December 22, 2020

How to Set Up a Flexible Workplace Program at Your College or University

Designing Experiences

By Elliot Felix

As faculty and staff return to campus, they’ll need more flexible workspaces, updated norms and policies, and new tools and training.

Maybe faculty and staff have learned that working from home allows them to better balance family and work responsibilities or to be more productive – and have come to rely on this flexibility? Perhaps the college or university has realized that with people working from home they can repurpose office space for other needs, create online swing space for renovation projects, or reduce their carbon footprint with less commuting, space, and energy use? Maybe you are catching your space and policies up to how a group is already working?

No matter the reason, more flexible working will be coming to your institution and you need to be ready. This post will take you through how to set up a flexible workplace where rather than being assigned one desk or office to be at Monday-Friday, 9 to 5, people can choose where, when, and how to work.

If you want to learn more before you dive in to setting up a workplace where staff and faculty might work anywhere from 0 to 5 days a week in a variety of shared settings, you can learn about how the academic workplace is evolving and the different kinds of flexibility people need: flexible working, flexible organizations, flexible spaces, and flexible services. You can also watch our webinar with Knoll, Duke University, MIT, and University of Texas Austin on this topic.

Knoll webinar: Higher Education Flexible Workspaces

Drawn from our experience planning and assessing flexible workplaces at University of Minnesota, University of Michigan, and MIT’s Sloan School of Management (along with dozens of companies), we’ve identified the five steps to go through the set up – and then scale up – a flexible workplace at your institution: Discover > Define > Develop > Deliver > Distribute. 


Step 1: DISCOVER current state

In the discovery phase, you need to identify the people and places involved and then assess the current state of their space, technology, and organization.

To select groups to participate in a flexible workplace program, look for alignment on goals (i.e., a group already trying to be more agile), alignment on skills (i,e., a group relatively fluent with technology), and alignment on culture (i.e., willing to try new things) – and it helps if poor current conditions offer an additional incentive to change (i.e., poor quantity, quality, and configuration of space).

To holistically assess the current state from facilities, IT, and HR perspectives you can use tours and observations, interviews and workshops, and surveys and data mining as well as review policies, processes, and current floor plans. You’ll want to consider the quantity, quality, configuration, and location of facilities; the technology hardware, software, skills, and support; and the organizational policies, metrics, culture, and norms. This assessment not only discovers future needs but can also serve as a baseline to measure future performance against and gauge readiness for change and what the sticking points might be.

Current state satisfaction with facilities, MIT Sloan


Step 2: DEFINE future vision, goals, and needs

Once you understand the people and places involved and assess their current facilities, technology, and organization, you need to set the direction for the future.

Start by defining the vision and goals and then make the business case for change. The vision defines the ideal future state and the goals are key steps to achieving the vision. Madlibs are a great way to start conversations on these topics: For a vision try: “_____ will be a place that _____.” For goals try  “from _____ to _____ by ______ so that ______.” This will give you a sense of direction and the impact you seek.

The business case forecasts and quantifies the future benefits and drawbacks of a potential change. Benefits may include flexibility, reduced commuting and energy use, operational cost savings, employee engagement, reduced absenteeism, and reduced employee turnover. Drawbacks may include disruption from the physical, operational, and organizational changes, capital costs associated with new/changed space and technology, and increased coordination and costs of operating a flexible space.

Visioning workshop at University of Minnesota


Step 3: DEVELOP solutions and people

Once you are no longer assuming people have an assigned desk or office they are tethered to every day from 9 to 5, you need a way of estimating the type and quantity of spaces that will be shared: workstyles.

Workstyles are a methodology for categorizing employees based on their degrees of mobility and interaction (or other key drivers). They are typically developed based on survey, mapping roles to workstyles, interviews, or a combination. Each workstyle has an associated “kit of parts” in terms of the types and amounts of space; for instance for every 20 people with a mobile, collaborative workstyle you might have one small meeting room – this is called the “sharing ratio.” The number of people in each workstyle times these sharing ratios for each kind of space creates the program.

