June 3, 2021

Cracking the Code to Workplace Productivity

Designing Experiences

The computer is the most powerful productivity tool of our time and arguably the most important tool in the knowledge workers toolkit. Can you imagine trying to use your computer without your favorite software application? Without a hard-drive? Or even a dated version of either? Not very productive. Only when working in concert with each other do they create value. And only when they evolve along with the needs of their users does that value persist.

Workplaces are also tools for productivity, and they too are made up of hardware and software. The spaces and fixed elements constitute workplace hardware and the services (e.g., room booking, tech support, catering, etc.) norms, and culture constitute evolving workplace software. While designing exciting and beautiful offices has received a lot of attention in recent years, the most successful workplaces are the result of investment not only in designing the built environment but also the services, norms, and culture necessary to unlock the productive potential of the workplace.

Like any service design exercise, the human dimension complicates workplace strategy. Most workplaces must support a wide-range of activities carried out by a diverse group of people with different skills, needs, and expectations. Subsequently, effective workplace software is not one-size-fits-all. It varies across organizations, geographies — even departments within the same company. And it evolves over time. What works for one organization might not work for another. And what works for an organization today might not work for them tomorrow. Not only must organizations think about both workplace hardware and software but also they must continually assess the value and impact of each. To illustrate a variety of approaches to developing and assessing workplace software, we will share a few examples from our work.

Increasing Scholarly Output Through Informal Support

NYU was planning to open two new storefront technology labs on their main campus. In recent years, existing labs had effectively turned into kiosks for printing, checking email, and browsing social media — not a great return on prime Manhattan real estate. It was critical for new labs to be highly utilized and have a big impact on student productivity. NYU asked brightspot to help ensure that the new labs were a success.

After interviewing students and auditing existing labs, we learned a few things:

  • There was growing use of and demand for both high-end (e.g., 3D scanning/modeling, additive manufacturing) and mid-level research technology (e.g., digital media production/editing) but the majority of technology in the labs was low-level (e.g., creative suite, office).
  • Technology-based research, teaching, and learning were increasingly social activities but the current labs were configured predominantly for individual activities.
  • Students prefer to learn new tools or technology informally from their peers (either their friends or fellow members of a student club).

In close partnership with the design team, we developed a strategy for each lab that would:

  • Provide spaces and technology for both individuals and groups to access a wide range of technologies (both mid-level and high-end).
  • Decrease total number of fixed computer workstations.
  • Provide flexible bring-your-own-device spaces that can act as study, event, or meeting space depending on need.
  • Emphasize peer support by promoting tech consultation services with student staff and creating a service point that enables side-by- side work.

Once the new lab was built we surveyed users and found that:

  • Group collaboration was up by 63%
  • Low-impact utilization was down by 56% (i.e., students were coming to the lab to do more than just check email)

    NYU Post-occupancy Evaluation

However, after a series of interviews we also learned that students felt the student staff were “unapproachable.” The staff service point — which was intended to be a highly interactive space where staff could consult students side-by-side — resembled a staff workstation. Computer monitors, telephones, and a variety of office supplies conveyed an unintended but clear message to students: you are interrupting. Fortunately, this was an easy fix. By removing or rearranging a few items, the service point quickly became more welcoming and the student staff more approachable.

Enabling Focus in an Open Environment through Norms

brightspot was approached by a large global tech corporation that, despite offering a robust set of workplace services to employees, had struggled to deliver on one vital offering: quiet space for focused work. The need to create a quiet atmosphere for engineers was at odds with the company’s commitment to openness and the spontaneous collaboration facilitated by an open workplace, and many employees were requesting studios and semi-private work spaces. Furthermore, the problems of the physical environment had caused counterproductive and passive-aggressive behaviors to develop among staff.

We developed a suite of space recommendations and guidance to address components of the challenges presented by the space, but ultimately we had to develop a solution that would also support healthier interactions in an environment that was going to remain open. We began by assessing the impact of a variety of distractions, asking people to rate both for frequency and impact in order to understand what needed fixing the most, and subsequently developed a pilot program to encourage a new set of behavioral norms in the workplace to address them. We sought to update the software in order to fix a perceived problem with the hardware.

