Firms reap rich rewards with flexible workstyles programs

For firms rolling out telecommuting and other flex workstyle programs, a democratic, rather than directive, approach usually works best, experts say.

So instead of senior management unilaterally determining workstyles, employees should have a big say in that decision, according to Joel Ratekin, founder and president of Ratekin Consulting LLC.

The Mechanicsville, VA-based firm helps organizations develop and implement workspace programs that boost on-site and virtual productivity.

Ratekin was a participant in a panel discussion on “The Evolution of Flexible Work” held in Toronto last week.  The event was hosted by telecom firm Telus headquartered in Burnaby, B.C.

The Evolution of Flexible Work – Video of Roundtable

To illustrate the effectiveness of employee choice in a corporate workstyles program, Ratekin cited the example of one of his customers.

Desk use averages in knowledge-based work environments
35 per cent at most are in their chair at one time – 60 per cent of the desks show a “sign of life” at peak periods throughout the day
Source: Frank Duffy, DEGW, the New York office

The firm — a manufacturer of defence equipment, including fighter planes, ships, and artillery — had experienced a substantial growth in business, and in response, sought to implement more team-focused, collaborative production processes.

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“We implemented a ‘choice’ program at the company,” Ratekin recalled. “Instead of senior management matching roles to workstyles, the decision was largely left up to employees themselves.”

He said the staff selected their preferred work option, got their manager’s approval, and the program was implemented.

Many of the firm’s employees were retired military personnel — former majors, captains, and colonels — and Ratekin admitted to initial misgivings about how a flex program would be received by folk so accustomed to a more regimented way of doing things.

Yet to his surprise more than 50 per cent of the staff opted for a mobile work style.

This meant they would still work in the office for a portion of the time, but would also be sufficiently mobile not to require a dedicated office, and could share space.

Creative workplace re-designs can boost collaboration

The main aim of this desk-sharing arrangement, he said, wasn’t to save on real estate costs, but rather to boost collaboration and performance.

“And it worked very well. People were able to engage and interact more powerfully than ever before.”

Get real about real estate

The goal of work style changes should be to adapt the work environment to the way people actually do their jobs, said Mark Lang, architect, Telus’ Workstyles Program.

Lang, who moderated the Toronto panel discussion, noted that people today already work in far more mobile, collaborative ways than they did a few years ago.

“In many offices, the cube jungle is only about 35 per cent occupied.”

“Yet physical workplace settings in most companies continue to be more designed for independent work. That’s why the cube jungle is about 35 per cent occupied, while you can’t find a meeting room.”

An effective workstyles program addresses this mismatch, he said. “It creates a better, more interactive work environment, and real estate savings are a by product.”

While, in principle, real estate savings shouldn’t be the main focus of a workplace reorg, in practice it often is, panellists pointed out.

The real estate industry has become the de facto owner of work place consulting today, Ratekin said. “It seems architects, property managers, and construction groups are setting the strategies and controlling the discourse around workplace flexibility.”

But he said flexible workstyles is fundamentally a business issue.

“It should address questions such as: how can we make our people more productive, more satisfied? How may we improve collaboration, and reconfigure our workspace to achieve that?”

 VCH – a healthy workplace re-design

These were some of the very questions posed by the folk who spearheaded the workstyle changes program at Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH).

VCH provides health care services — ranging from hospital treatment to community-based residential, home health, mental health and public health services – to residents of Vancouver, North Vancouver, West Vancouver and Richmond.

“Our community healthcare providers have always been mobile,” noted Pam Aikman, director of community health at VCH “They constantly visit homes, schools and community centres.”

Workspace designs should support mobility

She said the new VCH workstyles program has just created structures that support this mobility, and help community healthcare providers function far more effectively.

“Basically, we’ve adapted the work environment, policies and procedures to let people do their jobs better.”

A key way of accomplishing this was by sharing space with other groups.

Typically community healthcare outfits lease space – a building or a couple of floors within a building – to run their activities.

Vancouver Coastal Health has been able to reduce this leased space and save costs, by co-locating some of its programs in facilities used by other organizations, Aikman said.

Cozy co-location

This enables community recreation programs to be planned  and coordinated around health programs. 

Such co-location has also helped VCH workers forge relationships with other groups, such as the Canadian Parks and Recreation staff. 

Aikman said VCH’s flexible work program enables community healthcare providers work with clients close to where they live.

“If they live way east, why have them see clients out west? We’re bringing the home site, the work drop down site, and their client base together.”

Apart from drastically reducing mileage, and operating costs, this practice has had other unexpected benefits.

“We used to have huge parking problems, especially at certain times during the day when everybody converged on the office. Since the launch of the program, however, finding parking is no longer an issue,” said Aikman.

At its offices, VCH has also increased the number of breakout rooms and collaborative space — vis à vis dedicated personal space. “We’re seeing definite cost savings from this.” 

Smart repurposing of office space – at the heart of a flexible workstyles program

Such smart repurposing of office space should be at the heart of any flexible workstyles initiative, according to Telus’ Lang.

He said re-organization of space should factor in the needs of three types of employees:

  • Resident workers — who go to the same office building every day and require a dedicated chair. They are 20 per cent of the workforce.
  • Teleworkers – Telus defines these as folk who work outside the office 60 per cent or more of the time – possibly at home, but not necessarily so. They are around 15 per cent of the workforce.
  • Mobile workers –The vast majority of employees — 65 per cent – would fall in this group, said Lang. They are employees who come into the office quite often, but while there mostly move around – going through a circuit of meetings, interactions with other workers etc. “They aren’t sitting in a specific chair.”

“Only 20 per cent of office seats need to be dedicated.”

Lang said companies typically only need to provide dedicated space to resident workers.

“This means only 20 per cent of the seats need to be dedicated. Everybody else can be accommodated with a shared desk model.” (Lang said he avoids the term ‘hoteling’ because it evokes adverse reactions from many).

Typically, he said, the break-up of usable space in many firms is: 80 per cent individual and 20 per cent team.

Firms adopting a mobile workplace program would change this utilization to 30-35 per cent individual and 60 – 65 per cent team.

“In doing so, you fit one and half times or more people into the space, and improve your footprint to the tune of 30 per cent.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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