Monday, September 10, 2012

Summary Thoughts from the Workplace Strategy Summit

The IFMA Foundation’s Workplace Strategy Summit held last week at Cornell University was a big success.  It was unusual (at least in my experience) as it brought leading academics and design practitioners together with end user FM’s.  It was an opportunity to hear what thought leaders have on their minds and to place it in a real-world context as FM’s validated what they heard against their own experience and context.  Hosting the conference on a university campus was pure genius in my opinion.  The environment encourages a collegial exchange of ideas with the freedom to question and investigate. 

Here are a few of my own observations and musings coming away from the conference.

Evidence Based Design Is Essential to Workplace Evolution
Much more than programming a project’s requirements, evidence based design should challenge assumptions and old ways of doing business, and illuminate unrecognized truths.  User based research must inform design instead of design dictating use.  That seems like such an obvious and simple statement, yet project after project proves that it is often not the real practice.  As Frank Duffy said, “Buildings are not complete entities.  They share the environment around them and serve the organization that lives within them.”  If we truly think that way then we should also act that way.  Research which leads to evidence based design can only be effective when it is embraced by the user organization.  Part of that “embracing” is paying the bill.  While design is often thought of as a commodity by end users this attitude stifles innovation and makes positive change more difficult.  If you are building a cookie-cutter project then fine, decide based on the bottom line.  But if your project seeks to drive positive change or affect culture in a significant way, then hard data-based research that challenges what you think you know about your organization is important.  I would suggest that it may be the most important indicator of the probable success or failure of your project.  As one researcher at the event expressed so eloquently, “What you think you know about something is not research.  Show me the data!”

How Work Gets Done Is Changing
Some will tell you that distributed work is already the norm.  Everyone is mobile, everyone has technology, and everyone is looking to be less costly and more efficient in what they do.  Work is becoming more fluid and blended. On one hand this combination is helping to atomize work, breaking it down into discreet packets.  People who do not know each other and who do not work together in the traditional sense are able to collaborate and deliver successful projects.  On the other hand distributed work demands increased individual and group agility.

Innovation comes from the combination of high productivity and multi-level endeavor.  In some measure it is no longer about creating jobs.  Rather, it is about making people more productive.  Some may suggest that the “atomization of work” is making it less fulfilling with an assembly line feel, but the trend and energy behind this shift cannot be denied.  More productive people working in virtual environments that breed interaction and idea exchanges contribute energy and value.  One of the learning’s from the still early stage of virtual work is that often the most interesting information comes from people you do not know.  On the other side of the coin, the cost of coordinating distributed work is not being measured and needs to be much better understood than it is at the present.

Virtual Work Arrangements are Fundamentally Changing the Workplace
Just as the work is being changed the physical requirements of the workplace are also being changed, sometimes dramatically.  IBM’s Toronto office, for example, provides 2,500 seats for 6,000 employees.  Certainly some of those folks are deployed to client offices, traveling, etc.  Still, it is a remarkable example of the growing trend.  In addition, companies are now allowing staff to match their space to their task on a daily basis – in someone else’s facility!  LiquidSpace is one example of a solution that allows you to rent the space you need for a day or an hour.  The advantages here are obvious:  Employees can arrange access to space that matches the current need when it is needed, the company avoids capital investment, and the employee is more mobile and agile.  Think of it as outsourcing the free address space model. 

There is a very important mind shift in all of this.  The FM perspective for those supporting virtual work organizations should change from the old labor market and real estate model to a new labor market and space market model.  Both elements change, both are flexible.

The Workplace Strategy Summit was the brainchild of a few people (Michael Schley, Frank Becker, Jim Ware, Diane Coles, et al.) who recognized it as a good idea and committed to making it happen.  Good on them.  I don’t think they had any idea how successful and how pivotal the summit would be.  Kudo’s also to the IFMA Foundation for supporting and sponsoring the event.  Let’s hope it is only the first where academics and FM’s rub elbows.

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