images that dominate the service and product provider catalogs may be attractive, but they may not be delivering what employees want and need which is, among other things, a place that supports them as a community.

Doesn’t everyone expect a positive workplace?

Christina Danielsson, PhD, from Stockholm University, surprised many with insights into how Swedish laws dating back to the 1930s, and similar laws in many other EU countries, dramatically affect the employer-employee relationship. Transparency, a healthy workplace, and a say in all aspects of work is part of their DNA, and that creates very different attitudes toward, and approaches to, workplace strategy.

Doesn’t everyone challenge management?

Wim Pullen, director for the Netherland’s Center for People and Buildings shared insights about his country’s workplace culture. Less hierarchy means that employees are quick to challenge not just each other, but management as well. He also shared preliminary research results on how office type impacts productivity and different generations in the workforce. His organization’s research based on 18,000 data points confirms what many have suspected — offices need to supply privacy and quiet spaces if they expect employees to remain productive in open office environments. Initial research also confirms that older workers are less satisfied with unassigned office space, but more study is needed on inter-generational workforce issues.

Workplace is everyplace

Andrew Laing, PhD, global practice leader for AECOM, encouraged the audience to think about the workplace as everyplace, particularly in urban environments. In a related article that appeared in a special Summit edition of Work&Place, Laing wrote, “If we begin to think of the technologically-enabled urban environment as the domain of work, rather than the conventional office building or office floor, we can reimagine urban living and working as a kind of blended experience. When we no longer think of workplaces as places dedicated only to working, we can plan cities and buildings to be more multi-functional and mixed in use.” Just as desk-sharing, co-working, and similar strategies have helped to increase space utilization and decrease carbon footprints, Laing envisions a future where similarly whole urban areas and districts will be more intensely shared and dynamically occupied.

Buildings should mimic cities

Contiguous to Laing’s vision, Simon Allford, director of London-based architects AHMM, suggested that buildings should mimic cites. They should be designed to attract people as a place to come together. Using a theatre analogy, he suggests viewing a building as the theatre, the amenities as the stage set, and the rest of the interior as props that can be easily reconfigured based on the changing needs of the occupants.

Changing is like breathing

Frank Van Massenhove, president of the Belgian Federal Social Security Service, offered a truly inspiring example of what can happen with you simply trust people. He urged organizations to stop making decisions based on lowering costs. Though savings will come (€9 million per year, in his case), they are “collateral profits.” Thanks to the workplace transformation he inspired, 93 percent of all who pass the Civil Service Exam in Belgium want to work for his organization. That pretty much says it all. “Changing is like breathing,” said Massenhove. “If you don’t do it, you die.” His message, which he delivers with a great deal of modesty, crediting his people rather than himself, is one that every executive around the globe should hear.

The new disrupters

Melissa Marsh, founder of US-based Plastarc led a panel on co-working, disruptive real estate models, and consumerization of the workplace. She was joined by Carsten Foertsch, Founder and Editor of Berlin-based DeskMag which focuses on the co-working industry and Christopher Boyko, PhD from UK-based Lancaster University who has conducted extensive research on liveable cites and sustainable urban design. Their combined insights challenged the group to think even further outside the box as they plan for where and how people will work in the future. Marsh’s research suggests co-working as a microcosm for studying the kinds of office space people choose when they pay for it themselves. Read more about Marsh’s presentation in her own notes about the Summit, published here.

Will workplace strategy go the way of the dodo?

Chris Kane, CEO of BBC Commercial Projects, and Caroline Waters, vice president of Careers UK, offered an inspiring story of how, by breaking down silos and bringing HR and CRE together, great things can happen. “People and place are a company’s most valuable assets and only by developing them in tandem will you unlock their true value and discover that the integrated whole is more than the sum of the discreet parts,” said Kane in a related article in the Summit edition of Work&Place. In the case of BBC, the problem was bringing in new talent. By creating a truly flexible and agile working environment, they were able to transform their workforce.

And much, much more

Full length articles on these and other topics covered at the Summit are included in two special editions of Work&Place (Volume 3, Issues 1 & 2). One was released at the conference, the other will be available shortly. Both are available at no charge here and here.

This year’s Workplace Strategy Summit was sponsored by FM:Systems, Manhattan Software, Planon, and the IFMA Corporate Facilities Council. Supporting organizations included the British Institute for Facilities Management, University College London, Workplace Evolutionaries (WE), Occupiers’ Journal, New Ways of Working (NewWOW), Work Design Magazine, the Workplace Consulting Organization, Flexibility.co.uk, LandSecurities, and WorkTech. Countless volunteer hours from a wide range of organizations played a crucial role in making the Summit a success.

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