Rather than assuming people will miraculously work differently simply by changing policies, providing technology, and updating spaces, you need to train them to do so. Training should be part of an overall change program based on the degree of change and individual/group change readiness so people are informed, excited, and prepared. Training modules might include working flexibly, technology, storage, norms, and managing distributed teams. The training should be complemented by a participatory planning process from start to finish. 

University of Minnesota Workstyle Development Process


Step 4: DELIVER a concept and then a space

It will now get more real for folks and they’ll have more – and more detailed – questions about how things will work, including everything from “Where do I put pictures of my family?”

The design concept should develop in parallel, guided by the vision and goals. It should organize and distribute the spaces in the program to get the ideal adjacencies and locations, express the organizational culture and brand, and support the activities and create the experiences envisioned. The design concept may be expressed through diagrams, inspirational images, narrative, conceptual sketches, or other means.

As you move into construction, all of these abstract concepts finally get concrete, perhaps literally! Once it’s safe, the construction process also provides a change management opportunity by sharing updates, organizing site tours, and building excitement and momentum. Expect that as move-in date approaches, it will get more real for folks and they’ll have more – and more detailed – questions about how things will work, including everything from “Where do I put pictures of my family?” to “What do I do when someone calls me about a sensitive topic and I’m sitting in open space?”

University of Michigan Weiser Hall Change Management Road Map


Step 5: DISTRIBUTE the concept by assessing and applying it around campus

Post-occupancy evaluations measure the performance of the space, technology, and organization. They are essential to measuring success, refining the initiative and ideas, and making the case for broader change.

For a post-occupancy evaluation to be successful: you should compare before and after and measure relative to the project vision and goals. You’ll want to combine objective data (e.g., density) with subjective data (e.g., satisfaction) and combine quantitative and qualitative data such as a utilization study, survey, and interviews. 

The post-occupancy evaluation informs potential space, operational, or organizational changes. A robust communications strategy is critical to spreading the word. As you think about how to get other groups onboard and create a workplace strategy for the campus, you can follow Everett Rogers’s playbook from his seminal book The Diffusion of Innovations. Rogers observed that for an idea to be adopted, it spreads from innovators to early adopters influenced by novelty and the media to an early majority you look to the early adopters then to a late majority that wait for a tipping point to laggards that once change when they are forced to. So, the stakeholders in pilots (i.e., early adopters) should become champions to convince the next wave of adopters (i.e., early majority). To get people onboard, use Rogers’s considerations for adoption as a communications checklist: observability, trialability, compatibility, complexity, and relative advantage.

Post-occupancy evaluation for NYU Co-op


Tips for Getting Started

As you move ahead, consider these tips. We’ve learned these the hard way over and so we hope they’ll save you some time:

  1. Get facilities, IT, and HR to the table together as this will enable you to assess, plan, and implement holistically. When you do, be clear about responsibilities; for instance, you might have different survey questions that each group owns the response to.
  2. Rather than mapping job functions or titles to workstyles, a survey is generally best since we’ve probably all seen how two people with the same job may approach it in radically different ways based on their skills, experience, preferences, and responsibilities at home.
  3. Do a pilot that’s big enough to include both a cross section of people (different functions, levels of seniority, levels of skepticism, etc.) as well as sufficient size to include a variety of spaces like a cafe area, booths, various open and enclosed meeting spaces, a quiet room/area, and individual open and enclosed workspaces. If your space only has offices and meeting rooms, then it won’t feel flexible.
  4. If you do nothing else for change management, make sure you define the future norms with the staff and faculty involved. Defining the values and principles that will guide a new set of behaviors is the most essential prerequisite for working differently. This should cover topics like how to convey availability, how to use shared spaces, and how to plan your time when you have choices in where, when, and how to work (rather than defaulting to an assigned desk).

You might be thinking that work is totally predictable right now, with faculty and staff working in the same place, 9 to 5 Monday through Friday, and doing the same thing they’ve done for years, in pretty much the same way. But for the rest of us so much has changed.

So, use these five steps and our tips on getting started as guidance on how to rethink your college or university’s workplace to be more flexible so that staff and faculty can work when, where, and how they need to and the institution can reap the organizational, operational, environmental, and financial benefits of enabling them to do so. Good luck and get in touch if you need a hand!

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