Proactively Establishing Norms

The pilot program would allow us to quickly measure the impact of a suite of recommendations that (a) encouraged employees to reframe the issue of focus as a team responsibility; and (b) offered tactical guidance to employees on how to better communicate their needs to others. Employees were informed of these new practices, recommendations, and tactics through a series of comic strips. They were also given small toys as symbols to be placed on top of their computers at times of intense concentration to discourage others from interrupting. The toys also served as tangible reminders of the pilot.

After running the pilot program we conducted a series of activities to evaluate the program and gain insights into the initiative. Observations, interviews, and a focus group allowed us to assess the use of and response to the new norms while surveys documented reported shifts. All of the distractions targeted by the pilot decreased (e.g., a more than 40% drop in the frequency of visual distractions from people walking through work areas), and with them a significant increase (71%) in employee satisfaction with the desk area. In addressing the workplace software, we were able to measure a change in the pilot team’s perception of their hardware.

Engaging Teams Through Change Management

Reward Gateway, a London-based startup that helps employers create highly engaged employees, is deeply committed to leading by example. They help the world’s leading companies to attract, engage, and retain their best people with their employee engagement platform, and are deeply committed to leading by example. They had outgrown their office and, despite the affection everyone had for their original home, needed a larger space. Given their understanding of the physical environment as a primary channel for communicating their values with their employees, they wanted to ensure that moving to a new home with a new approach to space assignment wouldn’t be disruptive. In essence, though nothing was particularly “broken,” they had the opportunity to upgrade their software and hardware together and reap the multiplying benefits associated with coordinated planning.

The new work environment was designed to better respond to how employees were working while also encouraging them to work in new ways. For example, prior to the move only 33% of employees were satisfied with the availability of spaces and just 13% were satisfied with meeting spaces. The new office was planned to better meet the needs of their work patterns, including more and better conference spaces. At the same time, they were moving from assigned desks (with a relatively higher satisfaction rate of 59%) to unassigned desks in order to accommodate increased collaborative spaces and reduce the footprint of individual workstations, causing concerns. A change management plan was required to get employees involved, excited, and ready for changes such as this.

Reward Gateway Change Roadmap

In order to make this change as easy as possible we worked to ensure everyone understood why the move to unassigned desks was valuable. Providing them with a number of strategies to ease the transition while reducing the barriers to flexibility. For example, we held design review sessions to explain the change, worked to identify new storage solutions for personal items traditionally stored at the desk (i.e., coats, bags), and developed norms to ensure effective and equitable use of the new space, like hanging your coat in the closet upon arrival, and changing desks periodically. The result was a 33% increase in satisfaction with individual workspaces paired with a 138% increase in satisfaction with the availability of spaces.

By concurrently planning the hardware and software of their new home, while also developing a change roadmap to ensure an easy transition, we were able to measure dramatic increases across a number of indicators. Reward Gateway experienced a 14% increase in reported employee engagement and a 156% increase in satisfaction with how the workplace supports team effectiveness. Additionally more than ⅔ of the office was excited about the changes and between 75% and 80% felt prepared for how to work in the new office.

Creating Feedback Loops

Just as developers or product managers create feedback loops to understand the impact of new code or the relevance of a new product Change Roadmap feature, organizations must develop feedback loops to continuously design, assess, and refine their workplace. The needs of the employee are constantly evolving. The sooner you can get feedback on the performance of the workplace the sooner you can respond to those needs. Moreover, the better you understand the relationship between the built environment and the way people engage with and understand their roles within the organization, the easier it will be to design better experiences. Either hardware or software in the workplace can be adjusted to compensate for deficiencies in the other, but your employees will thrive when you can plan them together.

Originally published by brightspot alumni Matthew Swift & Coby Lerner in Touchpoint Vol. 9 NO. 2 — November 2017.

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