Australia is leading the way when it comes to activity based working (ABW). This radical adjustment of the office layout has changed many things for the sector, including our understanding of, and relationship with space within the workspace.
ABW and its siblings pose a significant change for employees, challenging their sense of identity, belonging and security within the space they spend the majority of their week within.
“For your whole career, you have had your desk with your photos and belongings, and the comfort of knowing who is to your left and who is to your right. That’s your home in the workplace. The change from that every day to ABW – looking for a desk each morning, packing your items into a locker every afternoon, with the knowledge that tomorrow you might be sitting somewhere else, next to someone else… That can be quite confronting for some people and is a huge adjustment,” Samantha Simpson of Schiavello’s People and Culture Consulting business explains.
This, married with the fact that humans are habitual creatures resistant to change, has meant that psychologists have faced a new demand – advising businesses and their employees on how to effectively adjust to an agile office space. Enter change management: a budding niche and a highly valued element of the 21st century design process.
“Change management is about facilitating the workspace change to benefit not just the staff but also the business, because if you are going from a traditional to an activity based way of working, you're going to face some level of workforce resistance. So by engaging change management experts to support employees through that change, it's can reduce the downtime to businesses,” says Schiavello’s People and Culture Consulting Principal, Keti Malkoski.
Change management experts typically step in during the development of the workspace strategy, creating a change roadmap – something that continually evolves, but typically features four stages. These stages are focused on creating change awareness, sharing and co-creating the change details with staff, preparing them for the change and ensuring the change itself is embedded into the day-to-day lives of employees.
For example, if a team is transitioning to ABW and will be using lockers, a month before the move, change management staff may suggest the company employs tactics such as providing employees with tubs to practice packing their items away at the end of the day. This gives them time to adapt and embrace the change, and figure out how to make it work for them before they actually move into the new space, reducing resentment and resistance.
Communicating the change details effectively is also imperative to gaining buy-in from employees. “Explaining the decision making process and the benefits is important,” says Simpson. “If you tell an employee that they are going to lose ownership of their desk and will have to share workstations with other people, it’s unlikely they will be excited about the change, because it will be perceived as just a benefit to the business, but a loss to them. However if you say ‘Yes, you will lose ownership of your desk, but what you will gain are end of trip facilities, a better breakout space, and you will be able to work from home more,’ that changes things. You can’t just take, take, take or you will see a very negative result, because people will not be motivated to change unless they see the value in it for themselves.”
But what could the impact be of not engaging change management experts in a switch from a traditional to agile working layout? The results can be less than ideal, says Simpson. “From a business point of view, productivity, culture, retention and attraction could be at risk by not engaging a in a proper change management program, and these are financial risks in themselves. Additionally, if you’ve completed a new ABW fitout, but the space isn't used effectively due to of a lack of change management, it's a waste of that investment. You may be saving money on a reduced footprint but then you’re losing money because staff are disengaged or not using it effectively,” Simpson says.
Ultimately, aside from training and education, what Simpson and Malkoski do is make people feel heard, appreciated and supported. This works to create a new sense of space and ‘home’ within the office, resulting in happier, more connected and engaged employees.